Two Cheers for the Cold War Liberals
Samuel Moyn, Liberalism Against Itself: Cold War Intellectuals and the Making of Our Times (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2023).
U.S. liberals have been in a defensive crouch for the past decade. Their champion Barack Obama left domestic and foreign critics alike unsatisfied with his attempt to refashion American foreign policy. Now, with authoritarianism on the rise, they have come under fire from those on both the left and right who want to reduce the country’s global role. In response, some liberal thinkers have looked back nostalgically to the early days of the Cold War, seeking inspiration from a time when robust liberal internationalism seemed capable of saving the world.
In his latest book, Samuel Moyn jumps into this conversation to argue that nothing could be worse for modern liberals than lionizing Cold War liberalism. This tradition, he claims, has constrained the liberal imagination, rendering it politically uninspiring and vulnerable to conservative critique. Liberals must instead rediscover earlier traditions of “perfectionism and progressivism” and the use of the state for positive ends.
There are certainly good grounds to criticize Cold War liberalism. But Moyn’s book, like other similar critiques, has a classic baby-bathwater problem. Cold War liberals had many strengths, and their insights remain relevant to contemporary foreign policy debates. Revisiting their legacy is an opportunity to reconsider the enduring challenge of wedding humility and action.
Cold War thinkers like the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr fully appreciated the limits of human nature and the tragic pitfalls of trying to remake the world according to theoretical prescriptions. Reeling from totalitarianism, world war, and genocide, they contended that people had an endless capacity for self-righteousness and self-delusion. The United States could still play a positive role in the world, they argued, but only if it remained critical about its own power.
These thinkers did not mutilate liberalism “almost beyond recognition,” but rather drew on key liberal traditions that emphasized pluralism and opposition to concentrated power. It is odd that Moyn, a critic of liberal overreach in U.S. foreign policy, would dismiss the cautious Cold War liberals, who opposed utopian visions as the roads to hell. Far from being mere apologists for U.S. might, they encouraged Americans to recognize that their power, idealism, and hubris could inflict great harms on the world. In the wake of disasters like the Iraq War, today’s liberals should build on these insights rather than canning them.
Moyn vs. Cold War Liberals
To develop his argument that Cold War liberalism represents “a betrayal of liberalism itself,” Moyn profiles six thinkers: Judith Shklar, Isaiah Berlin, Karl Popper, Gertrude Himmelfarb, Hannah Arendt, and Lionel Trilling. He argues that the horrors of mid-century history, which many of them experienced as refugees, led them to adopt an extremely dark view of human nature and abandon ideals of progress and emancipation for fear that idealistic mass politics led to totalitarianism.
The most compelling parts of this book examine how these liberals reinvented their own intellectual lineage. They reformed their worldviews by articulating an “anti-canon” of proto-totalitarian thinkers, including Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Georg Hegel, and Karl Marx to serve as foils. Cold War liberals such as Karl Popper warned that these figures were proto-totalitarians who believed they had “discovered laws of history which enable them to prophesy the course of historical events.” Their totalitarian descendants in Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union then established themselves as elite vanguards seeking to force society toward utopian ends while re-educating or liquidating any resistors.
Moyn argues that after rejecting the intellectual legacy of these thinkers, Cold War liberals formed a new canon that emphasized defenders of liberty and restrained government, including John Locke and Adam Smith. They also adopted a mix of Freudian and Christian ideas on self-denial and sin. These shifts, as Moyn and others argue, forged a liberalism more akin to libertarianism, which sidelined collective action, the common good, and the benevolent state in favor of merely resisting evils such as totalitarianism.
Many historians have explored how totalitarianism chastened liberal thought and pushed it toward the political center. Moyn adds to this conversation by showing how some liberal thinkers were already altering their own tradition from within before forces like the Vietnam War and economic stagnation undermined the liberal consensus. Neoconservatism and free-market neoliberalism filled the gap and ushered in a more unequal society and a more conservative political landscape.
The Need for Niebuhr
To reverse these setbacks, Moyn hopes that liberals will rediscover strains of their history that emphasize the power of reason to positively shape human affairs, individual emancipation, and the importance of mass political action for a healthy democracy. This challenge merits consideration, but his dismissal of Cold War liberalism as a “catastrophe” is overstated, and carries risks of its own. As Cold War liberalism’s defenders have argued, there is a lot worth salvaging in this tradition, especially its ethos of restraint, caution, and humility. This tradition is particularly valuable for rethinking the premises of U.S. foreign policy after decades of liberal fantasies and overreach.
No figure better elucidated than the influential Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr. Moyn omitted Niebuhr from this book in order to highlight less-known but equally interesting figures. Dodging Niebuhr, however, weakens the case against Cold War liberalism as a whole by avoiding its most profound thinker.
