How Western Idealism Nearly Destroyed Europe in the Second World War

International Relations scholar E.H. Carr famously labeled the two decades between World War I and World War II as “the twenty years crisis.” Carr criticized the naive idealism in Western governments and public opinion that empowered and enabled the Axis powers, calling for a more realistic approach to international security. That idealism, which, borrowing from C.S. Lewis, I will call wishful thinking idealism, was not just a temptation in the 1930s but remains a foreign policy temptation to this day. Christian Realism, in contrast, is a firm foundation for national security stewardship.

Christian Realism is not against an optimistic vision for our world, when it is combined with prudence and determined effort. But Wishful Thinking Idealists create an imagined world in their minds and on paper and then pretend that they are living in that imagined world. For Wishful Thinking Idealists, facts must conform to their vision.

Western governments clung to Wishful Thinking Idealism in the run-up to World War II.  Consider this famous speech made by Adolf Hitler on March 15, 1929, four years before coming to power.  He sounds a theme he will return to, in words and deeds for the next decade.

If men wish to live, then they are forced to kill others. The entire struggle for survival is a conquest of the means of existence, which in turn results in the elimination of others from these same sources of subsistence. 

As long as there are peoples on this earth, there will be nations against nations and they will be forced to protect their vital rights in the same way as the individual is forced to protect his rights. One is either the hammer or the anvil. We confess that it is our purpose to prepare the German people again for the role of the hammer

We admit freely and openly that if our movement is victorious, we will be concerned day and night with the question of how to produce the armed forces, which are forbidden us by the peace treaty [Treaty of Versailles]. We solemnly confess that we consider everyone a scoundrel who does not try day and night to figure out a way to violate this treaty, for we have never recognized this treaty…

We will take every step which strengthens our arms, which augments the number of our forces, and which increases the strength of our people. We confess further that we will dash anyone to pieces who should dare hinder us in this undertaking…Our rights will be protected only when the German Reich is again supported by the point of the German dagger…

How did Europe respond to this threat? A zenith of Wishful Thinking Idealism occurred a few months later when dozens of governments signed what we today call the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which is formally titled, “The General Treaty for the Renunciation of War as an Instrument of National Policy.” That pact would only enable the Axis Powers. 

Wishful Thinking Idealism believes that everyone, even competition, is fundamentally reasonable: “we must make them see reason!” Such idealism puts its faith in compromise, for “surely we can find common ground.” It puts all, rather than some, of its trust in cooperation: international organizations, international law, international treaties. Unfortunately, these co-ops are usually a façade for those hiding from responsible action. Wishful Thinking Idealism opines that if we just keep demonstrating good will, we will win them over. “Surely we can earn their trust somehow!” Wishful Thinking Idealism is often broadcast through grand pronouncements, public statement of intent, declarations and treaties, and noble speeches. The 1920s and 1930s were replete with these–and they were not only words. They were action, or worse, irresponsible inaction. Many of these governments refused to invest in re-armament and there were wide calls for disarmament. Indeed, if we demonstrate our goodwill by unilateral disarmament, if we lower our shields, aren’t we taking the moral high ground?  

Wishful Thinking Idealism was reinforced by pusillanimous public officials, the memories of the devastation of the Great War, and a theologically simplistic pacifism. This resulted in Western governments turning their eyes away from the plight of the Jews and depredations of the Axis powers.

Recall the timeline of the 1930s: Japan invaded Manchuria in 1931 and waged a horrific war on the civilian population in ensuing years. How did the West respond? They sent a five-man team that summarized its findings in what became known as The Lytton Report. The Report refused to name one side as the aggressors and called for all involved to stand down. Japan was later kicked out of the League of Nations but faced very little other sanction at the time. Tokyo learned a lesson: just ignore the League of Nations and do what you want. A few years later, Mussolini’s Italy invaded Abyssinia (Ethiopia). What happened? Western governments pleaded with Abyssinia to accept the loss of half of its territory rather than prolong war and upset peace.

After the Nazis seized power in 1933, the plight of Germany’s Jews became increasingly dire. Ramsay MacDonald the British prime minister was asked about the situation at a press conference as he was sailing to the United States. 

“Do you, Mr. Prime Minister, condemn the anti-Semitic policy of the Nazi government in Germany?” “Oh-o-o,” Mr. MacDonald exclaimed, apparently surprised. “Well, you probably know that I came over here to talk about other matters than these.”  Later on the same trip he was asked about the Jews’ situation in Germany.  He looked away and replied, “It is a lovely day today.”

Wishful Thinking Idealism wishes away trouble. It refuses to deal with facts, even if it must bury its head in the proverbial sand. One of MacDonald’s successors, Neville Chamberlain, flew to see Hitler on three occasions over a period of just 4 weeks in 1938. The result of those visits was appeasement: Hitler took half of Czechoslovakia at Munich and Prime Minister Chamberlain, the ultimate wishful thinker, returned to London with a piece of paper in hand, declaring, “This is peace in our time.” War broke out soon thereafter.  

Christian Realism stands in stark contrast to this befuddled, unmoored, and irresponsible Wishful Thinking Idealism. In short, Christian Realism is a way to do foreign policy analysis and international relations theory. For social scientists, it is a species of Realism that is prudential and un-idealistic. Christian Realism is rooted in a biblical and an Augustinian worldview: particularly Augustinian in anthropology and sociology. Christian Realism recognizes human potential (as images of God), human responsibility (established in the creation mandate), and the effects of human sin at the Fall. Human sin, particularly our egotism as individuals and groups, affects all parts of law, society and politics. Wishful Thinking Idealism refuses to acknowledge this.  

Furthermore, Christian Realism emphasizes political order, and justice. The Bible has a lot to say on these matters, from the examples of righteous and unrighteous kings to the wisdom literature to Romans 13. The Bible emphasizes promoting justice, promoting security, and working towards the common good. In addition, Christian realism emphasizes power.  People, particularly those in public office, have to take responsibility to utilize power on behalf of the common good. In addition, Christian realism opposes any form of collective chauvinism, such as a political ideology or racist program that intrinsically elevates some portion of man as superior to others. The Aryan supremacy of the Nazis and the violent ideology of Stalinist communism exemplify collective chauvinism. Today we face the ethno-religious nationalism of Indian hindutva and Buddhist nationalism in Burma and Sri Lanka. Christian Realists reject all such notions. 

Like other IR theorists, Christian Realists look at all three levels of analysis when thinking about international security: the individual, domestic politics, and the anarchy of international affairs. Finally, Christian Realists condemn collective chauvinism in any form, from ethno-religious nationalism to National Socialism (Nazism) as inherently unjust.

During the mid-1930s, a group of thinkers such as Reinhold Niebuhr, John C. Bennett, future Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, Martin Wight, Herbert Butterfield, and others castigated the weakness, irresponsibility, and immorality of Wishful Thinking Idealism. Their moral and political arguments were echoed in the heroic acts of resistance by individuals such as Pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer and theologian Martin Niemoller. The language of Christian Realism, rooted in Judeo-Christian tradition, found its way into the rhetoric of the civilization of the day, from C.S. Lewis to Winston Churchill. Over time, this framework has provided moral policy guidance through the Cold War and the Global War on Terrorism to today. Christian Realism remains a vital and crucial source for the next generation of diplomats, scholars, warriors, public servants, and political officials.