The following article about a Catholic view of statecraft is based on Joseph E. Capizzi’s talk at Providence’s annual conference on Christianity and national security in November 2019. To watch that talk, click here.

The just war ethic is an exercise in “statecraft,” with its suggestion that the primary focus of the ethic is on the maintenance, preservation, and guidance of the politics and governance of nation-states that find themselves inescapably located in an international order of constant flux. As such the ethic strives to make war possible as an instrument of politics, particularly against realist and pacifist critiques that are joined, as Methodist theologian Paul Ramsey said, in thinking that in war “evil must be done that good may come of it.” The pacifist, of course, refuses to do evil, and thus prescinds from statecraft, as in Stanley Hauerwas’s refusal to theorize about the state, whereas the realist steps in and pursues statecraft by appeal only to the inner order and interests of the state of which he is a part. Because realism and the just war ethic both pursue war in certain contexts, they can appear to be close cousins, or species of the same genus. That appearance, however, is false; in fact, the just war ethic shares less with realism than realism shares with pacifism.

The statecraft pursued by realism diverges from that pursued by the just war ethic in at least four ways. For realism, international engagements begin from assumptions of problems: the existence of other states creates conditions of suspicion and distrust. No state can presume the goodwill of others, in part because states cannot read each other’s intentions and in part because all assume (by projecting their own self-interested motivations onto other states) the others are competitors in the pursuit of power. Thus, the international system marked by anarchy, or the absence of an ordering power possessing sovereign authority, is one of necessary competition and severely limited possibilities of cooperation. Anarchy need not assume relentless conflict; anarchy does, however, assume that states always act in their self-interests and to the extent permitted by their power. Indeed, states always act to maximize their power or to create the conditions of future maximization of power at the expense of other states. The erstwhile father of realism, Niccolo Machiavelli, claims “that all men are evil and that they are always going to act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have free scope.”[1] The task of the statesman, accordingly, is to use his power to anticipate, prevent, and restrain the wicked acts of his opponents to the extent possible.

In addition, the realist assumes that the job of the state, and therefore of statecraft, is to pursue the state’s interests, narrowly conceived. This entails pursuing the increase of its power in relationship with other states and, as realists often maintain, doing so without regard for the interests of other states, peoples, or the international community, except insofar as those interests are related to the interest of the state itself. In other words, states always pursue their own interests and only derivatively pursue other concerns. They could never, as John Mearsheimer writes, “work together to promote world order for its own sake.”[2] Instead, realist statecraft is interested in a world order justified only in terms of national self-interest. Peaceful world order or stability, then, is no more than the unintended consequence of self-interested state behavior ordered toward the pursuit of power; it is not something pursued in itself or to be maintained at any cost to a state. Further, it makes no reference to justice: world order is a non-moral category.

Mearsheimer points to the Cold War order as an instance of this. The international stability we can ascribe to the Cold War was the unintended result of the United States and Soviet Union’s joint pursuit of power. Neither sought the stability for its own sake; indeed, each worked to undermine the other despite the obvious consequence that weakening the other power imperiled the stable order. The necessary law of power maximization, the realist argues, compelled each to seek to prevail against the other, despite the predictable adverse effects on the stability of world order. Each did this because, according to realism, that’s what states do: they seek to maximize their own power at the expense of others. A more recent example of this is America’s push to expand NATO despite Russia’s spoken opposition, and despite the predictable consequences of a Russian pushback, such as we have witnessed in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Third, typically realism aligns with the full-bodied conception of state sovereignty contrary to Christian claims about the sovereignty possible for human governance. On the one hand, we can be sympathetic to realist conceptions of sovereignty that resist the equally flawed internationalist conception by which the state’s sovereignty is limited only by the sovereignty claimed by some international institution. The realist and the internationalist share, against the just war statesman, a conception of sovereignty alien to Christian claims. Neither the realist nor the internationalist recognizes that sovereignty in their sense has been claimed for the rule of Christ alone and that states of whatever size or jurisdiction possess an imperfect and therefore limited sovereignty to judge within their jurisdiction in accordance with the order ruled by Christ. Their sovereignty is a pale shadow of Christ’s true sovereignty. The realist and the internationalist think full sovereignty on earth is possible, and they disagree merely on the principles of its division. According to the false view, political authority can be fully sovereign in the sense of creating order (and even justice) by its own acts. Those acts are self-justifying, as their justification points to the good of the community the acts serve, absent any reference to external measures by which they might be judged. What makes a political act good? The good of the community as determined by those in governance. How do they know that act is good? Because they have determined its service to their community. The only basis for questioning the judgment of political authority could be internal; that is, in the light of an alternative claim about how the political act serves that same community.

A consequence of this is the proliferation of claims of right. So many states, so many claims of right, each incapable of critical penetration of the other. Statecraft on this model is assertion – counter-assertion of claims only resolved by instruments of force. Cognizant of the absurdity and threat of having independent states claiming contradictory conceptions of right, the internationalist appeals for a world state to bring peace and harmony by the articulation of a hegemonic conception of right. How do you solve the conundrum produced by sovereign states impenetrably claiming right in their name? Collapse the sovereign states into one. Assertion meets no counter-assertion, only a receding echo of the righteousness of the claim as it crosses the globe. That “solution,” however, is worse than the problem it seeks to solve, because it begins from the same flawed understanding of sovereignty and adds to it the impracticality and sheer horror of governance by worldly authority. The realist, anticipating that disagreement and conflict are not solved by a hegemonic imposition of right onto diverse political cultures, reasonably favors the anarchic state system over its internationalist alternative.

