IR Folks from Times Past

IR Folks from Times Past

Saturday, September 7, 2013

The Morality of Nations

Reinhold Niebuhr was one of the great "liberal-realists" of the mid twentieth American Century. A theologian and prolific public commentator, Niebuhr's thought ran in close parallel with Hans J. Morgenthau and George F. Kennan. Here, in one of his first books, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Niebuhr diagnoses the "ethical paradox in patriotism" and the fundamental difficulty humankind must face in achieving genuine internationalism. The chapter, "The Morality of Nations," spends a great deal of time detailing the hypocrisies of successive U.S. administrations toward Latin America, and finds an especially good specimen in the imperialist war of 1898 and in President Mckinley's exquisite professions of American selflessness. The excerpt below focuses on Niebuhr's main philosophical proposition, which the internationalist must attempt to refute, but which is by no means easily refutable. Niebuhr wrote these words at a particularly grim junction in world history, in the midst of the Great Depression and the larger breakdown of world order beginning to manifest itself in the early 1930s. It was a time when the faith in progress had very nearly shattered. (2287 words)


There is an ethical paradox in patriotism which defies every but the most astute and sophisticated analysis. The paradox is that patriotism transmutes individual unselfishness into national egoism. Loyalty to the nation is a high form of altruism when compared with lesser loyalties and more parochial interests. It therefore becomes the vehicle of all the altruistic impulses and expresses itself, on occasion, with such fervor that the critical attitude of the individual toward the nation and its enterprises is almost completely destroyed. The unqualified character of this devotion is the very basis of the nation's power and of the freedom to use the power without moral restraint. Thus the unselfishness of individuals makes for the selfishness of nations. That is why the hope of solving the larger social problems of mankind, merely by extending the social sympathies of individuals, is so vain. Altruistic passion is sluiced into the reservoirs of nationalism with great ease, and is made to flow beyond them with great difficulty. What lies beyond the nation, the community of mankind, is too vague to inspire devotion. The lesser communities within the nation, religious, economic, racial and cultural, have equal difficulty in competing with the nation for the loyalty of its citizens. The church was able to do so when it had the prestige of a universality it no longer possesses. Future developments may make the class rather than the nation the community of primary loyalty. But for the present the nation is still supreme. It not only possesses a police power, which other communities lack, but it is able to avail itself of the most potent and vivid symbols to impress its claims upon the consciousness of the individual. Since it is impossible to become conscious of a large social group without adequate symbolism this factor is extremely important. The nation possesses in its organs of government, in the panoply and ritual of the state, in the impressive display of its fighting services, and, very frequently, in the splendors of a royal house, the symbols of unity and greatness, which inspire awe and reverence in the citizen. Furthermore the love and pious attachment of a man to his countryside, to familiar scenes, sights, and experiences, around which the memories of youth have cast a halo of sanctity, all this flows into the sentiment of patriotism; for a simple imagination transmutes the universal beneficences of nature into symbols of the peculiar blessings which a benevolent nation bestows upon its citizens. Thus the sentiment of patriotism achieves a potency in the modern soul, so unqualified, that the nation is given carte blanche to use the power, compounded of the devotion of individuals, for any purpose it desires. Thus, to choose an example among hundreds, Mr. Lloyd George during the famous Agadir Crisis in 1911 in which a European war became imminent, because marauding nations would not allow a new robber to touch their spoils in Africa, could declare in his Mansion House speech: "If a situation were to be forced upon us in which peace could only be preserved by the surrender of the great and beneficent position Britain has won by centuries of heroism and achievement, by allowing Britain to be treated, when her interests were vitally affected, as if she were of no account in the cabinet of nations, then I say emphatically that peace at that price would be a humiliation intolerable for a great country like ours to endure.” The very sensitive "honor" of nations can always be appeased by the blood of its citizens and no national ambition seems too base or petty to claim and to receive the support of a majority of its patriots.

