Christian Realism in Foreign Policy: Kenneth Thompson Remembered

Ethical or normative reasoning in the study of politics has gone the way of the dinosaur.  The endless—and seemingly fruitless—quest to place the study of politics onto a more “socially scientific” footing has led to an arid literature of little to no relevance for those engaged in foreign policy.

What we need today is a return to conservative normative and philosophic approaches nurtured in Christian and Catholic traditions to the study and practice of international relations.  These approaches faded away in the academy in the mid-1960s, but are now more than ever needed to inform policy in a perilous world.  It would be beneficial to look back to glean the wisdom of the past in order to harness it anew.  One of the first intellectual stops should be the work of recently deceased University of Virginia professor Kenneth Thompson, 91, who pioneered in the United States the study of Christian realism.

Power Drives All Politics
Americans today are bombarded over our airways with overly loud and ideologically driven punditry that masquerades as “news” so we may be forgiven for missing the core essence of politics.  Not so for Thompson and his intellectual mentor, the great political scientist Hans J. Morgenthau.  It was Thompson who was asked by a book publisher after Morgenthau’s death to revise the latter’s masterwork Politics Among Nations.  Thompson, as Morgenthau’s former research assistant at the University of Chicago and later faculty colleague, took on the task with some trepidation.

In that book, which still stands as the classic volume on normative political realism, Morgenthau and Thompson cut through all the grand standing and antics of politicians to show that “International politics, like all politics, is a struggle for power.  Whatever the ultimate aims of international politics, power is always the immediate aim.”  These classical realists saw innate in the human condition the drive for power and influence whether in personal and family relationships, in the town or work place, in local and national government and even in the Catholic church’s hierarchy, and, above all, in relations between nation-states.

Military power is a critically important component of national power on the international stage, but it is only one of many kinds of power.  “Power may comprise anything that established and maintains the control of man over man.  Thus power covers all social relationships which serve that end, from physical violence to the most subtle psychological ties by which one mind controls another.” Many commentators today have come to use “soft power” as a shorthand expression to capture these multi-faceted dimensions of power, but it was not because Thompson and Morgenthau had not thought of them first.

In order to preserve national autonomies and prevent coming under the domination of any one nation-state or group of states, classical realists look to the balance of power to deter war.  And should deterrence fail, they look to balances of power to restrict the scope, duration, and destruction of war.  Gone are the days in American political discourse when we talk of managing the international balance of power.  It has been replaced by hubris that the United States remains as the sole superpower as neo-conservatives and liberals alike loudly preach.  Americans avert from open, candid, and public square discussions of balance of power as a centerpiece of foreign policy seeing it as beneath them.  But we neglect the stark reality—and political genius—that American democracy is founded on balance of powers between the executive, legislative, and judicial branches of government.

Christian Ethics Temper Power Politics
Talk of religious values and God today are either taboo or too often used merely as political rhetoric, especially by Democratic liberal politicians who claim to be Catholic.  But genuine, heart-felt morals informed by faith in God were central to Thompson’s teaching and writing.  He and Morgenthau boldly reached into the Bible—both Old and New Testaments—to glean political and ethical wisdom on the use and abuse of power.  “From the Bible to the ethics and constitutional arrangements of modern democracy, the main function of these normative systems has been to keep aspirations for power within socially tolerable bounds.”

The pursuit and use of power governed by ethics is a hallmark of Christian realism.  Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr was the most significant Christian realist thinker or—as Thompson often and fondly referred to him—the “father of us all.”  Thompson wrote in Schools of Thought in International Relations that Niebuhr “understood that in politics as in life, with hard choices following one another in rapid succession, we seldom have simple choices between good and evil.  More often, the choice is between lesser evils or relative goods.”

Far too many universities and colleges today offer social science courses dealing with topics like gender, race, and sexuality at the expense of the classics in Western civilization.  Thompson, in opposition to “political correctness,” was eager to study, learn, and share the ideas of great past thinkers.  He strenuously argued in Traditions and Values in Politics and Diplomacy that “it is logical even today to study Greek political philosophy because Plato and Aristotle dealt with human nature with its recurrent ambitions and drives and with the problems growing out of man’s relations with other men.”  Christian realists saw the root of the evil in all men in his self-love or pride, or what we Catholics call “original sin” and gave homage to St. Augustine “who fashioned a view of the state and society that to the present day we characterize as political realism, or Christian realism.”  Thompson in Masters of International Thought saw that the insight from scholars such as Sir Herbert Butterfield, Father John Courtney Murray, Walter Lippmann, and George Kennan stemmed from their linking the study of international relations to political philosophy.  Thompson lamented in Schools of Thought in International Relations that the modern academy “suffers from aimless and random experimentation and fascination with anything that is novel” while dismissing philosophy that has stood the test of time.

