At the Christianity and National Security Conference, Colin Dueck spoke about Reinhold Niebuhr’s understanding of human nature influenced his Christian realism, and how this perspective differs from other types of realism.

For Dueck’s article on the topic, click here.

Rough Transcript

Colin Dueck: Thanks Mark, nice to be here. So, I’m going to talk for a few minutes today about Reinhold Niebuhr, his Christian realism, sort of the moment where it comes together most fully during World War II, how it’s grounded in his conception of human nature, and then some of the post-war implications of it and I’ll just begin by saying I should offer a disclaimer I’m not a theologian nor do I play one on tv. I am a scholar of international politics who’s been fascinated by Niebuhr for 30 years and have researched and written about him. I see him in the context of the classical realists of the 1940s, but he has his own particular qualities that I find interesting, most notably the fact that he’s a Protestant theologian. And it’s also personal for me because both of my grandfathers were conscientious objectors during World War II, so I was brought up in a peace church tradition and even as a child I sort of reflected on this and wrestled with it and maybe on one level it was just temperamental realizing that pacifism wasn’t going to be a great fit for me, but I also thought that intellectually and morally there was a strong case to be made for resisting Hitler during World War II and so studying Niebuhr was a way to tackle that problem. Okay.

So the case for realism in U.S. foreign policy is often associated today with arguments for offshore detachment and non-intervention along with a certain impatience regarding ethical considerations but the great classical realist of the 1940s possessed views much richer than this. The political thought of theologian Reinhold Niebuhr is an excellent example of that

richness described by George Cannon as the father of us all, Niebuhr could hardly ignore moral considerations in foreign policy nor was he against unmasking moralistic pretensions on international matters yet Niebuhr’s consistent recognition of the limits of American power and self-awareness did not lead him to advocate either appeasement or disengagement rather beginning in 1940 he made the case for a sober realistic and morally grounded U.S. involvement overseas out of the central admission that whatever America’s own faults, a strict detachment from world affairs might very well result in the triumph of greater injustice, this was Niebuhr’s Christian realism.

It was the issue of creeping U.S. involvement in the war against Nazi Germany during 1940 and 41 that catalyzed and defined his approach to international relations originally a pacifist himself, Niebuhr had always possessed doubts as to whether the main strength of the pacifist stand was its moral validity per se or simply in the post-World War I feelings of nausea regarding violence particularly in a country comfortable with the status quo. By 1934, he abandoned his dedication to absolute non-resistance for the same reason that he had abandoned much of his earlier idealism he no longer viewed pacifism as a universal viable strategy in the struggle against justice. While this position was originally reached on domestic matters in defense of organized labor’s right to strike, the implications for foreign policy would be drawn out in the face of expanding tyranny and disorder overseas. Worried by Japanese expansion in China, appalled by the mistreatment of Jews in Hitler’s Reich, and sensitive to the shift in power represented by the 1938 Munich Agreement, Niebuhr came to be a leading advocate for U.S. entry into World War II. With books, articles, sermons, lectures, and public hearings, he argued for aid to the United Kingdom for convoys for lend lease for repeal of the neutrality acts and for economic sanctions against Japan. During 1940-41 he launched the new journal Christianity and crisis, wrote the book Christianity and power politics, helped found the union for democratic action, and testified before the senate foreign relations committee all in the hope of mobilizing public opinion for intervention. Above all he worked to convince mainstream liberal Protestants that they had not only a right but an obligation to aid Britain against Nazi Germany.

The debate over aid to the UK revealed a deep division within American Protestant churches between a liberal pacifist ethic on the one hand and an Augustinian or Christian Realist one on the other. Unlike many realists Niebuhr never denied the validity of what he called religious or witness pacifism such as that practiced by Quakers or Mennonites. These conscientious objectors made no claim to easy solutions instead they reminded their contemporaries of the truth that every use of force, every proximate political achievement however well intended stood under a higher judgment. For many modern pacifists however, non-resistance was supposed to be a practical political strategy that promised a relatively easy victory over conflict and injustice. In Niebuhr’s view this political pacifism was a distortion of the Christian ethic and that it failed like liberalism to recognize tragic elements in social life, namely the persistence of power and self-interest, the imperfectability of human institutions, and above all the tenuous reversible nature of moral and material progress. Pacifists insisted that war and violence were the greatest imaginable evils in communal life but how would they secure relative justice in cases where peaceful methods had failed. In effect their answer was to abdicate responsibility and surrender to oppression and injustice bowing out of social obligations, as Niebuhr put it, no matter how they twist and turn the protagonists of a political rather than a religious pacifism and with the acceptance of and justification of and connivance with tyranny they proclaim that slavery is better than war, I beg leave to doubt it and to challenge the whole system of sentimentalized Christianity which prompts good men to arrive at this perverse conclusion.

