Open Journal of Political Science
2014. Vol.4, No.1, 31-38
Published Online January 2014 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/ojps) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/ojps.2014.41005
The Realist of Distances: Reinhold Niebuhr
and the “Great Debates” in IR
Luca G. Castellin
Department of Political Science, Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore, Milan, Italy
Received October 30th, 2013; revised December 3rd, 2013; accepted December 21st, 2013
Copyright © 2014 Luca G. Castellin. This is an open acces s article distrib uted und er the Creative Commons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
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During the Twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was not only an important public intellectual but also a
seminal thinker in IR. His prophetic voice echoed in the American culture from the Thirties until the Six-
ties and beyond. At the same time, statesmen and public opinion found in his political theory an essential
contribute both for reflection and action. However, the protestant theologian suffered a harsh contrast by
scholars, in particular by the positivist ones. This article analyses the path of Niebuhr’s international po-
litical thought across the “Great Debates” of IR. From the First “mythical” debate until the last and still
open one, it examines the role of Niebuhr’s Christian realism in the development of the discipline. By us-
ing Flannery O’Connor’s concept of “realist of distances”, this essay tries to prove how Niebuhr was able
to anticipate and, what’s more, exceed all debates.
Keywords: Reinhold Niebuhr; Great Debates; Christian Realism; International Relations Theory; History
of International Thought
In Mystery and Manners, Flannery O’Connor observed that
all novelists “are fundamentally seekers and describers of the
real, but the realism of each novelist will depend on his view of
the ultimate reaches of reality”. Therefore, she added, “if the
writer believes that our life is and will remain essentially mys-
terious”, the n “what he sees on the surface will be of interest to
him only as he can go through it into an experience of mystery
itself” (O’Connor, 1969: 40-41). According to the novelist of
Savannah, the writer is and should be a prophet. Indeed, she
immediately noted that the prophecy “need not be a matter of
predicting the future”, but rather “is a matter of seeing near
things with their extensions of meaning and thus of seeing far
things close up” (O’Connor, 1969: 179; 44). The prophet, ar-
guing the authoress of Wise Blood, is a “realist of distances”,
namely, one who “does not hesitate to distort appearances in
order to show a hidden truth” (O’Connor, 1969: 179). In other
words, the prophet is a realist of distances, because he has a
larger vision of reality which enables him to better understand
and describe what happens.
Despite not being a novelist, Reinhold Niebuhr was what
O’Connor called a “realist of distances” (E lie, 2007). Many
analysts have noted that the protestant theologian was a “pro-
phetic voice” for his time (Landon, 1962), as he was able to
show as much the mystery of history as the ambiguity of poli-
tics. But, above all, he helped his contemporaries see distant
things close up. More than providing a series of requirements to
be followed or establishing a real school of thought, he offered
a “critical matrix” of thought and action with which to link
morality and foreign policy without giving in to the opposite
risk of cynicism or utopia (Kaufman, 1996: 316). Niebuhr did
this through his international political theory, Christian realism.
This theory was a Christian version of political realism in
which Niebuhr ’s understanding of politics had its roots not only
in Christianity (Niebuhr, 1941-1943, 1949), but also specifical-
ly in S. Augustine’s thought (Niebuhr, 1953: 119-146). In stark
contrast to other approaches or schools, Niebuhr tried to re-in-
troduce the Augustinian tradition in international politics with
different outcomes (Epp, 1991).
From the Thirties until the Sixties, Niebuhr was an important
public intellectual that had—and continue to have—a “constant
dialogue” with American intellectual culture (Halliwell, 2005).
He wrote numerous historical, theological and political works,
and was a tireless polemicist and animator of some journals
(such as, for example, The Atlantic Monthly, The Nation, The
New Leader, Christianity and Society and Christianity and Cri-
sis). His influence on American public debate took on an ex-
ceptional importance that hardly had previously been (or will
be) joined by other members of a religious congregation (Brun-
ner, 1956: 29; Schlesinger, 1956: 149). In other words, Niebuhr
has been the theologian who more than any other not only has
played a significant role in society after Jonathan Edward (La
Feber, 1976: 47), but also has influenced the development of
American politics in his time (Bundy, 1963: 306). In fact, in
1962 Hans J. Morgenthau called him “the greatest living politi-
cal philosopher of America” (Morgenthau, 1962: 109). In his
lasting and successful career as a commentator of international
affairs, which never took a systematic form, Niebuhr de alt with
L. G. CASTELLIN
almost all the so-called “Great debates” of International Rela-
This article analyses the path of Niebuhr’s international po-
litical thought across the Great debates of IR. During the last
century, in fact, Niebuhr’s theory touched on many of the topics
of those debates time after time, such as the contrast between
realism and idealism or the clash between traditionalism and
behavioralism. Through Christian realism Niebuhr anticipated
and, what’s more, exceeded all debates. This essay is organised
into three sections. The first section summarises the anticipa-
tory role of the protestant theologian in the mythic First Debate.