Niebuhr not only exemplified the strengths of Cold War liberal thought but demonstrated that its appreciation of human weaknesses was no obstacle to positive action. In his early career, he aligned with the progressive Social Gospel movement, but Niebuhr subsequently moved away from this optimistic creed beginning in the 1920s. He built a philosophy that he called “Christian realism” on the premise that the selfishness, pride, and lust for power embedded in human nature placed limits on idealistic plans to improve the world.
For Niebuhr, nothing exemplified this tendency more than the Soviet Union, which in 1952 he described as “a system which has, demonically, distilled injustice and cruelty out of its original promise of a higher justice.” Communism’s cruelty derived from “the fanatic certainty that it knows the end toward which history must move; and by its consequent readiness to sacrifice every value of life for the achievement of this end.” Recognizing the Soviet system’s inhumanity, Niebuhr and many of his liberal contemporaries became committed if critical Cold Warriors.
Communism, for Niebuhr, was particularly dangerous because it was so appealing to liberals. Niebuhr lamented that prewar liberalism was “too enamored of the function of reason in life,” naive about human nature, and overly sympathetic to the Soviet idea that life could be managed by centralized, rational planning. Furthermore, he believed that idealists like Henry Wallace and many liberal Protestants needed to recognize that institutions like the United Nations and a conciliatory foreign policy could not defend the free world from aggressors like the Nazis or Soviets.
As the United States achieved a position of unprecedented power in the Cold War, Niebuhr argued that it needed a more realistic view of human nature, world affairs, and itself. Eschewing the Social Gospel’s pacifism, he asserted that exercising power was unavoidable in the anarchic international system where truly evil forces lurked. Foreign policy required occasional ethical compromises: “we take, and must continue to take, morally hazardous actions to preserve our civilization.”
Nonetheless, Americans’ belief in their own innocence and exceptionalism, which Niebuhr called a “Messianic consciousness,” was perilous because it could deceive them into thinking they were uniquely virtuous and incapable of causing evil. While he supported containment and the rebuilding of Europe, he criticized both McCarthyite hysteria and reckless foreign interventions, especially the Vietnam War. Crucially, he questioned the idea that the United States could remake distant societies in its own image, viewing this as an egotistic belief that theory and reason could orchestrate change in complex societies.
The crux of Niebuhr’s thought is that any nation or person is capable of generating great evil, and the more they convince themselves that they cannot do so, the more likely that they will. To play a responsible global role, Americans’ idealism should come to terms with “the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom … and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue.”
In the domestic realm, these principles guided Niebuhr’s views but did not make him a reactionary. He defended social welfare programs and government regulation of business, advocated for labor and civil rights, and even influenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s worldview. This undercuts Moyn’s argument that “political optimism and possibility were exhausted.” To the contrary, thinkers like Niebuhr helped fuel a period of postwar liberal creativity, which advanced transformative social programs, supported social justice movements, and helped to build lasting international institutions.
A Tradition Worth Salvaging
Moyn has been calling for new thinking to counter liberal and neoconservative excesses, but his banishing of Cold War liberalism eschews an opportunity to build a more judicious foreign policy. As Christopher Chivvis has argued, the Cold War liberal emphasis on restraint, caution, and humility can also inspire fresh thinking in contemporary U.S. foreign policy. Moyn is a non-resident fellow at the Quincy Institute, a restraint-oriented think tank that seeks to end what it sees as the disastrous post-Cold War pursuit of liberal hegemony. Why, then, not draw on aspects of Cold War liberalism, as some of his colleagues have done, to critique the triumphalist ideology and exceptionalism that have distorted recent U.S. policy? After all, not only neoconservatives but many liberals endorsed the Iraq War on the grounds that the United States had the right — if not the duty — to control global affairs and alter the course of history.
Some liberal supporters of the Iraq War cited the Cold War liberal tradition to justify new crusades while ignoring their predecessors’ cautious ethos. Paul Berman declared that U.S. policy should operate from the premise that “everyone, all over the world, would some day want to live according to the same fundamental values, and ought to be helped to do so.” They endorsed long-term nation-building projects both for security reasons and to foster liberal democracy in places with no experience of it. George Packer, for instance, hoped invading Iraq might break “the seal of tyranny in the Arab world” and let in “fresh liberal air.” Some, like Michael Ignatieff, backed “imperial policing” for the United States, including imposing peace over vast swathes of unstable territory.
This spirit of complacent universalism and hyper-ambition permeated the policy establishment in the 1990s and 2000s. When one thinks of Secretary of State Madeline Albright declaring the United States as the “indispensable nation” or George W. Bush’s talking of U.S. power “ending tyranny in our world” or that “history has a visible direction,” one can almost hear the Cold War liberals’ objections from beyond the grave.
