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Pardon the self-promotion: I reviewed a new book on Reinhold Niebuhr, a theologian and realist political thinker during the Cold War, in last week’s Economist. Niebuhr died in the 1970’s but both Democrats and Republicans lean on his advice (even if misread) to guide their modern foreign policy views.

Here is a snippet from my review of the book, Why Niebuhr Now?, by John Patrick Diggins, the late American intellectual historian.

AFTER years in the doldrums, Reinhold Niebuhr, an American theologian, is enjoying a comeback. Although Niebuhr died in 1971, he is nowadays often name-dropped in opinion columns and highbrow chat as the ideal mind to help guide 21st-century political leaders through the ups and downs of world affairs.

It is not the first time. In 1948 Niebuhr appeared on the cover of Time magazine’s 25th anniversary issue as an icon of faith in uncertain times. Head turned and staring outward in front of a backdrop of dark and swirling clouds, the second-generation German immigrant with a Midwestern twang looked a pensive and worried man. Dismissing Christian pacifism as useless in the face of totalitarianism, he preferred moral action with muscle (the latter to be used prudently) and even sanctioned the limited use of nuclear weapons, to the dismay of some on the left.

The cold war is history, yet Niebuhr’s advice is not. He wrote widely, but is best remembered for his views on foreign policy, particularly the nuanced endorsement of “realism” (in lieu of Utopianism) and his aversion to political action based on moral certainty. Conservatives brandished him in support of hard-nosed anticommunism. After the attacks on the twin towers, liberals dusted off his ideas on a measured foreign policy as an antidote to the Bush administration’s use of “preventative war”. President Barack Obama says Niebuhr is one of his favourite philosophers.

As a political theorist, I’m always wary about such books. Luckily Diggins is too. He spends most of his time arguing why people should be careful to quote Niebuhr in present-day contexts. And even though he was not a political theorist, though many of his books deal with the subject, the use of Niebuhr raises broader questions about the interface between theory and ‘real politics’ and the use of political thinkers to buttress particular political actions. Dr. Marc Stears, a lecturer at University College, Oxford, and fellow at the Institute for Public Policy Research spends a lot of time thinking about this kind of stuff. For those curious, read his chapter in Political Theory vs. History: Contextualism and Real Politics in Contemporary Political Thought (see book details here).

When thinking about these topics we must point out the difference between the uses (and abuses) of theory in politics and the uses of particular theorists. Diggins, I feel, nicely lays out the pitfalls of the latter.



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