Moral realism, not moralism, is a sensible way of operating in international politics. This approach recognizes the plurality of worldviews and power claims, but it still tries to make the world a bit more just.

Understandably, people react with shock when one country attacks another. The images of destroyed houses, destroyed cities, fleeing people, and dying civilians evoke justifiable indignation. This is unjust and immoral! It reminds us as humans how much we are moral beings. However, if this moral indignation leads to moralism, the raised finger with which the other is admonished and punished, there is a danger of escalating and intensifying the conflict. Such an attitude hinders an adequate analysis of what is going on (what drives the other person and what is at stake) and stands in the way of a sensible response.

But why are people so inclined to react that way? That has to do with two things. First of all, many people lack knowledge about international politics. To them, if a conflict occurs in a country, a government should administer justice or punish one of the parties. In international politics, however, such a government is absent. Second, moralism is ethically a safe position. After all, you are completely on the right side, and the other is completely wrong. But this confidence makes it very difficult to compromise or come to a second-best solution, while international politics is largely made up of second-best arrangements. That does not mean that moral distinctions cannot be made. It is abundantly clear that Vladimir Putin has violated international law. However, moral discernment is different from moralism.

Morally discernment, for example, seeks what kind of enmity we are dealing with. Does Putin see the West as a real enemy to defend against or as an absolute enemy?[1] In the first case, it concerns a conflict that could possibly be settled territorially. The point is that countries recognize each other and come to a solution to the dispute. In the second case, Putin sees the West as the great evil and aims at the total destruction of Western social and political structures. When there is real enmity, the trick is to prevent it from turning into absolute enmity. This is possible, for example, by not interpreting or framing the attack as an attack on the Western way of living and thinking.

Hans Morgenthau

The field of international relations emerged after the Second World War because there was a need for reflection on international politics. This was partly due to the fact that America’s power had become so great that it needed a solid foundation for its foreign policy. One of the founders of the field of international relations is Hans Morgenthau (1904–80), and his book Politics Among Nations (1948) has influenced generations of students.[2]

Morgenthau’s credit is that he has argued for taking the individual nature of international relations seriously. International politics is an independent sphere that is fundamentally different from that of law, the economy, or social or religious domains. In international politics it is about the clash of power interests that can be ideal or material. This means that states can want or say anything, but in the end their behavior can best be understood by making a good analysis of their power interests. In Morgenthau’s case, that includes ideas and worldviews. According to him, worldviews function as a kind of switch that ensures interests play a role in a certain way. What can we do with that with regard to the Russia-Ukraine conflict?

First of all, the invasion of Russia can be explained from a power analysis. As former ambassador Edy Korthals Altes argued in his posthumous contribution, Russia as a superpower feels threatened because former Soviet Union countries are strengthening ties with the European Union and possibly want to join NATO. Now we can think that this is not the case, but a good analysis also means that you take seriously what the other person says. Putin has made it clear time and again that Russia senses a threat from NATO and that he wants to stop it. In doing so, I do not want to endorse or justify Putin’s invasion: a statement is not justification. However, such an analysis can help us to see that we may have a part in it ourselves. The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described this as irony: through our behavior we invoke things that threaten us.[3] However, there is also something hopeful in this. By recognizing this, we can learn from it and take responsibility.


Second, the Russia-Ukraine conflict teaches us to take worldviews seriously. We may disagree with the other’s worldview, but they simply influence how leaders see the world, how countries see each other and thus also determine the course of history. It makes little sense to dismiss Putin’s speeches or religious ideas as irrational or insane. His worldview may be fundamentally different, but it takes some sort of overarching neutral point of view to determine whether it is irrational as well. We have a too limited view to judge this. What gives hope about the role of worldviews is that they are not all-determining and can change. It is not without reason that Morgenthau suggested that they function as a kind of switch. It therefore makes sense to also enter into a dialogue with each other at the level of worldview, while being aware of your own.

