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Religiosity and Foreign Policy: When Power Disdains Realism
Published on Monday, February 3, 2003 by the International Herald Tribune
Religiosity and Foreign Policy: When Power Disdains Realism
by William Pfaff

PARIS -- Javier Solana, the European Union’s high representative in foreign affairs, spoke recently about what he saw as a confrontation between a religious vision of world affairs in the White House and the secular and rationalist vision of the Europeans.

This is not quite the same thing as Robert Kagan’s division of the alliance (or the former alliance) between ‘‘Kantian’’ Europeans ‘‘from Venus,’’ who believe in reason, compromise and accommodation, and ‘‘Hobbesian’’ Americans ‘‘from Mars,’’ who use military power to reorder the world to the ultimate benefit, among others, of the free riding and feckless Europeans.

According to U.S. policy and political intellectuals quoted by the contemporary historian Timothy Garton Ash in the latest New York Review of Books, Europeans are ‘‘weak, petulant, hypocritical, disunited, duplicitous, sometimes anti-Semitic and often anti-American appeasers.’’

And as the president has said (rashly assuming to himself the words of Jesus in Matthew 12:30), ‘‘He who is not with me is against me.’’

Yet the religion — or religiosity, to make a distinction not usually made today — of the Bush administration is only one strand in modern American Protestantism, although currently an important one. It derives from Calvinist dualism, dividing mankind between those who are saved and born-again, and the sinners. This view of a moral universe riven in two is easily transferred to foreign policy.

While George W. Bush is ‘‘born again’’ and his White House includes many evangelical Protestants, it is hard to see the Donald Rumsfelds, Paul Wolfowitzes and Richard Perles of the administration as part of this. They are tough, power-oriented, bureaucratic operators and ideologues. On their side, the alliance must be a fairly cynical one.

Relevant to the trans-Atlantic confrontation of political cultures is a man now largely forgotten, who was the most important religious influence on modern American political thought, and specifically on its foreign policy thinking. This was the distinguished theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.

From the early 1930s on, he was concerned with the use of power in international relations. Religious people then tended to be uncomfortable with power, as they often remain today. They are inclined to respond to serious international conflicts of interest and ideology with a sentimental pacifism.

Niebuhr rejected this, as part of his coming to terms with what society had become after World War I, and with the rise of the totalitarian regimes of the 1920s and 1930s. He gave up ‘‘Christian absolutism’’ as a result of the pressure of world events, writing a deeply influential book called ‘‘Moral Man and Immoral Society.’’

He was concerned with that zone where ethics and power meet, defending the necessity of power in ordering society while refusing to yield on ethical standards. The historian and diplomat George Kennan called him ‘‘the father of us all,’’ speaking for all who belong to the ‘‘realist’’ intellectual tradition in American foreign policy.

The tradition is all but absent in American government today. It is certainly absent from the Bush White House. But it also seems to have limited influence on modern post-Christian European political thought and practice, disposed toward what Niebuhr considered the illusion that institutions in and of themselves can reshape society.

The institutions of the European Union have been unprecedentedly effective in reshaping West European society since the war. But they failed completely in the Balkan crisis of the 1990s. The United States ignored that crisis, too — America had ‘‘no dog in that fight,’’ as Secretary of State James Baker said — but eventually, under liberal popular pressure, it did force NATO to use its power to stop the war.

The Europeans had been held back by reluctance to make moral and political judgments. They wanted to keep their hands clean (and failed). As the French poet Charles Péguy once said, having clean hands can mean having no hands.

The problem with this American government is that its ‘‘realists’’ — the neoconservatives — are not realistic at all, while the president and his domestic policy advisers are shallow and simplistic.

I say the neoconservatives are not realistic because they are pushing America into an attack on Iraq on the basis of stubbornly biased and ideologically based scenarios of an easy war and easy democratic transformation of the Middle East. They exclude other possibilities.

They are also unrealistic in that they have no compassion or empathy for the enemy. This failure is ethical. It means that they totally underestimate what he represents. In this respect, the Europeans are more realistic, fearing what may come in the region. But the Europeans have no power, and they don’t want power.

Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune


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