The principal conclusion drawn from this review is that Nie-
buhr actually did not win the debate, but rather identified a
summary of the realist/idealist dichotomy in his political theory.
The second section traces Niebuhr’s trajectory in the clash be-
tween Hedley Bull and Morton Kaplan. I argue that while he is
framed in the “first image” by Kenneth Waltz because of his
lack of methodological rigour, his strong opposition to positiv-
ism allowed his thoughts to avoid the shallows in which neore-
alism ended up. This leads to the conclusion that Niebuhr ’s fate
in the Second Debate brought him closer to the “English
School”. The third section briefly explores the normative di-
mension of Christian realism. I contend that since the middle of
the last century the core of Niebuhr ’s reflection can be regarded
as a prototype of the normative approach to IR that spreads
only many decades later.
Niebuhr and the First “Mythical” Debate
The story of IR has always been narrated in terms of a series
of great debates—debates through which all analysts and scho-
lars have explained the development of the discipline (Waever,
1998: 715). In more recent years some critical readings of this
narrative have started to rise1. In particular, the First debate was
to be interpreted as a “myth ”, in other words a later scholar’s
invention that would have falsified historical reality (Wilson,
1998). According to Ashworth, the realist component of this
debate has centred on the attacks of Edward H. Carr and Hans J.
Morgenthau towards liberalism (Ashworth, 2002: 35). Niebuhr
was never referred to as an actual participant in the First debate,
but was rather regarded as the inspirer of both scholars.
“The Father of All of Us”
Niebuhr is considered by all scholars as the point of origin of
“Classical realism” (Bell, 2008). The protestant theologian was
a “key formulator” of this approach (Torbjørn, 1997: 241) that
has not only had a “profound impact” (Donnelly, 2000: 27) on
the emergence of the first generation of realists, but has contri-
buted in a formidable and indispensable way to the develop-
ment of this all tradition (Rosenthal, 1991; Mearsheimer, 2001).
In the mid-twentieth century, George F. Kennan identified the
beginning of realism in Reinhold Niebuhr, defining him “the
father of all of us” (Thompson, 1955: 168). The Niebuhr ’s leg-
acy in the development of classical realism can be detected in
the works of Carr and Morgenthau. In the preface to the first
edition of The Twenty Years’ Crisis, the English historian de-
fined Moral Man and Immoral Society as extremely impor tant,
because “though not specifically concerned with international
relations”, it was able to highlight “some of the fundamental
problems of politics” (Carr, 1939). The references to the prot-
estant theologian’s political theory are several in Carr’s well-
known and controversial work. Moreover, also Morgenthau’s
Scientific Man vs. Power Politics, which represents his intel-
lectual and methodological manifesto, is affected by Niebuhr’s
influence (Morgenthau, 1946). However, it is not possible to
assert a rigid and one-way derivation of Morgenthau from prot-
estant theologian thought. Morgenthau came into contact with
Niebuhr only after the conclusion of his intellectual formation.
Niebuhr’s works seem to confirm Morgenthau’s ideas, rather
than being their original source of inspiration (Zambernardi,
2010). Despite this, in a brief essay on Niebuhr’s legacy on
American political life and thought, the author of Politics
Among Nations recognised him the merit to make a genuine
“rediscovery of Political Man” possible (Morgenthau, 1962:
Similarly to Carr, Niebuhr dissents from the idealistic idea of
a possible harmony of interests between states in international
affairs. In Moral Man and Immoral Society he pointed out the
different and incompatible behaviors of individuals and the
political community. Indeed, while the former can achieve the
goal of mutual and disinterested love, the latter can only pursue
the collective egoism of national interest (Niebuhr, 1932). In
the same way as Morgenthau, the protestant theologian empha-
sizes the role of human nature in international dynamics: the
animus dominandi of man creates a struggle for power, insecur-
ity and anarchy. According to him, beyond every national or
imperial community there is only international chaos. World
affairs are ruled by anarchy. The Balance of power is a kind of
administration of anarchy. But this is a system in which anarchy
prevails over administration in the end (Niebuhr, 1944).
