Democracy promotion is out of fashion. Its failure in Iraq and uncertain future in Afghanistan, coupled with the disappointments of the Arab Spring and Color Revolutions, have led some scholars and policymakers to conclude that democracy cannot work in some countries, or that the process of building one is so uncertain and fraught with risk as to be not worth the gamble. In any case, a growing chorus is calling for the abandonment of democracy promotion as a goal of U.S. foreign policy. President Barack Obama in his 2009 speech in Cairo said, “I know there has been controversy about the promotion of democracy in recent years, and much of this controversy is connected to the war in Iraq. So let me be clear: No system of government can or should be imposed by one nation by any other.”
Alongside this growing disenchantment with democracy promotion comes a surge of interest in the work of Reinhold Niebuhr, the prominent and respected mid-20th century theologian, public intellectual, and founder of the school of Christian realism. Niebuhr was dissatisfied with the cultural Christianity of his day; he grew to reject the simplistic argument that Christian ethics lead to socialist politics and pacifist foreign policy. To him, the gospel of Jesus Christ requires us to be more realistic about how the world works and to take greater responsibility for fighting its injustices.
He tried to articulate a reasonable middle ground between idealism and cynicism, between utopianism and realpolitik, in response to the crises of the 1930s: the rise of fascism and totalitarian communism; the seeming discrediting of democracy and capitalism by the Great Depression; the question of new and aspiring states in the era of decolonization; and the prevalence of a naive pacifism among Western scholars and policymakers. Niebuhr weaves an argument for universal truths about human nature and the limits of politics together with a keen awareness of cultural particularities to explain how political pathologies take root. Because of this achievement, Niebuhr has enjoyed a renaissance in recent years among foreign policy intellectuals. He appeals to those who are searching for a language with which to describe the limitations America faces while avoiding isolationism, and who want to defend America’s leadership role in the world while avoiding the jingoism and triumphalism that often have accompanied it.
In addition to his well-known admonitions against self-righteousness and utopian idealism, Niebuhr had some choice words about democracy abroad. In his most famous work, The Irony of American History (1952), Niebuhr wrote:
Democracy in its most ideal formulation is not as immediately relevant to the ancient cultures of the East or to the primitive cultures of Africa as is generally supposed. Some of both the spiritual and the socio-economic presuppositions for it are lacking…[there is] no spiritual basis in the Orient for what we know as the ‘dignity of the individual’…Many of the values of democratic society which are most highly prized in the West are, therefore, neither understood nor desired outside of the orbit of western society.
This critique has made Niebuhr a patron saint for many realists, both in his day (including George Kennan and Hans Morgenthau) and ours. Whether from cynical appropriation or sincere conviction, they found in Niebuhr an intellectual respectability and moral justification for their agenda. Anatol Lieven and John Hulsman, for example, appropriated Niebuhr in their attempt to construct an “ethical realism” in which the promotion of democracy has no part. Niebuhr, they wrote, would have joined them “in denouncing the key policies of the Bush administration and the neoconservatives.” Niebuhr specifically warned against a “messianic idealism,” and on this basis they draft him into condemning the belief that “America is both so powerful and so obviously good that it has the ability to spread democracy throughout the world.”
Similarly, Andrew Bacevich, a trenchant critic of U.S. foreign policy, noted in his introduction to The Irony of American History, “Niebuhr anticipated that the American veneration of liberty could itself degenerate into a form of idolatry….[He] evinced an instinctive aversion to anything that smacked of utopianism, and he saw in the American Creed a susceptibility to the utopian temptation.” Bacevich interpreted the Bush administration’s “intention of bringing freedom and democracy to the people of the Middle East” as a perfect example of the hubris and messianism Niebuhr warned against. He calls for a Niebuhrian rejection of the “self-aggrandizing parable in which we cast America as liberator of the world’s oppressed.” Bacevich’s appropriation of Niebuhr to condemn democracy promotion exemplifies the contemporary realist’s relationship to his Christian counterpart.
Niebuhr and his commentators argue that a realistic understanding of human nature, political organization, and the historical importance of Christianity in the development of human rights, political liberties, and the rule of law should make us skeptical, at least, of the prospects for democracy outside of historically Christian nations. Democracy, on this view, is too closely tied to the cultural and ideational heritage of the west, especially of Christianity; its spread is akin to trying to graft a branch onto a tree of a different species, transplanting an organ into an incompatible host, or transfusing blood into a recipient with a different blood type. In the end, some transfers just wont take.