For Niebuhr the pacifism prevalent in America’s mainstream liberal Protestant churches represented a moralistic version of Christianity a new heresy in a way with potentially

devastating consequences. By seeking to stay out of war at any cost pacifists unwittingly aided Nazi Germany and condoned what Niebuhr called a tyranny, which has destroyed freedom is seeking to extinguish the Christian religion debases its own subjects to robots, threatens the Jews of Europe with complete annihilation, and all the nations of Europe under with subordination under a master race quote unquote the mistake such pacifists made was to think they could live in history without sin or guilt, but in truth no such possibility existed.

Our duty in social conflict Niebuhr suggested was not a fastidious non-participation, but a conscientious choice of what might necessarily be the lesser evil, as he put it, whatever may be wrong with the British empire it’s still obvious that these nations preserve certain values of civilization, and that the terror which is sweeping over Europe is not civilization, a moralism which dulls the conscience against this kind of evil is perverse, a lofty sense of compassion a horror of war needed to be complemented and bolstered he thought by the intermediary social virtue of justice and justice sometimes required the use of force to balance competing interests and prevent abuses of power whether abroad or at home.

By 1940-41 then as he gave his Gifford lectures at Edinburgh to the sound of Luftwaffe bombing raids, Niebuhr had arrived at a Christian realist political perspective, a view he would maintain in its essentials for the rest of his life. After a number of twists and turns his ideological journey from a youthful liberal idealism to a more grounded political realism was largely complete reflecting on the disorders of his age and drawing on a wide range of Christian thinkers, Kierkegaard, Calvin, Luther, above all Augustine, Niebuhr had joined the ranks of neo-orthodox theologians determined to throw a classical biblical understanding of sin and transcendence back in the face of modern pretensions. The events of his time it seemed had refuted all utopian illusions whether liberal, Marxist, secular, or religious, based as they were upon a commonly over-optic over-optimistic faith in human nature and political progress.

The heated debate over pacifism and intervention had given his thoughts on international relations, in particular their mature and developed form it remained to reconstruct a more realistic Christian political ethic from the ground up, with such a reorientation he thought us foreign policy could be guided through the twin rocks of naive idealism on the one hand and self-defeating cynicism on the other. So, Niebuhr viewed an accurate and explicit portrait of human nature as the crucial foundation for any theory of international relations, by the way this would be considered unacceptable today, in this sense he was what Kenneth Waltz would have called a first image rather than a second or third image thinker. Niebuhr’s starting point was neither the role of domestic structure so central to progressive thought nor international anarchy emphasized by academic realists but human nature itself. Niebuhr was an unusual foil to idealists also and that his anthropology the 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 master work the nature and destiny of man.

Radically limited power radically limited in power and knowledge but inclined to self-reflection he argued, capable of both altruistic and brutally selfish acts, aware of the transcendent yet somehow unable to capture it, for Niebuhr this compound of spirit and nature and not our reason or virtue as such is what makes us 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 should be taken seriously. According to that tradition 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 human dignity and also our unique human misery. To acknowledge both our limits and our responsibility in the faith that there is a purpose behind the ambiguity of this 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’s 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 neighbor’s view was so effective in unmasking the self-serving or ideological taint of all culture ended in what Niebuhr called 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 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 therefore refutes all utopian theories of international politics that deny the cyclical nature of progress and decay in human for neighbor if human beings are not essentially harmless and reasonable neither are they as Machiavelli suggested entirely ungrateful, fickle, false, cowards, instead they are potentially, residually, just, loving creatures caught in a condition of anxiety corrupted not only by their own base or 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 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.

And I’m very conscious that I’m the only thing stopping you from lunch, so I want to ask how much how much time do we have left? Five minutes? Okay. So, I’ll just say a little bit more.