Despite being very adverse to idealism, this does not mean
that Niebuhr was completely in agreement with Carr, Morgen-
thau and Kennan. Although he showed great respect for the last
two in particular, the protestant theologian tried to go beyond
both. With reference to national interest, he asserted that Ken-
nan “does not intend to be morally cynical”, but he thought that
the solution offered by the author of American Diplomacy “is
wrong”, because “egotism is not the proper cure for an abstract
and pretentious idealism” (Niebuhr, 1952: 148). Instead, in
discussing the problems of the morality of nations, Niebuhr
wrote that,“the most brilliant and authoritative political realist”,
Morgenthau, “despite his critics, is not a proponent of arrogant
nationalism”: the author of Politics Among Nations not only
seemed to propose that “nations are loyal to interest, values,
and structures of culture higher than their own interests”, but
also “is merely suggesting that it would be both honest and
moral for nations to confess their real motives, rather than to
pretend to have nobler ones” (Niebuhr, 1965: 71-74). All na-
tions, the protestant theologian observed, “are involved in a
web of interests and loyalties” and, therefore, their problem “is
to choose between their own immediate, perhaps too narrowly
conceived, interests and the common interests of their alliance,
or more ultimately of their civilization, in which, of course,
their ‘national interest’ is also involved” (Niebuhr, 1959: 277).
Niebuhr tries to go beyond Morgenthau and Kennan because
he wants to analyse the problems of justice, moral and values in
international relations in more depth. As he noted, in his last
works, “[t]he consistent tendencies of nations to seek their own
interests is so marked that the realistic interpretation of interna-
tional relations would seem to be the only valid description of
regard, in addition to Peter Wilson, see Lucian M. Ashworth (2002)
and Joel Qui r k—Darshan Vigneswaran (2005).
L. G. CASTELLIN
their behavior, and possibly the only true solution to the prob-
lem this behavior poses”, nevertheless, “it is important to raise
once again the question whether a realist interpretation may not
err in obscuring the residual capacity for justice and devotion to
the larger good, even when it is dealing with a dimension of
collective behavior in which the realistic assumptions about
human nature are most justified” (Niebuhr, 1965: 71).
Therefore, national interest is not the final word on interna-
tional politics. In fact, man can reduce anarchy but not elimi-
nate it. In his view, the “modern nation’s self-regard and power
impulse has not eliminated the residual capacity of peoples and
nations for loyalty to values, cultures, and civilizations of wider
and higher scope than the interests of the nations”. For this
reason, he added, “(t)he importance of establishing this residual
creative freedom in collective man lies not in the possibility of
subordination the lower to the higher of wider interests—but in
the possibility that even a residual loyalty to values, transcend-
ing national existence, may change radically the nation’s con-
ception of the breadth and quality of its ‘national interest’”
(Niebuhr, 1965: 76-77).
The Children of Light and the Children
In his discussion of national interest it is possible to see a
sign of his will to reconcile realism with idealism through
Christian realism. In fact, Niebuhr refuses exclusive validity to
both. According to him, idealism and realism are terms that
refer to two different states of mind in the explanation of hu-
man behavior rather than actual doctrines. The former, in the
esteem of its proponents, is “characterized by loyalty to moral
norms and ideals, rather than to self-interest, whether individual
or collective”, but, in the opinion of its critics, is “characterized
by a disposition to ignore or to be indifferent to the forces in
human life which offer resistance to universally valid ideals and
norms”. The latter instead “denotes the disposition to take all
factors in a social and political situation, which offer resistance
to established norms, into account, particularly the factors of
self-interest and power” (Niebuhr, 1953: 119-120). In either
cases, there is an incompatible interpretation on the effect of
human freedom upon man’s social and political life. While
realists “emphasize the disruptive effect of human freedom on
the community”, idealists “regard man’s rational freedom pri-
marily in terms of its creative capacity to extend the limits of
man’s social sense [···] and to give preference to his ‘moral’ or
social sense over his self-regard”. Therefore, on the one hand,
the former “are inclined to obscure the residual moral and so-
cial sense even in the most self-regarding men and nations”, on
the other hand, the latter “are inclined to obscure the residual
individual and collective self-regard either in the ‘saved’ or in
the rational individual and groups”. But both theories fail “to
observe the intricate relation between the creative and the dis-
ruptive tendencies of human freedom”. Instead, Christian real-
ism “holds that human nature contains both self-regarding and
social impulses and that the former is stronger than the latter”
(Niebuhr, 1965: 31-33; 39). Over the centuries, realism and
idealism contribute to the elaboration of many political theories
that tend to overestimate a partial aspect of human behavior.
