Surprised that America can't find comprehensive solutions to its problems at home and abroad? Don't be.
Say hello to Reinhold Niebuhr. The late theologian, philosopher, author, and activist was one smart guy. And it's easy to see why. More than half a century after his passing, Niebuhr continues to provide a compelling antidote to our well-intentioned but unrealistic quest for the Big Answer.
On foreign policy, Niebuhr knew that no great power -- not even the United States -- could guide history. Even in the best of times, America never controlled the world -- and we certainly do not control it now. That doesn't mean we can't be effective abroad: We are still the most consequential power on Earth, and boast a better balance of economic, political and military power than any other country. Let's say we're preeminent, but not super dominant.
But no matter how powerful we may be, Niebuhr cautioned against America's tendency to moralize, to set itself apart, and to assume it had a monopoly on justice and truth. He urged humility in the face of the forces of history. He advised the United States to be aware of the limitations imposed by circumstances beyond its control. And he would have agreed with Ralph Waldo Emerson that more often than not, events are in the saddle and ride mankind.
Niebuhr's view of democracy is also still relevant today. In many ways, he bumps into America's self-image as a people who can overcome any challenge -- a trope that inexorably and understandably finds its way into the talking points of every politician in America.
Niebuhr cherished the democratic enterprise. It was his belief that man's capacity for justice was what made democracy possible -- and man's inclination to injustice was what made democracy necessary. But as a Christian theologian, Niebuhr also understood human weakness and frailty, which in the end produced "proximate solutions for insoluble problems." Niebuhr sought the middle ground -- the space between the utopianism of the moral idealists and the despair of the cynical realists.
I raise Niebuhr now not to discourage Americans from trying to sort out their problems. The constant striving to close the gap between the way the world is and the way we'd like it to be is one of our greatest strengths. But his perspective is important. We have vast technological and military power. When you give us a task in which the science, technical expertise, and the capacity to innovative is within our capacity, we do well. But when you add in politics and the age-old tussle over the role of government versus individual rights, guess what? We don't fare nearly as well.
So is Niebuhr right? On gun control, entitlements, climate change, or immigration reform, is the best we can hope for these days proximate solutions to insoluble problems? I suspect he is. And here's why.
Transformative change is rare...
Niebuhr's view of imperfect outcomes isn't just a reflection of our contemporary politics. This has been the way change has occurred in the United States since the inception of the republic. The system that the founders created was, to use political scientist Edwin Corwin's notion, an open invitation to struggle.