Yet the argument that democracy cannot work outside of the West runs up against reality. In 2013 35 countries outside of Europe and its cultural offshoots were rated “free” by Freedom House or were rated with a score of 7 or higher on the Polity IV dataset (which measures a country’s level of democracy), or both. They include giants like India, Japan, and South Africa, and micro-sovereignties like Tuvalu, Vanuatu, and Micronesia. They include African states, like Benin, Botswana, and Ghana; East Asian states like South Korea, Taiwan, and Mongolia; South Asian states like Pakistan and Kyrgyzstan; and even Middle Eastern states like Turkey and the Comoros (an island off the coast of Africa colonized by Arabs).
All told, roughly one-third of all non-Western countries worldwide are free societies. Democracy remains more common in the West, but it is, without doubt, possible elsewhere. Some non-Western democracies are unstable, poor, or riddled with crime and corruption. To say that they are democratic is not to say that they have no problems. Nor is it to say that transitioning to democracy is always successful, quick, painless, or cheap. It may be none of these things, but it is possible.
It is, in fact, an odd time to doubt the prospects for global democracy. In all likelihood, we are living at the high tide of democracy in all of human history. Within the past decade a larger portion of states in the world was democratic, and a greater percentage of the human race was living under democracy, than ever before. Pessimism about its spread stemming from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is a classic case of over-interpreting the recent past and extrapolating a trend based on too-few data points. In the long run, the rise of democracy is one of the most remarkable phenomena of the past century.
But the bigger flaw in the realists’ reading of Niebuhr is that they elide his Christian sensibility, and so are unable to see the entire scope of his thought. Elsewhere in his writings, readers can find a view of democracy very different from the one realists tend to favor. Though The Irony of American History remains his most popular work, Niebuhr’s most extensive comments on democracy are elsewhere, in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense (1944). Here, Niebuhr is strident, unapologetic, and explicit in his defense of democracy—a defense that suggests democratic ideals have universal applicability and should be the aspiration of all societies.
Niebuhr noticed that apologies for autocracy must argue that strong government is needed to ward off chaos; human nature is so wicked and untrustworthy that unbridled freedom inevitably degenerates into anarchy. The obvious flaw in this argument is that it assumes all humans are wicked and untrustworthy except the autocrat. If the flaws in human nature are universal, then empowering a sinful person with unchecked power is the worst thing a political system could do. Democracy, by contrast, “arms the individual with political and constitutional power to resist the inordinate ambition of rulers, and to check the tendency of the community to achieve order at the price of liberty.”
This is pretty conventional stuff—J.S. Mill made similar arguments in On Liberty in 1859. But Niebuhr goes further, in a direction that should make today’s libertarians and conservatives uncomfortable. Government, he wrote, “must guide, direct, deflect, and rechannel conflicting and competing forces in a community in the interest of a higher order. It must provide instruments for the expression of the individual’s sense of obligation to the community as well as weapons against the individual’s anti-social lusts and ambitions.” No autocracy can anticipate, invent, or create all the things that every individual might if given the chance. Autocracy shuts the door on human potential. Democracy opens it up. Democracy will not even prevent people from questioning democracy: “not even the moral presuppositions upon which the society rests are withdrawn from constant scrutiny and re-examination. Only through such freedom can the premature arrest of new vitalities in history be prevented.”
Thus, an appreciation for human sinfulness—which Niebuhr drew from his Christian faith—helps us guard against unchecked power in government. But an appreciation for human potential—drawn from the Biblical notion that human beings are made in the image of God—should also lead us to value human freedom. As Niebuhr famously put it in his foreword, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.” Importantly, Niebuhr grounded democracy’s necessity in the nature of mankind, without qualification, not in cultural or social factors unique to the West. What is true about human nature in the West is also true of human nature in Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
Niebuhr then suggests—contrary to the realists who want to appropriate him—that the goodness of democracy should lead us, by love of our neighbor, to make its spread a part of our foreign policy. Niebuhr’s well-known complaint against Wilsonianism wasn’t that it was idealistic, but that it was naive. In Children of Light and the Children of Darkness he applauds the idealism of democracy, even as he understands that it will inevitably be hypocritical: “Hypocrisy and pretension are the inevitable concomitants of the engagement between morals and politics. But they do not arise where no effort is made to bring the power impulse of politics under the control of conscience.” The effort itself is sound in principle; better to be a failed idealist than a successful cynic.