It is not enough to claim against this view of sovereignty, as Helmut Thielicke says, that the absence of horizontal limits would conduce to a rebellion against God of the sort described in the Babel story. As Thielicke explains in his Theological Ethics, a hegemonic world sovereign, unchecked horizontally by competitive sovereignty claims would be “led to play the role of Antichrist.”[3] He continues to point out the loss of the world’s unity in sin. That loss of unity precedes and makes impossible a world state, “unless it be a rebellious world state such as would necessarily precipitate a repetition of what happened at the Tower of Babel”: the casting off of people into a confusion of tongues and conflicting interests and claims.

Realism is thus intimately concerned with the activity of states. In this it shares some concerns with just war statesmanship, in particular the emphasis on the service of power to the goods of real communities of people organized by governments into states. Realist claims can seem amoral, but they are not. Realists seek to avoid the explosion of conflict into war by the exercise of power. If we think in terms of order and justice, both of which compose the peace described by the just war ethic, realists ordinarily prefer order to justice and would not chase justice at the expense of order, unless compelled to do so by state self-interest. Realists prefer the limited peace provided by political order to the pursuit of greater justice at the expense of that peace. Realism thus imposes rules upon state and government behavior: all political activity must be coordinated toward the genuine interests of the particular community the state serves. There is therefore a tight jurisdictional conception of the right to wage war: that right flows from “government’s responsibility for a discrete common good.” This claim limits state activity from pursuing justice in the abstract, including recent “neoconservative” aspirations seeking to place power at the disposal of world reordering, or justice under the guise of a supposed “responsibility of states to protect” (R2P).

Realists will often have dim views about the capacity of military force to effectuate political restructuring and suspicions that the motivations involved are, of course, self-interest masked as other-concern. Certainly, realism has deep theoretical and practical objections to state behavior that appears to express internationalist concerns, like treaty signing or humanitarian intervention and R2P. All such behavior would have to be viewed as ultimately self-interested first and only apparently pursued “for their own sake.” If they could not be closely connected with the maximization of state power, they would be impossible to justify from realist points of view. And such intervention as realism might justify would be done only to advance or protect state interest. “Intervene we must,” Morgenthau writes, “where our national interest requires it and where our power gives us a chance to succeed.”

The fourth and final disagreement with realism centers around its “determinism.” Realism makes claims about persons and governments contradicted by central claims of the just war ethic; in particular, as we have already seen, realism begins from two fundamental presuppositions not shared by the just war ethic. First, realism claims people—and people in politics especially—are bad. They will always act from self-interest, even when not conscious of this. The political activity of states, inasmuch as they follow from deliberations and judgments made by people, will do the same. They will act predictably and in accordance with their interests. Thus can Machiavelli claim, “All cities and peoples have the same desires and the same traits and … they have always had them.”[4] They will act to preserve themselves at any cost so long as they are free to do so. Likewise, contemporary realists assume the operations of raw, self-interested power beneath all political acts. Though they differ in kind, the acts will always be explicable and anticipatable in terms of the interests of the states and those in power.

Though realism is not amoral, just war statesmanship rejects many of its claims in favor of certain “internationalist” moves realists would never accept, including moves open to humanitarian intervention and the development of regional and international institutions of judgment, like the International Court of Justice. The just war ethic “re-moralizes” just cause and rejects the de-moralized concept of state judgment according to which authoritative state judgment equates to right judgment. State claims of right are not self-justifying, according to the ethic, and can be assessed and criticized by anyone. According to the criterion of right authority, the political act makes a claim about right in the context of love of neighbor and enemy that challenges the state-bound conception of authority and therefore the conception of state sovereignty embedded in international law. It embraces the extension of political responsibility beyond state borders to the extent that states are responsible for injustices outside their borders and that they may be capable of addressing, and because provoked by the universality of the Gospel, the ethic recognizes a fundamental unity of persons beneath the plurality of states and peoples. That unity of persons, coupled with Christ’s dominion, places all states under his judgment for their care of the people he claims.

War, though itself a symptom of the disruption caused by human sinfulness, nonetheless remains an instrument of peace so long as it abides principles derivative of the fundamental unity of humankind. War therefore brings to the statesman an opportunity to expand the possibilities of better and expanded institutions of negotiation and mediation post-conflict. Yet, acknowledging the reality of a fundamental unity beyond the nation-state does not presuppose a “universalist,” “imperial,” or “cosmopolitan” ethic. Instead, the acknowledgment provides the coherence necessary to think of a morality binding even the practice of war. States draw on an order beyond themselves that their own sovereignty presupposes and requires. They must look to the wisdom of other states vying for and expressing their own sovereignty in a coherent, if conflictual, order of states marked out by an implicit and explicit international law. The German lawyer Heinrich A. Rommen puts it this way: “The duty of the state in international cooperation for the realization of the international common good is the complement of its undisturbed right of existence as an independent, sovereign national order.”[5] The independence and relative autonomy of individual political communities presuppose the order of which they are a part, just as the sovereignty of the individual presupposes the community of which she is a part. Sovereignty always raises the question, With regard to what or to whom? In the case of war, this is solved by reference to the wider community that becomes the context within which peace is pursued. To disregard that wider community would be a failure of statesmanship, as the job of the statesman is to seek the overlap between the good of the political community he represents with the good of the wider community always coming into being.

[1] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy I.3 (p. 201); cited in Robert Bireley, S.J., The Counter-Reformation Prince: Anti-Machiavellianism or Catholic Statecraft in Early Modern Europe 5.

[2] John Mearsheimer, The Tragedy of Great Power Politics, 48.

[3] Helmut Thielicke, Theological Ethics, volume II, Politics 436.

[4] Quoted in Bireley, 7.

[5] Heinrich A. Rommen, The State in Catholic Thought: A Treatise on Political Philosophy (New York: Cluny Media, 2016; originally published in German in 1935) 617.