Isaiah Berlin and Reinhold Niebuhr: Cold War Liberalism as an Intellectual Ethos
Isaiah Berlin and Reinhold Niebuhr were, in their day, influential exponents of “Cold War liberalism”—and are now widely regarded as emblematic of this movement and its historical moment. For critics, their “Cold War liberalism” represents a deplorable detour for liberalism, or for Western political thought and politics—either (or both) because liberalism became rigid and militant in its (overblown) opposition to the perceived threat of Communism, and/or because the hopeful energies and ambitions of earlier progressive politics were displaced by a mixture of pessimism and complacency. Such views hardly do justice to Berlin’s and Niebuhr’s re-casting of liberalism. For both, liberalism was defined by a spirit of self-critical questioning, humility, and vigilant opposition to both complacency and militancy, conformism and dogmatism. Their conception of liberalism was distinctive not only in its political content, and the philosophical bases to which they appealed, but in the sort of intellectual project their liberalism represented: an ethical project, which tied liberalism to the cultivation of a particular sensibility and temper, or “ethos.” This chapter discusses the intellectual relationship and similarities between Berlin and Niebuhr more broadly, before focusing on the ways in which each conceived of and contributed to this ethical project of Cold War liberalism.