This is the part of Niebuhr that today’s realists fail to hear. In their eagerness to associate Niebuhr’s intellectual legitimacy with their agenda, the realists tend to forget about the “Christian” part of “Christian realism,” and think that he simply gives them religious cover for their balance-of-power realpolitik. Realism’s emphasis on prioritizing the national interest is in tension with Christ’s command to love our neighbors as ourselves. Niebuhr wants to do both. As Jesus said, “Behold, I am sending you out as sheep in the midst of wolves, so be wise as serpents and innocent as doves.”
Niebuhr does grant, rightly, that the balance of power is an important tool for the maintenance of world order as a kind of “managed anarchy.” But he argues that any balance can never escape the inevitable mistrust among great powers and “mere equilibrium between them will not suffice to preserve the peace.” The solution, then, is to strive for some kind of fairness in world order. “A stable order is not possible without introducing instruments of justice into the agreements which are to provide for order,” because “an unjust order quickly invites the resentment and rebellion which lead to its undoing.” His concern for justice, shaped by his faith, is what sets Niebuhr apart from conventional realists and puts the Christian into Christian realism. Giving the lie to secular Niebuhrian realists, the real Niebuhr wrote, “A purely realistic approach to the problem of world community offers as little hope of escape from anarchy as a purely idealistic one.”
What did Niebuhr mean by fairness? How far should we take Niebuhr’s exhortation? Should concern for justice lead Americans and the U.S. government to advocate for global democracy? Niebuhr offers the slightest of hints. In Children of Light he invokes Lincoln’s famous ruminations on whether or not he could save the Union, still half slave and half free. It turned out he could not: the whole Union must be made free to be saved. “Analogously,” Niebuhr wrote, “our primary purpose must be to create a union” amongst the states of the world. How does one create union? “Order precedes justice in the strategy of government, but…only an order which implicates justice can achieve a stable peace.” Niebuhr closely linked justice to freedom in this passage, implying, sotto voce, that the entire world must be made free to be saved from self-destruction. A just and lasting peace among nations is, for lack of alternatives, the democratic peace.
We are awash with calls from realists to recognize our limits and the realities imposed by history. But in Irony, as elsewhere, he offers words that should make today’s secular realists, critics of democracy promotion, and advocates for retrenchment very uncomfortable:
The recognition of historical limits must not, however, lead to a betrayal of cherished values and historical attainments….The difficulty of sustaining the values of a free world must not prompt us, for instance, to come to terms with tyranny….It is even more grievously wrong either to bow to ‘waves of the future’ or to yield to inertias of the past than to seek illusory escape from historical difficulties by utopian dreams.
Niebuhr concludes that book with a call for the United States to remain engaged in world affairs, “to assume continuing responsibility in the world community of nations” and leading the formation of a community of nations for peace and justice. Importantly for our day, he repeats his warning against utopianism but specifically says that “the moral cynicism and defeatism which easily results from a clear-eyed view of the realities of international politics is even more harmful.” This should make today’s secular realists, critics of democracy promotion, and advocates for retrenchment very uncomfortable.
Yet Niebuhr is clear-eyed about the prospects for achieving the just, lasting, and democratic peace he wishes for. It is, frankly, unlikely. And if it ever happens, it may be centuries from now and achieved more by gradual evolution than by the orchestrated policy of a single democratic superpower. President George W. Bush boldly proclaimed that “it is the policy of the United States to seek and support the growth of democratic movements and institutions in every nation and culture, with the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” Should we applaud the breathtaking moral ambition, or condemn the overtones of messianic idealism? At the moment we incline to the latter. But listen to Niebuhr again: “[Man] would not be fully human if he did not lift himself above his immediate hour, if he felt neither responsibility for the future weal of his civilization, nor gratitude for the whole glorious and tragic drama of human history, culminating in the present moment.” It is a statesman’s job to lift us above our immediate hour, to remind us of our responsibility to future generations. Global democracy is a distant dream; it would be folly to treat it like an objective to be pursued on a fixed timetable.
But even a distant dream is worth sustaining. That is perhaps what Niebuhr meant when he wrote, “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime; therefore we must be saved by hope.”