TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

Reinhold Niebuhr and the Irony of American History

Luca G. Castellin’s “Reinhold Niebuhr and the Irony of American History in and after the Cold War” appears in Telos 168 (Fall 2014). Read the full version online at the Telos Online website, or purchase a print copy of the issue in our store.

At the beginning of the 1950s, Reinhold Niebuhr used the Christian concept of “irony” to explain the difficult condition of the United States in the international system. In The Irony of American History the protestant theologian analyzed the ambiguity of American foreign policy during the first years of the Cold War. According to Niebuhr, the United States was involved in an ironic confutation of its sense of virtue, strength, security, and wisdom. This confutation was due not only to its lack of (Christian) realism but also to its false claim to dominate history. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, when America became the most powerful nation of the international system, the irony of its history did not disappear. Even in a totally different situation for structure and distribution of power, compared to the one of sixty years ago, the ambiguous situation of the United States can be spelled out through irony again. This article discusses the lasting validity of the concept of “irony” used to explain the American present and, perhaps, its future.

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