Niebuhr saw the antithesis between realism and idealism in
the dynamics of the Cold War too. In particular, he found it in
the different tendencies of the US towards Soviet Union. Ideal-
ists require the fulfillment of a world government that guaran-
tees global peace and dispels the inevitability of war. On the
contrary, realists theorise even the idea of a preventive war,
because they accept the inexorableness of war and do not con-
sider the reaching of an agreement with the USSR as possible.
But, according to Niebuhr, both sentimental and cynical politics
appear limited and counterproductive (Niebuhr, 1950).
The protestant theologian introduced the ambivalence be-
tween moral sentimentalism and moral cynicism in a very inci-
sive and suggestive manner through two famous biblical cate-
gories. So he defined idealists “children of light” and cynics
“children of darkness”. He didn’t avoid a clear judgment, and
formulates a well-balanced and highly pragmatic one. The
children of darkness are wicked because they understand the
power of self-interest. While the children of light are virtuous
but unwise because they don’t recognise the will to power and
underestimate the peril of anarchy both in the national commu-
nity and in the international one (Niebuhr, 1944). Rejecting
both these positions, Niebuhr believes that their synthesis is
necessary. In this perspective, his rediscovery of St. Augustine’s
thought is crucial2.
According to Niebuhr, the Bishop of Hippo is “the first great
‘realist’ in western history”. In Augustine’s works, the protes-
tant theologian finds an effective and exact description of reali-
ty. He is also convinced that Augustinian thought is able to
contribute to the understanding of international politics. Indeed,
Augustine knows that “good and evil are not determined by
some fixed structure of human existence”, and is aware that
“realism becomes morally cynical or nihilistic when it assumes
that the universal characteristic in human behavior must also be
regarded as normative”. Inst ead, Augustine ba s es his thought on
a different account of human behavior. The latter “can escape
both illusion and cynicism because it recognizes that the cor-
ruption of human freedom may make a behavior pattern uni-
versal without making it normative” (Niebuhr, 1953: 120, 130).
Augustine’s approach allows correcting a serious and wide-
spread error of modern realism3. That is, to possess a reductive
conception of national interest. In fact, Augustinian realism:
“corrects the ‘realism’ of those who are myopically realistic by
seeing only their own interests and failing thereby to do justice
to their interests where they are involved with the interests of
others. There are modern realist, for instance, who, in their
reaction to abstract and vague forms of international idealism,
counsel the nation to consult only its own interests. In a sense
collective self-interest is so consistent that it is superfluous to
advise it. But a consistent self-interest on the part of a nation
will work against its interests because it will fail to do justice to
the broader and longer interests, which are involved with the
interests of other nations. A narrow national loyalty on our part,
for instance, will obscure our long range interests where they
are involved with those of a whole alliance of free nations.
Thus the loyalty of a leavening portion of a nation’s citizens to
a value transcending national interest will save a ‘realistic’ na-
tion from defining its interests in such narrow and short range
terms as to defeat the real interests of the nation” (Niebuhr,
According to Roger Epp, during the first half of Twentieth century four
fundamental elements of Augustine’s thought return at the centre of IR.
That is t he co ncep ts o f hi sto ry, h uman natu re, o rd er and caritas (Ep p, 1991:
3-5). The ren ew ed i n ter est in Augu s
tinian tradition in IR was due exactly to
Niebuhr (Jone s, 2003).
Most prob ably th e target of Ni ebuhr’s critics is the id ea of nat ional int erest
proposed by Kennan.
Moreover, the protestant theologian had already
accused the American diplomat of having an egoistic idea of nation al inter-
est of their country (Niebuhr, 1952: 148).
L. G. CASTELLIN
The rediscovery of the Augustinian tradition—in Niebuhr’s
view—is important because not all kinds of realism can over-
come sentimentalism without falling into nihilism. Thomas
Hobbes e Martin Lutero, for example, stressed a too cynical
conception both of human nature and politics. Their “realistic
pessimism” did indeed prompt “to an unqualified endorsement
of state power”. And this only because “they were not realistic
enough”: both “saw the danger of anarchy in the egotism of the
citizens but failed to perceive the dangers of tyranny in the
selfishness of the ruler”, therefore “they obscured the conse-
quent necessity of placing checks upon the ruler’s self-will”
(Niebuhr, 1953: 127). Instead, Augustinian realism turns out to
be a more reliable guide to the understanding of a crumbling
and decaying world. As the protestant theologian stated: “Mod-
ern ‘realists’ know the power of collective self-interest as Au-
gustine did; but they do not understand its blindness. Modern
pragmatists understood the irrelevance of fixed and detailed
norms; but they do not understand that love must take the place
as the final norm for these inadequate norms. Modern liberal
Christians know that love is the final norm for man; but they
fall into sentimentality because they fail to measure the power
and persistence of self-love. Thus Augustine, whatever may be
the defects of his approach to political reality, and whatever
may be the dangers of a too slavish devotion to his insights,
nevertheless proves himself a more reliable guide than any
known thinker. A generation which finds its communities impe-
riled and in decay from the smallest and most primordial com-
munity, the family, to the largest and most recent, the potential
world community, might well take counsel of Augustine in
solving its perplexities” (Niebuhr, 1953: 146).
