Reinhold Niebuhr differs from twenty-first-century foreign policy realists in that he viewed an accurate and explicit portrait of human nature as the crucial starting point for any theory of international relations. In this sense, Niebuhr was what Kenneth Waltz would have called a “first image” rather than a “second” or “third” image thinker. The Protestant theologian’s starting point was neither the role of domestic structures so central to progressive thought, nor the stumbling block of international anarchy emphasized by academic realists, but human nature itself. Niebuhr was an unusual foil to idealists, also, in that his anthropology—though pessimistic by liberal standards—was far from Machiavellian. Instead what Niebuhr offered was a distinctly Christian understanding of human beings, most notably in his 1940s masterwork The Nature and Destiny of Man.

Radically limited in power and knowledge, but inclined to self-reflection; capable of both altruistic and brutally selfish acts; aware of the transcendent, yet unable to capture it; for Niebuhr, this compound of spirit and nature—and not our reason or virtue, as such—is what makes us uniquely human. The paradox of this condition—radical freedom alongside radical corruption—is not captured by the methods of modern social science. It is, he suggested, better captured in the dramatic, philosophical, and historical legends of the Judeo-Christian tradition, legends that need to be taken seriously. According to these legends, we are capable of self-transcendence, and of demonstrating the compassion toward others that is the hallmark of our best and truest self. Yet we constantly fall back into self-regard. Our situation at the juncture of freedom and necessity is therefore the source of our unique dignity and our unique human misery. To acknowledge both our limits and our responsibility, to accept this paradoxical mix of finitude and freedom in our nature, in the faith that there is a purpose behind the ambiguity of our condition, would seem to be the healthiest possible response. But such faith is rare. More often, our response is one of restlessness.

This restlessness, Niebuhr argued, is the source of our greatest creative efforts. It is also the source of our greatest sins. When we deny our limitations, we fall into pride. Pride is the abuse of freedom, the raising of one’s particular interest to unconditional significance. Niebuhr identified three kinds of pride: pride of power, pride of knowledge, and pride of virtue. Pride of power is the attempt to achieve self-sufficiency and security through domination over others. Because human beings can anticipate dangers in advance, pride of power is at heart insatiable. An unending competition for security, status, and influence at every political level including the international is the result. As Niebuhr noted, “There is no level of greatness and power in which the lash of fear is not at least one strand in the whip of ambition.”

The result of this drive for power is injustice to others, and to add insult to injury, such injustice is usually accompanied by ideological pretense and self-satisfaction—pride of knowledge and pride of virtue, respectively. We show intellectual pride when we deny the limits of our knowledge, and hide our ignorance by pretending that our fragmentary perceptions of the truth have absolute validity for all times and places. Even Karl Marx, who in Niebuhr’s view was so effective in unmasking the self-serving or “ideological taint of all culture,” ended in “a pitiful display of the same sin.” We show moral pride when we deny the limitations of our virtue, and make unconditional, self-righteous claims on behalf of our particular philosophical or ideological systems. Such pride, and the restless condition from which it results, is more or less the condition of every human being. There is no division of humanity into the saved and the damned, no elite of elect souls by whom the rest of us can be rescued.

An ambiguous mixture of matter and spirit, with uncertain but limited freedom, and prone to the sin of fleeing from our true nature; for Niebuhr, this perennial human condition, and not any particular social, economic, or political structure, is the ultimate cause of conflict and war. To say that such sins will be committed is not to say they should be. But inevitably, human restlessness leads to pride, and pride leads to conflict. We are sinners—and this is the crucial difference between a Christian view and a liberal one—not because we are ignorant of reason, but because of an inbuilt propensity to misdirect our will. It is will, and not reason, that motivates us. We are therefore capable of rational and moral action, while at the same time being self-centered to the very core. It follows that no amount of modern education, exhortation, social or material advancement will necessarily eradicate the aggrandizing self-interest of our nature.

Given Niebuhr’s anthropology, there can be no final escape by any society or individual from original sin. This has profound implications for the modern liberal view of international relations, because it denies the inevitability of temporal progress. The advance of reason and science worldwide does not necessarily promote global selflessness and peace. As Niebuhr put it in An Interpretation of Christian Ethics, “the possibilities of evil grow with the possibilities of good.” The Christian end—love of neighbor and love of God—reverberates in history, but it is an end fully realized only outside of history. Niebuhr thereby refutes all utopian theories of international politics that deny the cyclical nature of progress and decay in human affairs.

For Niebuhr, if human beings are not essentially harmless and reasonable, neither are they (in Machiavelli’s words) entirely “ungrateful, fickle, false, cowards.” Instead, they are potentially and residually just and loving creatures, caught in a condition of anxiety, corrupted not only by their own baser impulses, but by the unintended consequences of their noblest aspirations. Niebuhr did not deny the possibility of grace in human relations, but because he viewed liberals as having underestimated the sheer power of cantankerous self-regard, his work focused on sin. The stubborn, ineradicable, and universal persistence of human self-centeredness—the image of original sin—is therefore the basement in the edifice of his Christian realist theory of international relations.