Unquestionably there is an alloy of projected self-interest in patriotic altruism. The man in the street, with his lust for power and prestige thwarted by his own limitations and the necessities of social life, projects his ego upon his nation and indulges his anarchic lusts vicariously. So the nation is at one and the same time a check upon, and a final vent for, the expression of individual egoism. Sometimes it is economic interest, and sometimes mere vanity, which thus expresses itself in the individual patriot. Writing of his friend, Winston Churchill, Wilfrid Scawen Blunt said: "Like most of them, it is the vanity of empire that affects him more than the supposed profits or the necessities of trade, which he repudiates." The cultural imperialism which disavows economic advantages, but gains a selfish satisfaction in the aggrandisement of a national culture through imperialistic power, may reveal itself in the most refined and generous souls. . . .

A combination of unselfishness and vicarious selfishness in the individual thus gives a tremendous force to national egoism, which neither religious nor rational idealism can ever completely check. The idealists, whose patriotism has been qualified by more universal loyalties, must always remain a minority group. In the past they have not been strong enough to affect the actions of nations and have had to content themselves with a policy of disassociation from the nation in times of crisis, when national ambitions were in sharpest conflict with their moral ideals. Whether conscientious pacifism on the part of two per cent of a national population could actually prevent future wars, as Professor Einstein maintains, is a question which cannot be answered affirmatively with any great degree of certainty. It is much more likely that the power of modern nationalism will remain essentially unchecked, until class loyalty offers it effective competition.

Perhaps the most significant moral characteristic of a nation is its hypocrisy. We have noted that self-deception and hypocrisy is an unvarying element in the moral life of all human beings. It is the tribute which morality pays to immorality; or rather the device by which the lesser self gains the consent of the larger self to indulge in impulses and ventures which the rational self can approve only when they are disguised. One can never be quite certain whether the disguise is meant only for the eye of the external observer or whether, as may be usually the case, it deceives the self. Naturally this defect in individuals becomes more apparent in the less moral life of nations. Yet it might be supposed that nations, of whom so much less is expected, would not be under the necessity of making moral pretensions for their actions. There was probably a time when they were under no such necessity. Their hypocrisy is both a tribute to the growing rationality of man and a proof of the ease with which rational demands may be circumvented.

The dishonesty of nations is a necessity of political policy if the nation is to gain the full benefit of its double claim upon the loyalty and devotion of the individual, as his own special and unique community and as a community which embodies universal values and ideals. The two claims, the one touching the individual's emotions and the other appealing to his mind, are incompatible with each other, and can be resolved only through dishonesty. This is particularly evident in war-time. Nations do not really arrive at full self-consciousness until they stand in vivid, usually bellicose, juxtaposition to other nations. The social reality, comprehended in the existence of a nation, is too large to make a vivid impression upon the imagination of the citizen. He vaguely identifies it with his own little community and fireside and usually accepts the mythos which attributes personality to his national group. But the impression is not so vivid as to arouse him to any particular fervor of devotion. This fervor is the unique product of the times of crisis, when his nation is in conflict with other nations. It springs from the new vividness with which the reality and the unity of his nation's discreet existence is comprehended. In other words, it is just in the moments when the nation is engaged in aggression or defense (and it is always able to interpret the former in terms of the latter) that the reality of the nation's existence becomes so sharply outlined as to arouse the citizen to the most passionate and uncritical devotion toward it. But at such a time the nation's claim to uniqueness also comes in sharpest conflict with the generally accepted impression that the nation is the incarnation of universal values. This conflict can be resolved only by deception. In the imagination of the simple patriot the nation is not a society but Society. Though its values are relative they appear, from his naive perspective, to be absolute. The religious instinct for the absolute is no less potent in patriotic religion than in any other. The nation is always endowed with an aura of the sacred, which is one reason why religions, which claim universality, are so easily captured and tamed by national sentiment, religion and patriotism merging in the process. . . .

Moralists who have observed and animadverted upon the hypocrisy of nations have usually assumed that a more perfect social intelligence, which could penetrate and analyse these evasions and deceptions, would make them ultimately impossible. But here again they are counting on moral and rational resources which will never be available. What was not possible in 1914-1918, when the world was submerged in dishonesties and hypocrisies (the Treaty of Versailles, with its pledge of disarmament and the self-righteous moral conviction of the vanquished by the victors, being the crowning example), will hardly become possible in a decade or in a century, or in many centuries. Nations will always find it more difficult than individuals to behold the beam that is in their own eye while they observe the mote that is in their brother's eye; and individuals find it difficult enough. A perennial weakness of the moral life in individuals is simply raised to the nth degree in national life. Let a nation be accused of hypocrisy and it shrinks back in pious horror at the charge. . . .