Moral Realism

I advocate a morally realistic approach. This means that I am deeply concerned about the plight of the people of Ukraine and the threatened peace on the European continent. To protect Europe, save lives, and prevent further escalation, a solution must be sought as soon as possible, even if that results in an uncomfortable compromise. That also means that countries must be prepared to use power, be it economic, financial, or military. But we will also have to accept that Russia considers itself as one of the superpowers in the world that wants to exert influence and feels threatened. Politicians may disapprove of this pursuit, but it is much better, in the words of Morgenthau, that they consider these forces. That means that power requires counter-power. Moral principles can never be fully realized in the world of international politics; at most they can be approached by an always temporary balance of interests.

I consciously call it a moral-realistic approach, because otherwise the idea could be that this concerns simple realpolitik in which the role of morality would play no role at all. In the tradition of political realism, however, different shades are present. There is indeed a cynical variant that, based on the observation that power plays an important role in international politics, is based on the premise that power and the pursuit of power should be the goal of states. However, there is also the variant that wants to take the importance of power seriously, but wants to regulate its use or make it subservient to justice. This movement follows not only the line of Niccolò Machiavelli and Thomas Hobbes, but also that of St. Augustine.[4] In that respect it differs from the neorealism of John Mearsheimer, whose video “Why is Ukraine the West’s Fault?” has been viewed and shared millions of times on social media.

From this moral realism, it is justified to strive for a balance of power to realize a little more justice or a little less injustice. However, there is always a kind of dialectical tension with the love ideal: “Justice without the pull of love would degenerate into mere order. This does not mean that order is not important because order is needed to approximate justice, but order without justice could not long endure.”[5] Moral realism is prepared to use power out of love for justice.[6]

Promote Democracy?

Do Russia’s actions teach us that we should be more active in promoting democracy in the world? The main thing is that democracy as a form of government fits in well with human nature. Niebuhr summarizes this nicely in the quote, “Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”[7] On the other hand, Russia’s actions show that the world is pluriform. Even if the West is not convinced of that, it is good to realize that others see the world that way. To get an impression of this, it is good to watch Bas Heijne’s interview with Aleksandr Dugin, one of the people who has influenced Putin. This shows that there are people who, for example, view liberalism as an imperialist philosophy that threatens other societies.[8]

From a Christian-democratic standpoint, accepting pluralism should be an important starting point. However, that does not absolve Christian-democracy from the obligation to jointly seek overlapping consensus, especially when it comes to international issues. Such an approach, as Menno Kamminga so beautifully describes it, would have to be somewhere between “‘right’ amoral anarchism and ‘left’ moralistic centralism.”[9] She realizes that the world of nation-states is ultimately criticized by the ideal that the world is meant to be a community of people. It will therefore continue to invest in transnational cooperation in which organizations from different religious and cultural traditions build a fabric that resembles an international civil society. This fabric can sometimes shape the behavior of states, but much more often it may transcend the occurrence of states.

[1] I borrow this distinction from the knowledgeable but also controversial German political philosopher Carl Schmitt (1888-1985). Thanks to Govert Buijs who pointed out this distinction to me.

[2] Hans Morgenthau, Politics among Nations: The Struggle for Power and Peace (New York: Knopf, 1948).

[3] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Irony of American History (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1952).

[4] Cf. Alastair J. H. Murray, Reconstructing Realism. Between Power Politics and Cosmopolitan Ethics (Edinburgh: Keele University Press, 1997).

[5] Roger Ivan Epp, The Augustinian Moment in International Politics: Niebuhr, Butterfield, Wight and the Reclaiming of a Tradition (Aberystwyth: University College of Wales, 1991) 16, 17.

[6] Thanks to Maarten Neuteboom who introduced this formulation during one of our conversations.

[7] Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of its Traditional Defense (New York: Charles Scribners Sons, 1944).

[8] John Mearsheimer makes a similar point in his article “Why the Ukraine crisis is the West’s fault. The liberal delusions that provoked Putin,” Foreign Affairs (September/October 2014).

[9] Menno Kamminga, “International postliberalisme: Middenweg naar een duurzame wereldorde?” in: Patrick Overeen & Hans-Martien ten Napel, Het radicale midden overzee: Verkenningen van het postliberalisme (Utrecht: Eburon, 2021) 123.