Contemporary political scientists are infatuated with theoretical attempts to model using quantifiable statistics and to predict political behavior to mirror what economists do with their econometric models.  They are wielding an ever-increasing inventory of esoteric methodologies that are impenetrable to any literate layman.  Thompson would have none of that and always wrote clearly and directly, and expected the same of his students.  He often quoted former Secretary of State Dean Rusk—who was president of the Rockefeller Foundation when Thompson was a vice president there—who derogatively referred to political science’s jargon as “talky talk.”  As an antidote to the poisonous academic writing, Thompson instructed his students to read, study, and try to write the style of prose found in the fine British magazine The Economist.

Christian Realism to Guide American Foreign Policy
French Prime Minister Georges Clemenceau famously quipped that war is too important to be left to generals.  Thompson thought politics too important to be left to the politicians and statesmen.  He recognized even before the onslaught of globalization and instantaneous and constant communication that foreign policy makers were overwhelmed by information.  Thompson had empathy for the demands of policy makers crushed by deadlines, information overload, and uncertainty.  Foreign policy makers needed the international relation theory of Christian realism to help them distinguish the significant from the trivial.  Realism holds a body of principles or “rules-of-thumb” to help foreign policy makers plot secure courses with tools of power, diplomacy, war, balances of power, and statecraft.

Thompson was chagrined by the outright dismissal and contempt that he saw among academic colleagues for those laboring in the halls of government struggling to tackle real-world problems.  Foreign policy makers reciprocated and largely dismissed the work of scholars.  Thompson was a rare man who ably navigated between worldly affairs and the academy.  He was muddied by the world serving in the military as part of the great World War II generation that gave him more than a glimpse of life on the battlefield.  He also had a deep sense of American patriotism that drove his Christian realist convictions.  His was not the “chest beating, wrap yourself in the flag” chauvinism, but instead it was the quiet, dignified, and steady love of country and commitment to protect and defend it.  Because Thompson respected both academics and policy makers, both looked at him with suspicion.  As he once remarked to me in passing, he never felt entirely at home in either realm.

The perennial question for many is whether to pursue a life in world affairs or secluded in scholarship.  For Thompson, the answer was yes to both because he saw the choice as a false one.  As Thompson wrote in arguably one of his best books, Political Realism and the Crisis of World Politics, “In political theory in general, at least in Western civilization, and in the theory of international politics in particular, the lasting contributions have come from men who resisted the fateful divorce of theory from practice.”

At a time of increasing militant secularism, atheism, and infringement on religious liberty under the Obama administration, too many Americans forget—or never knew—that our country is founded on a political culture that balances faith and reason.  As Thompson reminded us in Traditions and Values in Politics and Diplomacy, “American democracy is saved from the excesses of each of its constituent sources by a fortunate confluence of the two traditions.  The classical tradition is more disposed to view politics as a practical endeavor in which politicians must cope with variant and changing forces in the interest of justice.  It is philosophy and religion that provide the invariant principles and the forces that affect the broad social and political environment.”  The institutional separation of church and state while at the same time fusing of faith and reason in political culture would seem to offer fertile ground for democracy.

American foreign policy today is in a state of confusion and disarray because it permeated with the Enlightenment philosophic belief that mankind is on a steady march toward perfection through technological advancement and democratization.  We dismiss Augustine’s warnings about the affects of pride and “original sin,” which lies as the bedrock for Christian realism.  It is ironic that in time of political polarization that has caused profound governmental paralysis, both Democrats and Republicans share a blind and enthusiastic commitment to promoting democracy abroad—not to promoting balances of power—as the best means of securing world peace.  Both parties are guilty of subjecting American foreign policy to pitfalls of “moralism.”  Thompson warned in Morality and Foreign Policy that “Moralism is the tendency to make one moral value supreme and to apply it indiscriminately without regard to time and place; morality, by comparison, is the endless quest for what is right amidst the complexity of competing and sometimes conflicting, sometimes compatible, moral ends.”  Prudence, “the wise application of the principles of justice to the contingencies of interest and power in political life,” needs to hold sway over moralism.  Otherwise, the moralism from which we suffer is bound to fail because we simply do not have the power to export democracy at the expense of more acute and vital national interests.