During World War II, Niebuhr then takes this approach and uses it to justify forceful U.S. intervention against the Axis powers and also to put it within a moral context, and he talks about what he called the children of light versus the children of darkness. And by that he does not mean that in reality human beings are divided into the entirely good and the entirely evil, he meant that Americans needed to avoid the error of either being overly naïve as the children of light are or overly cynical as the children of darkness are. In fact, he thought that the fascist powers were the closest to pure cynicism and that American liberals were the closest to naive idealism. Looking toward post-war engagements he was initially hopeful that a concert of powers might be possible with the Soviet Union and others, but he was quickly disabused of this, and he then came to the conclusion, as he had in 1940, that it was legitimate to resist tyranny. His personal understanding of Marxism was very useful in this having gone through a Marxist phase himself he understood Marxism well, and he joined with Truman democrats, center-left democrats, in the late 40s to form what was known as the vital center against progressives and figures like Henry Wallace. He supported the creation of cold war commitments under a framework of containment hoping for creative possibilities through the use of what we would call soft power but also ultimately relying on hard power against the likes of Stalin. But he did come to be disturbed by a pattern of U.S. foreign policy, beginning with the Korean war and even more so in Vietnam which he saw as examples of American over-extension, Americans forgetting the limitations on American knowledge American virtue, and American power.

So, he became a critic of what he considered cold war excess insofar as it represented a denial of limitations. And that’s also quite consistent with his image of human nature as it had been hammered out by the 1940s, Americans aren’t perfect, no nation is, Americans are human, and they make mistakes, and this applies to our foreign policy as well. It’s that Niebuhr who’s most remembered by isolationists today but remember that Niebuhr himself was not one of them, he believed in a measured realistic foreign policy approach neither burying our head in the sand nor overextending American capabilities his basis for was a clear understanding of human nature we are all limited but at the same time he said that that very same fact of original sin requires us to be realistic about what will and will not work in international relations he actually joked that original sin was the one aspect of his approach that could be empirically proven on a daily basis and yet seemed most controversial with his progressive friends.

Yes, selfless Christian compassion is a virtue that is relevant in international relations, but when it comes to the political arena the operative virtue he recommended is justice, and given human nature, given original sin, justice can sometimes only be maintained through a balance of power whether domestic or international. When we face circumstances that involve relative injustice, we are justified he thought. Whatever our known moral limitations in resisting injustice and in the end, there are circumstances when this can only be done by force. Thank you.


So maybe a little bit of time for questions. Or lunch.

Questioner: So, I’ve been tasked, well first of all my name’s Alex, and I’ve been tasked with reading a book on Niebuhr and Christian ethics this semester. And so my question kind of comes at the intersection of I guess, I would say the passage of Matthew 28, to verses 18 through 20. And that is the passage where Jesus is instructing his disciples to go into the nation, so make disciples, baptize and teach them to obey, and so in that and after reading Niebuhr, I guess my question kind of lies at what are some characteristics of Niebuhr or others who were once pacifist but then either like read that, or were entertaining the idea of not being pacifist but sticking to what the Bible had to say?

Colin Dueck: Thank you, yeah. Yeah this is, this is one of the things I’ve always found most interesting about Niebuhr, is that having been brought up in an environment where he was taught the virtues of peace right, and then as he starts to tackle the problems of international politics it takes him decades to get to this point, actually he goes through a period first domestically where he’s working in Detroit as a pastor where a lot of his parishioners are working class they work in car factories, Henry Ford’s shops, and he Niebuhr goes through a Marxist phase because he rejects a strictly peaceful approach to politics domestically. And then he eventually applies it over the course of the 1930s to international politics and comes the conclusion that a strictly peaceful approach to the subject simply isn’t going to work nor is it even moral right, that the only way in the end to preserve moral goods at the international level worth protecting is through abandoning a strict pacifism. So the fact that he actually went through that himself he didn’t begin where he ended, the fact that he actuallyunderstood both a pacifist approach and a Marxist approach and then rejected both of them having thought it through himself, I think in the end gave his conclusions more weight, more substance, made it more personal, and forced him to think very hard through these issuesso that his final world view was solid. Thank you.