Avoiding an unproductive form of reductionism, the Augus-
tinian influence leaded Niebuhr to elaborate his “Christian real-
ism”. This is a conception of human nature, politics and history
that considers both self-regarding and social impulses of man,
knowing that the former is stronger than the latter. In other
words, Niebuhr creates a tamed realism that exceeds cynical
realism but does not lead to a sentimental idealism. In the First
mythic debate, Niebuhr achieved two important goals. On the
one hand, he played an unconscious anticipatory role because
he began to attack idealism before Carr and Morgenthau, more
or less influencing both in the end. On the other hand, he could
exceed the harsh contraposition between realism and idealism,
for he tried to establish a new and comprehensive approach to
international affairs. An approach that constituted in a way an
advance of synthesis produced by the neo-realism versus neo-
liberalism debate, even if upon different premises. Such an
attempt was full of difficulties because it is destined to clash
with the growing positivism supported by many scholars of IR.
And from this strife the “Second debate” arose in the 1960s.
Niebuhr and the Second “Not Positive” Debate
During the Second debate, the core of the matter moved from
the issue of content to the methodological one. The behaviourist
revolution4 that occurred in the other social sciences, broke into
IR. The supporters of the positivist approach strongly con-
trasted the historical perspective which had dominated the dis-
cipline until then. They claimed for a new “scientific” approach
in IR. A common way to narrate this debate was in term of the
struggle which pitted traditionalists against behaviouralists,
history against science. In fact, behaviouralists—such as Mor-
ton Kaplan, David Singer and Kenneth Waltz5—believed that
the discipline could move forward only thanks to the method of
natural sciences. For them, “the path to knowledge was via the
collection of observable data” and “the path to theory started
with what was observable” (Hollis & Smith, 1990: 28-29).
Instead, classical realists focused on human nature, history, law
and philosophy. As Stanley Hoffmann summarized in a dero-
gatory way, it was “the battle of the literates versus the nume-
rates” (Hoffmann, 1977: 54). Even if the debate was much
more broad and complex6, it was generally associated with the
dispute between Hedley Bull and Morton Kaplan. The former
thought that behaviouralists “have done a great disservice to
theory in this field”, because these scholars, with their re-
nouncement of history and philosophy, “have deprived them-
selves of the means of self-criticism, and in consequence have a
view of their subject and its possibilities that is callow and
brash” (Bull, 1966: 370; 375). Conversely, Kaplan is convinced
that the traditionalists “have confused the relationship between
intuition and scientific knowledge”. According to him, they
“have not helped to clarify the important issues in methodolo-
gy” because they “mistake explicitly heuristic models for dog-
matic assertions” (Kaplan, 1966: 3; 20). Despite the fact that
both Bull and Kaplan “shared a more similar view of the inter-
national political system than their location on the two oppos-
ing sides of the debate would suggest”, because “[t]his was not
a debate between theories, but one within a single theoretical
orientation and about how to conduct enquiry within that ap-
proach” (Hollis & Smith, 1990: 31). As it was effectively noted,
the key point of contestation in the Second Debate was “wheth-
er the natural and social sciences can be studied similarly”
(Curtis & Koivisto, 2010: 435).
As in the previous debate, Niebuhr did not participate in the
dispute but he anticipated it. In fact, starting from 1930s he
pointed out an anti-positivist approach to social sciences and IR.
The protestant theologian was a traditionalist. He was con-
vinced—such as Bull—that history, philosophy and law could
help the better understanding of politics rather than the positiv-
ist method. But also he was sure—unlike the author of The
Anarchical Society—that the Christian faith was essential for an
authentic knowledge of reality.
