The Relevance of Christian Realism to the Twenty-First Century

Document Type


Publication Date

January 2008




The Christian realists who made such a significant contribution to international relations theory in the twentieth century did so in a particular context. Specifically, Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971), George Kennan (1904–2005), Martin Wight (1913–72), and Herbert Butterfield (1900–79) wrote in response to several long-term trends and events that shaped decisively their world during their lifetime.These developments included the apogee and demise of an optimistic Victorian liberalism predicated on human perfectibility, the inevitability of progress, and the feasibility of abolishing war through free trade, education, and science; the shattering of this confident worldview by two cataclysmic world wars, Nazism, and the Holocaust; the subsequent division of European civilization into two ideologically hostile camps armed with nuclear weapons; the long cold war under the shadow of mutual assured destruction, the end of which only George Kennan lived to see; and the beginnings of the transformation of a Western-dominated world into a multicultural global civilization. It is legitimate to ask how relevant the insights of these Christian realist thinkers are to the world of the early twenty-first century. My answer is that, in spite of the different outlines of our contemporary world and the fresh nature of some of the problems we face, Christian realism continues to offer compelling insights.