Essays & Reviews

Paul D. Miller on Niebuhr & Contemporary Realism

During the run-up to the 2008 presidential campaign, Barack Obama cited the influence of Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr on his own thinking. This presumably included Niebuhr’s views on foreign policy – so-called Christian realism, which coincided with the strategic (Nicholas Spykman), diplomatic (George Kennan), academic (Hans Morgenthau) and journalistic (Walter Lippmann) views of “realism” that were circulating in intellectual and policy circles. Niebuhr rejected the notion that Christianity mandated pacifism in the face of tyranny (he supported World War II and resistance to Soviet communism, but opposed the Vietnam War). His views remain a source of inspiration and contention, specifically when it comes to the promotion of democracy.

Paul D. Miller, Associate director at the Clements Center for History, Strategy, and Statecraft at the University of Texas at Austin, reviews the current debate over Niebuhr’s legacy, particularly his well-known admonitions against self-righteousness and utopian idealism. Miller contends that the focus on this aspect of Niebuhr’s thought by many contemporary realists ignores full range of his arguments about democracy and the limits of the balance of power (vice justice) as an element in maintaining international order.

Miller cites Niebuhr’s most Notable Book, The Irony of American History, his most popular work, but also the extensive comments on democracy in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness: A Vindication of Democracy and a Critique of Its Traditional Defense(1944).