The Common Sense of the Man in the Street
In his battle against positivism, Niebuhr wanted to unmask
the unwarranted pretentions of the secular ideologies in reach-
ing a scientific comprehension of man and politics. “The hope”,
he observed, “that everything recalcitrant in human behaviour
may be brought under the subjection of the inclusive purposes
of ‘mind’ by the same technics which gained man mastery over
nature is not merely an incidental illusion, prompted by the
phenomenal achievements of the natural sciences”, but “it is the
culminating error in modern man’s misunderstanding of him-
self” (Niebuhr, 1949: 14). An error which was especially evi-
dent in the United States. In fact, as he noted in The Irony of
American Hist ory, “no national culture has been as assiduous as
our own in trying to press the wisdom of the social and political
sciences, indeed of all the humanities, into the limits of the
natural sciences”. It caused, in the author’s view, a widespread
bewilderment of the cognitive ability of social and political
science. Indeed, “when political science is severed from its
4In this regard, see for e xample Eas t on (1962; 1969).
5Kaplan (1957); Singer and Small (1966); Waltz (1979).
for example Hollis and Smith (1990), Kurki and Wight (2006), and
Curtis ans Koivi sto (2010).
L. G. CASTELLIN
ancient rootage in the humanities and ‘enriched’ by the wi sdom
of sociologists, psychologists and anthropologists, the result is
frequently a preoccupation with minutiae which obscures the
grand and tragic outlines of contemporary history, and offers
vapid solutions for profound problems” (Niebuhr, 1952: 60).
Modern culture used presuppositions of an out-and-out faith
even if it affirmed to make a scientific analysis (Niebuhr, 1956).
The behaviouralists could not be value-free. According to Nie-
buhr, in the relationship between man and reality there was
always an original option which afforded to determinate know-
ledge. In fact, reason never operates in a vacuum. Its presuppo-
sitions make it servant and not master of human impulses
(Niebuhr, 1965: 37). At the base of the scientific method there
are both the presupposition of human perfectibility and progress
(Niebuhr, 1953: 2-4). Niebuhr believed that the realism of many
positivist theories of the social sciences, claimed but always
roughly denied by history, was only a sign of their helpless
irrationalism (Niebuhr, 1940: 188). In his view, political realism
was impossible without a realistic comprehension of human
nature, but the latter could only be guaranteed by the intuitions
which came from the Christian view of history (Niebuhr, 1953:
101). In an irreverent way, the protestant theologian stated that
“we have no guidance amid the intricacies of modern power
politics except as the older disciplines, less enamored of the
‘methods of natural science’, and the common sense of the man
in the street supplies the necessary insights” (Niebuhr, 1953:
124). The man of the street is able to reckon the complexity and
ambiguity of politics much better than many scientists. In fact,
his shrewd awareness of several human mania allows him to
avoid the self-pity of intellectuals (Niebuhr, 1954: 14). Never-
theless, this element of Niebuhr’s thought caused the bitter
critiques of Kenneth Waltz. According to the author of Theory
of International Politics, the protestant theologian’s analysis
lacked methodological rigour. Therefore, Niebuhr must be
placed in the “First image” of IR which should be integrated
and surpassed (Waltz, 1959). As Roger Epp observes, the
growing importance of behaviouralist approaches and the ambi-
tion to the discipline’s autonomy caused the isolation of Nie-
buhr thought among American scholars of IR (Epp, 1991: 20).
At the same time, the attacks against him came from his trans-
parent personal faith that was always opposed by the social
scientists (Patterson, 2003: 47). Even i f his strong opposition to
positivism allowed his thought to avoid the shallows in which
neorealism later ended up.
“An Englishman in New York”
“I’m an alien I’m a legal alien I’m an Englishman in New
York”. Few other words as Sting’s famous song Englishman in
New York could describe Niebuhr’s experience in the field of IR
before and after the Second Debate. The protestant theologian
was an American German. And for most of his life he studied
and taught at Columbia University in New York. Like other
classical realists, he had a typical European approach to IR. It is
not wrong to suggest that Classical Realism and the so called
English School had many elements in common. Both partially
shared values, vision and method. The English School was a
branch of Realism and the latter maintained its continuity out-
side American academic borders. It was probably Niebuhr’s
methodological approach that brought him closer to the English
School7, even if he couldn’t be described as a fellow of the
Grotian tradition. As Epp pointed out, there is not a simple and
necessary correlation between the English School and Christian
Realism (Epp, 2003: 210). However, we cannot hide that some
sort of tamed realism—just like Niebuhr’s—was elaborated by
some scholars of the English School. According to Wight, Nie-
buhr was the “patriarch” of clas sic a l rea lis m (Wight, 1966: 120-
121). But with his rejection of positivism and his attention to
the relationship between power and justice, the protestant theo-
logian was the nearest realist to the exponents of International
Society. During the Cold War, on the other side of Atlantic
Ocean, authors as Martin Wight, Herbert Butterfield and Hed-
ley Bull maintained a traditional approach in the study of inter-
national affairs. As classical realists, they gave prominence to
history, law and philosophy in order to understand the dynamics
of world politics. They elaborated a paradigm halfway between
realism and idealism. States, anarchy, power and law were
carefully mixed to offer a wider explanation of global order.