Questioner: Hello my name is Emily. I graduated fromWheaton College. I was very interested inyourthreecategorizations of pride, the pride ofpower, knowledge, and morality. When you

spoke of the pride of power I was reminded of the idea of the United States being perceived as kind of a global hegemon whether militarily or economically. And in that sense, I was curious if you think the United States is perhaps guilty of the pride of power? And then if so, if the United States is perceived as a hegemon and that creates that a delicate if incomplete balance of power

are we then responsible for maintaining peace through that balance of power?

Colin Dueck: Great yeah, that’s a great question. Well, I don’t think there’s any doubt about how Niebuhr would answer that, he would say absolutely the United States like because it is made up of human beings is prone to the sin of pride and including pride of power. And he warned Americans even while they were fighting the Axis which probably many of us in this room would think it was the ultimate good cause he said beware of pride of power, pride of virtue, pride of knowledge so he absolutely would answer your question by saying yes, we certainly are prone to that. That pride of power and that always means that there’s it’s as if there’s a check or a balance or a voice on your shoulder warning you saying you know show some humility, show some self-awareness right, don’t be subject to these overweening pride. But at the same time that’s the essence of neighbors to try to strike that balance and to say at the same time to think that the answer is simply to flee and to sort of go run into a cave and just read and stay pure and stay out of worldly affairs altogether is actually to leave everything outside of that cave to the bad guys, and that’s the nature of international politics. There are some regimes out there whether it’s Nazi Germany, the Soviet Union you can think of more than one today, that really are insidious, they are aggressive, they are authoritarian, they are tyrannical, and so Niebuhr was very consistent on that as well, if we just leave the field to them out of the desire to maintain our own moral purity that is not even a moral form of behavior it’s impractical for sure, but it’s also unethical in a way because it leaves millions of victims to the tender verses of these regimes right. So I think that balance that’s the heart of neighbor’s thought really and you just got at it in your question the heart of his thought is how do we strike that balance we have to be constantly thinking about and earnestly working towards striking that balance between on the one hand not overestimating ourselves, being aware of our own limitations, trying to avoid pride of power or any other form of pride, on the other hand resisting tyranny when we must.  Final question. Yes.

Questioner: Hi. Brett Brown from Wheaton College.I was wondering can you begin to talk

a little bit about this at the end just in how does academic realism often as we’re seeing it today, and then not exactly you know centering those understandings in original sin, how does

that limit what can be gleaned from that perspective?

Colin Dueck: Yeah now you’re talking my language. So it used to be the case during Niebuhr’s lifetime that even many secular realists felt comfortable talking about human nature textbooks, Hans Morgenthau was not writing from a Christian realist point of view, but that was the standard textbook for students in international politics in the mid you know 1950s-60s, and he talked about human nature. He said look, you have to have a realistic understanding of human nature in order to understand world politics, excuse me. What’s happened over the years I think particularly beginning in the 1960s there was a trend toward being uncomfortable recognizing that there is such a thing as human nature, right. So, the tendency with the social sciences and the humanities since the 60s has been to deny that there is any such thing and that it’s just socially constructed. So, if it’s socially constructed it’s not helpful to talk about human nature you just talk about the norms, the institutions that shape being human beings in different in different cultures. Academic realists unfortunately gave into this trend, they might sound hard-nosed but in reality, they went in a direction of no longer talking about human beings as flawed creatures. rather academic realists since the 1970s and 80s have gone in the direction of what’s called structural realism or neo-realism which just emphasizes the fact that there’s a structure to the system internationally that is anarchic, and that in that anarchy no overarching power exists to keep the peace. And that’s a useful insight you can get something out of that for sure you can get quite a bit out of it, but there’s no mention in there of what human beings are. And I think it was Madison who says I’m going to be mangling his phrase but something along the lines of if men were angels, no government would be necessary, well similarly at the international level if human beings were angelic, anarchy wouldn’t be a problem right. It’s because of who we are that anarchy is a problem. So Kenneth Waltz who was one of the brilliant thinkers who instituted this unfortunate trend then focused on anarchy and moved away from talking about human nature and that’s what’s happened. There are actually some interesting people knocking around who draw from for example evolutionary psychology to talk about human nature, they’re not necessarily Christian, but they do ground their understanding in evolutionary psychology, but for the most part it’s dropped out entirely and I think it’s unrealistic for the reasons we’re discussing.