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.

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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.

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