Beyond his role in the vanguard of Christian political realism in the United States, another of Thompson’s legacies was his character of kindness, decency, patience, manners, temperance, and prudence that he extended to one and all, especially his students.  Some twenty years ago, I sat across from Thompson at his desk at the Miller Center of Public Affairs at the University of Virginia that he directed for two decades.  He shared with me an approach to people he learned from his earlier career as a vice president at the Rockefeller Foundation.  He said that he always tried to put himself into the shoes of the person who was sitting on the other side of the desk.  And that was Ken Thompson’s gift—he always gave each and every one their just due.  Very few of us today take the time to do to others as we would like done to us as we endlessly toil to embellish our own egos, prestige, and reputations for power.  Thompson tamed his human drive for power and carried-on in his own Christian way as a scholar in pursuit of political wisdom and as gentlemen in an era of growing incivility.  As a society, we need to relearn the wisdom of Christian realism to improve our well being both at home and abroad.

Richard L. Russell


Richard L. Russell is Non-Resident Senior Fellow for Strategic Studies at the Center for the National Interest. A Catholic convert, Russell holds a Ph.D. in Foreign Affairs from the University of Virginia and specializes in foreign policy and international security. He is the author of three books: Sharpening Strategic Intelligence (Cambridge University Press); Weapons Proliferation and War in the Greater Middle East (Routledge); and, George F. Kennan’s Strategic Thought (Praeger). Follow him on Twitter @DrRLRussell.

  • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

    “Why forego the advantages of so peculiar a situation?–Why quit our own to stand upon foreign ground?–Why by interweaving our destiny with that of any part of Europe, entangle our peace and prosperity in the toils of European ambition, rivalship, interest, humour or caprice?” -George Washington

    “Over grown military establishments are under any form of government inauspicious to liberty, and are to be regarded as particularly hostile to republican liberty.” -George Washington

    “’Tis our true policy to steer clear of permanent alliances with any portion of the foreign world.” -John Quincy Adams

    “Americans should not go abroad to slay dragons they do not understand in the name of spreading democracy.” -John Quincy Adams

    Peace, commerce and honest friendship with all nations entangling alliances with none.” -Thomas Jefferson

    End of story.

    • ace

      Oh come now… Let’s be a little realistic: The thoughts of our forebears ultimately developed into the Monroe Doctrine which was in part coded self-interest or an attempt at a self-preservation balance of powers against further colonialism by European nations (when we were still too weak militarily to defend ourselves). Still, when it suited us, we looked the other way when filibusters like William Walker later tried to conquer countries in Latin America or, earlier, when we wanted to expand our land territory beyond the original 13 colonies…

      • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

        And that was wrong.

  • ace

    I like this article, and yet, its analysis seems a little incomplete. For example, you talk about the blind spot problem when both political parties promote democracy abroad, something which is true enough, but fail to mention the other end of what Thomas P. M. Barnett calls globalization’s bell shaped curve, namely obsessing over terrorists. I would be curious to see how you apply “balance of powers” and other ideas of realism to the problem of terrorism (both to the supply side issue that we can’t kill them or contain them faster than our enemies can recruit them and to the other problem of the diffusion of terrorism which doesn’t answer to a specific authority).

    • Richard L. Russell

      You raise some excellent points. Thank you. The classical realist sees terrorist groups and insurgencies as other manifestations of struggles for power both inside and across nation-states. Classical or normative realists, moreover, argue that notwithstanding the significance of trans-national terrorism, the pinnacle of power in the international system still lies in the nation-state. And that’s why al Qaeda has aimed in the past to topple states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and today in Pakistan.

    • Lt. William J. Lawler II, M.Ed

      Especially when we are recruiting, arming, training, and creating the “terrorists” who later turn against us and are attempting to thwart our attempt to exert our “balance of power” over sovereign peoples in foreign lands. The analysis fails to take into consideration that we must crush those who would dare to resist the colonial imperialism of the American Empire. But what do I know, I just have advanced degrees in history and political science and am only a military intelligence & counter terrorism officer with first hand field experience.

  • ace

    Please explain: How is Thompson’s definition of morality as “the endless quest for what is right amidst the complexity of competing and sometimes conflicting, sometimes compatible, moral ends” different from “moral relativism” or “situation ethics”?