Perhaps the best that can be expected of nations is that they should justify their hypocrisies by a slight measure of real international achievement, and learn how to do justice to wider interests than their own, while they pursue their own. England, which has frequently been accused by continental nations of mastering the arts of national self-righteousness with particular skill, may have accomplished this, partly because there is actually a measure of genuine humanitarian interest in British policy. The Italian statesman, Count Sforza, has recently paid a witty and deserved tribute to the British art in politics. They have, he declares, "a precious gift bestowed by divine grace upon the British people: the simultaneous action in those islands, when a great British interest is at stake, of statesmen and diplomats coolly working to obtain some concrete political advantage and on the other side, and without previous base secret understanding, clergymen and writers eloquently busy showing the highest moral reasons for supporting the diplomatic action which is going on in Downing Street. Such was the case in the Belgian Congo. Belgian rule had been in force there for years; but at a certain moment gold was discovered in the Katanga, the Congolese province nearest to the British South African possessions; and the bishops and other pious persons started at once a violent press campaign to stigmatise the Belgian atrocities against the Negroes. What is astonishing and really imperial is that those bishops and other pious persons were inspired by the most perfect Christian good faith, and that nobody was pulling the wires behind them." . . .

Obviously one method of making force morally redemptive is to place it in the hands of a community, which transcends the conflicts of interest between individual nations and has an impartial perspective upon them. That method resolves many conflicts within national communities, and the organisation of the League of Nations is ostensibly the extension of that principle to international life. But if powerful classes in national societies corrupt the impartiality of national courts, it may be taken for granted that a community of nations, in which very powerful and very weak nations are bound together, has even less hope of achieving impartiality. Furthermore the prestige of the international community is not great enough, and it does not sufficiently qualify the will-to-power of individual nations, to achieve a communal spirit sufficiently unified, to discipline recalcitrant nations. Thus Japan was able to violate her covenants in her conquest of Manchuria, because she shrewdly assumed that the seeming solidarity of the League of Nations was not real, and that it only thinly veiled without restraining the peculiar policies of various great powers, which she would be able to tempt and exploit. Her assumption proved correct, and she was able to win the quasi-support of France and to weaken the British support of League policies. Her success in breaking her covenants with impunity has thrown the weakness of our inchoate society of nations into vivid light. This weakness, also revealed in the failure of the recent Disarmament Conference and the abortive character of all efforts to resolve the anarchy of national tariffs, justifies the pessimistic conclusion that there is not yet a political force capable of bringing effective social restraint upon the self-will of nations, at least not upon the powerful nations. Even if it should be possible to maintain peace on the basis of the international status quo, there is no evidence that an unjust peace can be adjusted by pacific means. A society of nations has not really proved itself until it is able to grant justice to those who have been worsted in battle without requiring them to engage in new wars to redress their wrongs. . . .

Reinhold Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study in Ethics and Politics (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1960 [first published in 1932]), 91-97, 106-09.

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Ten years later, in “In the Battle and Above It,” Niebuhr struck a more optimistic note:

If we fully understand the precarious as well as the precious character of even imperfect systems of justice, we will know that they must be defended, even if their defense involves us in tragic conflict. On the other hand, it is wrong for any Christian to be completely engulfed in battle. To be in a battle means to defend a cause against its peril, to protect a nation against its enemies, to strive for truth against error, to defend justice against injustice. To be above the battle means that we understand how imperfect the cause is we defend, that we contritely acknowledge the sins of our own nations, that we recognize the common humanity which binds us to even the most terrible foes, and that we know of our common need of grace and forgiveness.

Cited in Vibeke Schou Tjalve, Realist Strategies of Republican Peace: Niebuhr, Morgenthau, and the Politics of Patriotic Dissent (Palgrave Macmillan History of International Thought, 2008), 1

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