How do Christian Realism, Christian idealism and Christian cynicism approach the Ukraine War?
Christian cynicism dismisses concern about Ukraine as the preoccupation of globalist elites. There is no vital American interest in Ukraine. The West provoked Russia into invasion by flirting with NATO membership for Ukraine. The USA foreign policy Blob that gunned for the Afghan and Iraq Wars now wants conflict over Ukraine. America should focus exclusively on domestic concerns and not succumb to overseas humanitarian crusades. And besides, while Putin may not be America’s cup of tea, at least he defies Western decadence and protects Christian values. Finally, there’s nothing America can do for suffering Ukraine, because America only mangles and corrupts countries it tries to help. So the answer for Christian cynicism is mostly just to look away from Ukraine while offering mild sympathy and prayer.
Christian idealism rejects this apathy and has two forms. One is pacifist. It opposes war but won’t really challenge Putin specifically because doing so faults aggressors and requires defending victims. It believes America is as bad and likely worse than Russia. It offers no substantive relief to Ukraine except denunciation of all violence. It won’t specifically denounce Ukraine for resisting and so resorts to generalities. Christian pacifism, which grew during the Afghan and Iraq Wars, and is largely anti-American, has greatly declined, and Ukraine’s plight will further undermine its popularity.
The more popular form of Christian idealism in the current conflict is the urge for America to directly enter the Ukraine War most particularly through No Fly Zones. Non-pacifist Christian idealism sees suffering and desires intervention even if it means wider war. Russian brutality against Ukrainian civilians will amplify this urge. Something must be done now. Christian idealism portrays humanitarian military interventions as the equivalent of missions trips to unstable countries: possibly somewhat dangerous but the likelihood of success and safe return is great. To not directly intervene is to abet great evils. Decency precludes sitting on any sidelines for a moment longer and demands decisive action.
Christian Realism in contrast to cynicism and idealism better understands there are no clear answers to geopolitical conflict. Moral indifference, despair and cynicism are unacceptable. But so too is moral grandstanding, soaring ambitions and dangerous adventures without defined conclusions. Christian Realism knows that good intentions unmoored from prudence can be calamitous. Christian Realism strives for the maximum good while still realizing even at best the consequences will remain tragic. Christians cannot ignore or minimize Russia’s aggression in Ukraine. Nor can Christians retreat behind convenient disdain for foreign policy elites deemed failures for not establishing peace on earth. Focusing exclusively on domestic challenges is a fantasy luxury for any country but especially for a superpower reliant on global trade, open sky and sea lanes, and a network of alliances requiring credibility and collaboration. Christian Realism sees aggression by one nation against another as intrinsically a threat to an approximate just order and peace. The threat is even greater if the aggressor, like Russia, is powerful and has irredentist and messianic designs on multiple nations.
But Christian Realism warns against direct USA military intervention in Ukraine. First, there is no immediate and direct attack on vital American interests. Second, imposition of No Fly Zones would entail direct conflict with a nuclear superpower. And even if Russia did not have nukes, American military engagement with Russian forces would still expand the Ukraine War into a global conflict without a clear ending, and not necessarily help Ukraine. Third, direct American intervention could arouse and motivate Russia, which now seems divided and indolent, trapped in a war almost no Russians desired except for their isolated dictator.
Christian Realism is most associated with Reinhold Niebuhr, who in the late 1930s argued for USA aid to the Allies and China against the Axis. He did not, to my knowledge, urge early USA entry into war, which he knew public opinion precluded, and which he hoped may not be needed, especially not until France quickly fell. He likely surmised a Pearl Harbor was required before America resolved for war.
Hopefully there are no Pearl Harbors ahead. The Ukraine War is a localized conflict that America should strive to keep localized. Its expansion would not help suffering Ukrainians and would only spread the suffering to more countries. Watching Russian attacks on cities as thousands die is hard and will become harder. We must patiently accelerate all available material aid to Ukraine while trusting in the courageous resolve of its people and counting on the continued arrogance, incompetence and low morale of Russian forces. Christian Realism affirms the primacy of human personality over abstract forces. The contrasting personalities of Putin and Zelensky are revealingly decisive. What happens in Ukraine will be decided by human beings, with all their vices and virtues, wisdom and ignorance, courage and cowardice, amid a wide range of human attributes, motivations and emotions.
In contrast, Christian cynicism often claims to be realism by asserting the dominance of abstract forces and advocating submission to them. Russia must dominate Ukraine, and the West must accede. USA foreign policymakers are always feckless and corrupt. There is only virtue in their smirking critics. Real Americans will prioritize America. Everybody else is decadent. Christian idealism like Christian cynicism is also simplistically Manichaean. The righteous must go to war on behalf of victims against the aggressors. There will be victory because angels defeat demons.
But in no human conflict are the demons and angels perfectly opposite each other. Every human situation is a complex muddle, and war is the most horrific form. Relative to other wars, the Ukraine War is a clear case of unjust aggression calling for solidarity with the attacked victim. America and other democracies rightly help Ukraine with weapons, with sanctions, with diplomacy, rhetoric and prayers. Christian Realism calls for no less.
Christian Realism also should restrain us from unwise and potentially calamitous direct military intervention. Instead it counsels, as Herbert Butterfield urged for all wise statecraft, leaning into Providence. Our human efforts will not consummate justice and peace. But Providence moves forward, despite frail fallen humanity’s obstructions. How can we align best with Providence now in Ukraine? Let’s judiciously contribute to the deconstruction of Putin’s folly while not assuming we must complete God’s judgment. Russia has loosed the grapes of wrath and now will suffer the consequence.