    Adam Smith, a member of the Scottish Moralists or Scottish Moral Philosophers believed that individual competition would lead to collective cooperation by an “invisible hand”, yet we realistically live in a world where the playing fields are not level and the hubris of economic expediency tends to dominate.

    Do we still agree with Adam Smith’s concept of sympathy espoused in “The Theory of Moral Sentiments”:

    “How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it. Of this kind is pity or compassion, the emotion we feel for the misery of others, when we either see it, or are made to conceive it in a very lively manner. That we often derive sorrow from the sorrows of others, is a matter of fact too obvious to require any instances to prove it; for this sentiment, like all the other original passions of human nature, is by no means confined to the virtuous or the humane, though they perhaps may feel it with the most exquisite sensibility. The greatest ruffian, the most hardened violator of the laws of society, is not altogether without it.”

    Or, was Adam Smith too much a man of his time and unable to conceive of a world in which some people are without a conscience or their conscience is so badly formed that the only connection with others which they can see or imagine is with others of their own group?

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  • baileylamb

    Did you forget Iraq? We just had a war based on a group of people’s Christian values. Is it somehow different because they weren’t catholic?

  • WSquared

    Mr. Russell, thank you for this article, which I find mostly sound in the basic points it wishes to advance. But given your emphasis on philosophy and then your point that this country’s political culture is founded on a tradition of faith and reason, something is niggling at me, and I think it’s this: namely, faith in what? What do Americans, then as now, even mean by “God”? Also, being Christian and calling one’s self a Christian is highly contingent on what one means by “following Jesus Christ,” itself contingent upon who one even knows Christ to be.

    I think this is an important question that we don’t seem to be considering; and Ross Douthat and Brad Gregory have recently addressed it with good reason: it’s all very well and good to say that one has faith in God, but faith in God becomes fatuous when one thinks one is free to make God in one’s own image and when we think that God signs off on whatever incoherence we care to advance in the name of justice, freedom, and love (and we all know how true this is whenever we presume that the love of Christ is merely therapeutic, and means never having to admit that one has sinned, because that would mean “judging” when we should “judge not,” etc. This also applies whenever we think we can divorce charity from truth in the name of “social justice” and “helping the poor”).

    Furthermore, one has to consider the impact that the Enlightenment had on the faith-and-reason calculus, namely what one means by reason as well as what one means by God. Does religious faith being personal mean that it is merely private, or does it have a public dimension, also? Whether or not one believes that faith and reason go together because the one is enlightened by the other, thereby broadening and deepening the horizons of both matters. I think it is furthermore worth pointing out that Christianity in America– and any faith-and-reason tradition it might have– has its roots not in Roman Catholicism, but in the Protestant Reformation, which has separated faith from reason, because the Reformers thought that philosophy had overcomplicated and polluted faith. That was not their intention, but that’s what resulted.

    You correctly write: “American foreign policy today is in a state of confusion and disarray
    because it permeated with the Enlightenment philosophic belief that mankind is on a steady march toward perfection through technological advancement and democratization,” but it is important for us to note that these same Enlightenment presumptions have infiltrated much of Christianity in America, if only because far too many Americans in general tend to see technological advancement and democratization as somehow unproblematic, and we have to ask ourselves what allowed Christianity in this country to cede that sort of ground in the first place, which I admit is a complex question. But looking at the way Americans calling themselves Christian engage with the issue of abortion might provide us with some working clues. For Christian realism to have anything to offer, Christians must first know what they mean by “Christianity.”

    “Talk of religious values and God today are either taboo or too often used merely as political rhetoric, especially by Democratic liberal politicians who claim to be Catholic.”

    Yes, wholeheartedly agreed, but this is also equally true of any politician, active or armchair, of any party or non-party stripe, who thinks that the United States is somehow chosen by God, and that what God wants is equivalent to what the United States wants. That’s a religious-cum-ideological tendency that has a long history in this country, too, and perhaps one of the reasons why talk of religious values and God today are taboo is because far too often, political rhetoric and reducing religious faith and values to bourgeois respectability presents people with a myriad of temptations and false gods. And Catholics in America have long felt the pressure to “fit in”: fitting into a cultural and political milieu that is
    mostly Protestant, whereby their Catholicism is merely incidental, and
    secondary to being an Ordinary American. And if I recall correctly, Leo XIII had more than a thing to two to say about the heresy of “Americanism.”

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