However, between Niebuhr and the first scholars of the Eng-
lish School there were similarities and differences. The former
almost totally concerned the method, while the latter partly
regarded the topics. Similarities between the two consisted in
the effort to investigate international relations from a strong
historical perspective and also with a constant attention to the
ambiguity of human nature. Differences rose above all from the
particular sensibility to legal elements which lacked in Nie-
buhr’s works. He underestimated the function of natural law,
even if he recognised the important role of law, justice and
order in international politics. He seemed to share more ele-
ments with Wight and Butterfield rather than with Bull. In fact,
it was the Christian faith that united the horizon of their inter-
national thought. These scholars believed that their faith had
something to say on and to power (Patterson, 2003: 17). Unlike
the Australian author, who was an atheist, Wight and Butterfield
had a strong attention to religion. In fact, both English authors’
theory and their Christian faith were firmly related (Hall, 2002,
2006; Bentley, 2011: 340). At least for a moment, Niebuhr,
Wight and Butterfield reclaimed an Augustinian tradition in IR
but were defeated by positivism (Epp, 1991, 2003). Despite this,
the protestant theologian, similarly to Wight and Butterfield,
continued in his research. He remained an important voice for
his time and for American culture but he faced many problems
with academic scholars until the end of his existence.
Niebuhr and the Other “Missing” Debates
After a life on the stage of American public opinion, Niebuhr
died at the age of seventy-eight in Stockbridge, Massachusetts,
on June 1st, 1971. However, his thought continued to influence
both US domestic and foreign politics. Many scholars, practi-
tioners, politicians were inspired by him (Rice, 2012). In this
way his “long shadow” crossed not only the last decades of
Twentieth century (Schlesinger, 1992, 2005), but also the early
years of the Twenty-First century (Diggins, 2011). Therefore,
Niebuhr ’s legacy also reached the White House. In fact, Barack
Obama doesn’t hide the protestant theologian problematic and
ironic influence on him (Holder & Josephson, 2012). Never-
theless, many different and incompatible posthumous interpre-
tations of his thought exist (Smith, 1986: 130).
Niebuhr certainly never took part in the Inter-Paradigm De-
bate, nor in the one between rationalists and reflectivists8. In the
7At this regard see Dunne (1998), Lin klater and Suganami (2006).
8On these debates see Wæver (1996), Lapid (1989), Kurki and W
(2006), Brown (1997), and Smith, Booth and Zalewski (1996).
L. G. CASTELLIN
latter, a heterogeneous front of post-positivist approaches rose
up against the reductionism of those theorists that sought to
emulate the scientific methods of natural sciences to understand
IR. This attempt, that still continues today, gathered up many
scholars with only few things in common (Brown, 1997: 58).
As Yosef Lapid noted, the debate represented a “disciplinary
effort to reassess theoretical options in a post positivist era”
(1989: 237). Among these very different post-positivist ap-
proaches—such as Constructivism, Postmodernism and Critical
theory—the only one that seems to share something with Nie-
buhr’s Christian realism is the Normative theory9.
A Normative Realism
If “[a]ll theory” in IR “is normative theory” (Cochran, 1999:
1), this observation is valid for Niebuhr above all. According to
Chris Brown (1992: 3), by normative theory in IR “is meant
that body of work which addresses the moral dimension of
international relations and the wider questions of meaning and
interpretation generated by the discipline”. Contrasting the
positivist bias, this approach, that is broadly linked with politi-
cal philosophy, should try to explain the fundamental ethical
aspects of IR. The protestant theologian performed the same
operation in all of his works. During the Twentieth century,
Niebuhr not only fought against positivism but also developed a
political theory that referred to norms and ethics. On the one
hand, in his continuous clash against positivism, he reaffirmed
that many liberal theories “derive their defects from the failure
to make a sufficiently sharp distinction between the natural and
the socio-historical sciences between Naturwissenschaft and
Geisteswissenschaft” (Niebuhr, 1953: 80). On the other hand,
he proposed a classical theory of IR which is nevertheless in-
novative and peculiar to him. This approach, recognising the
impossibility of “sacrificial love” and the limited “ethical reali-
ties of history”, finds its synthesis in the “norm of mutuality”
between men and nations (Niebuhr, 1941-1943). In this way, he
“invokes a traditional normative theory, anchored in Ju-
deo-Christian beliefs, that transcends interests and conflict in
the name of love and justice” (Smith, 1995: 187).