A nation with a more Niebuhr-ian sense of tragedy, irony, and its own capacity to do wrong might have eschewed the lengthy crusades in Iraq and Afghanistan. It might have been more attuned to much of the world’s resentment of U.S. power rather than insisting upon its innocence.
Drawing on Cold War liberalism would suggest a foreign policy based more on resisting aggression and cruelty, such as Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rather than transforming foreign societies and maintaining hegemony. In addition, this ethos would suggest fostering openness and building institutions that encourage cooperation and help restrain U.S. action. Democratization, in this approach, would be best pursued by supporting openness and exchange, constraining authoritarian aggression, and by setting an example of a thriving, inclusive democracy.
Moyn maintains that institutions don’t restrain U.S. power, and plenty of examples support his case. But he misses the point that institutions provide incentives for large nations to legitimize their power and reduce other countries’ fears by constraining themselves, however inconsistently, within predictable rules and procedures. As the George H. W. Bush administration demonstrated in the Gulf War and the reunification of Germany, even a superpower at the height of unipolarity can benefit from operating through institutions and working with both allies and rivals. As many commentators have observed, the first Bush administration, if not its successors, restrained itself by eschewing regime change in Iraq and pledging not to expand NATO into the Soviet backyard.
But even a more prudent foreign policy requires significant U.S. power, as the Cold War liberals would have acknowledged. Power remains the coin of the realm in world politics, and China’s menacing of Taiwan or Russia’s open aggression cannot be countered by norms and institutions alone. As Obama, a fan of Niebuhr, said in his 2009 Nobel Prize Speech, “Evil does exist in the world … a non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler’s armies … To say that force may sometimes be necessary is not a call to cynicism — it is a recognition of history; the imperfections of man and the limits of reason.”
What about Moyn’s claim that Cold War liberals betrayed liberalism itself? It would be more accurate to say that they adapted an alternate set of longstanding liberal themes for a new age. For one, liberals and republicans have long emphasized the perils of concentrated power in any person, class, race, gender, or branch of government, which they believe leads to corruption and abuse because of humanity’s “flawed nature.” Abigail Adams put this point succinctly: “All men would be tyrants if they could.” This principle is usually applied to domestic concepts like federalism and the separation of powers, but in foreign affairs it suggests that no country, the United States included, should be trusted (or trust itself) with overwhelming power — hence the need for rules, institutions, and a self-interrogating ethos.
Moreover, Cold War liberalism reflected a lineage of pluralism that is also worth defending today. James Madison argued in Federalist 10 that a free society would always generate “factions,” or groups “united and actuated by some common impulse of passion, or of interest.” These could be based on class, religion, or political conviction, but their origins were “sown in the nature of man.” Niebuhr similarly held that “the limitations of the human imagination, the easy subservience of reason to prejudice and passion, and the consequent persistence of irrational egoism, particularly in group behavior, make social conflict an inevitability.”
The solution was to defend individual freedom while creating norms and institutions that mitigate factionalism’s harmful effects and protect minorities.
In the foreign policy realm, a pluralistic outlook might chasten U.S. assumptions that their ideals represent the “single sustainable model for national success.” It might help Americans better understand why societies with different value systems often resent the influence of U.S. culture.
Moyn wants liberalism to “redeem itself as a framework for the realization of universal freedom and equality” and the collective pursuit of “the highest life.” But Cold War liberals recognized that agreement about this lofty concept is fleeting and that achieving such agreement might require a dangerous concentration of power. Moyn should treat them not as traitors to liberalism’s essence but as fraternal participants in a family quarrel.
Moyn has important messages for today’s liberals. In the face of increasing challenges from within and without, they cannot simply keep returning to the well of past glories to revive themselves. They cannot keep asking the American people, and the world, to entrust them with power because “the other guy is worse,” whether the other guy is Donald Trump or Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping. They have to adapt liberalism to changing circumstances and new challenges.
But Cold War liberalism still has much to offer today’s thinkers and policymakers. An emphasis on restraint, humility, irony, and pluralism is invaluable for a nation that has recently been bewitched by its own power and self-righteousness. And yet, as Cold War liberals demonstrated, this cautious temperament need not be an obstacle to taking bold steps in domestic and global affairs.
Moyn errs when he concludes that Cold War liberals “foreclosed” on “a future of freedom and equality.” Instead, what they really foreclosed on is something Judith Shklar called “the essence of radicalism … the idea that man can do with himself and with his society whatever he wishes.” There is much to be said for opposing this mirage while remaining open to justice, reform, and an active but prudent global role.
Joseph Stieb is an assistant professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College. He is the author of The Regime Change Consensus: Iraq in American Politics, 1990–2003. He has published articles in Diplomatic History, Modern American History, The International History Review, War on the Rocks, The Washington Post, Foreign Policy, American Purpose, and elsewhere.