As Patricia Stein Wrightson rightly argues, Niebuhr theory is
a “normative realism” which “differs widely both from classical
political realism, for which morals have at best an ancillary
value; and from neorealism, which scarcely takes morals into
account at all” (1996: 377). Since Christian realism recognises
the inextricable ambiguity of human nature and politics, it con-
siders both ethical and historical contingencies in international
affairs. There are no easy political choices. As Niebuhr noted in
Nations and Empires, “all historic responsibilities must be
borne without the certainty that meeting them will lead to any
ultimate solution of the problem, but with only the certainty
that there are immediate dangers which may be avoided and
immediate injustices which may be eliminated” (1959: 298).
For this reason, he continued by observing that “[o]ur best hope,
both of a tolerable political harmony and of an inner peace,
rests upon our ability to observe the limits of human freedom
even while we responsibly exploit its creative possibilities”
(Niebuhr, 1959: 299). The protestant theologian outlined an
approach in which the problematic relationship between ideals
and fulfilments returns. Thus justice, humility, prudence, mod-
eration and irony are the keywords that define Niebuhr’s po-
litical theory from the Thirties to the Sixties. He constantly
reflected on the just balance between order and justice in inter-
national relations, believing that “there is no purely moral solu-
tion for the ultimate moral issues of life; but neither is there a
viable solution which disregards the moral factors” (Niebuhr,
1952: 40). In this regard, he added: “Men and nations must use
their power with the purpose of making it an instrument of
justice and a servant of interests broader than their own. Yet
they must be ready to use it though t hey become aware t hat the
power of a particular nation or individual, even when under
strong religious and social sanctions, is never so used that there
is a perfect coincidence between the value which justifies it and
the interests of the wielder of it” (Niebuhr, 1952: 40-41).
The moral ambiguity of politics did not lead Niebuhr to rela-
tivism but represented for him a challenge of and for politics. In
other words, a challenge to which politics must provisionally
respond taking ethics, values and interests into account. But this
human effort is undertaken without any certainty of success
because men see their present and will peer their future
“through a a glass darkly that they would make no claim of
seeing at all” (Niebuhr, 1946: 152).
Conclusions: “The Realist of Dist ances”
According to Flannery O’Connor, “we are not living in times
when the realist of distances is understood or well thought of,
even though he may be in the dominant tradition of American
letters”, indeed “the novelist is asked to be the handmaid of his
age” (O’Connor, 1969: 46). During the Twentieth century,
Niebuhr was not a handmaid of his time. Instead, he was a sign
of contradiction. With Christian realism, the protestant theolo-
gian faced both domestic and international American political
dilemmas. Living a strange paradox, he was very successful
among public opinion as well as statesmen but suffered a harsh
contrast by scholars, in particular by positivist ones. The former
considered him a critical but precious voice that made his wis-
dom available to politicians and common men in order to solve
many moral problems tied to politics. Instead, the latter rejected
his approach because it appeared not exactly scientific in an
increasingly positivistic IR. Indeed, he had strong difficulties
with what Stanley Hoffman defined “an American social
science” (Hoffman, 1977).
His being a realist of distances does not affect his ability to
predict the future but to see distant things close up. Niebuhr
anticipated and exceeded all debates in IR. In this way, he de-
veloped Christian realism, which has two peculiar characteris-
tics. It is tamed and normative. It is tamed because it can gather
both realism and idealism in a more comprehensive approach
that tries to consider all contrasting aspects of man and politics.
It is normative because it seeks to interrogate statesmen, scho-
lars and simple individuals about the moral and ethical dimen-
sion of international affairs. Both these characteristics go to-
gether in Niebuhr’s reflection. Especially in a post-positivist
but not yet post-secularist moment of IR, Christian realism can
represent useful means of developing the academic debate.
During his long and busy life, Niebuhr contributed to asking
questions rather than giving answers. He once noted that
“[n]othing is more unbelievable than the answer to a question
that is not asked” (Niebuhr, 1941-1943: 6). Not only in the
Great debates, but also in contemporary IR, it is necessary to
understand whether and how to ask Niebuhr a question so that
he can answer.
In this regard see Brown (1992), Frost (1986; 1996), Nardin (1983), and
Brown, Na rdi n and Rengger (2002).
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