Just War, Traditionalism, and Realism

The "realism" school of foreign policy—formerly called "realpolitik"—is contrary to the traditional understanding of just wars.

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Lord Darlington is a classic English gentleman of the old school, decent and honorable and well-meaning…And international affairs should never be run by gentlemen amateurs…The days when you could just act out of your noble instincts are over. Europe has become the arena of realpolitik…And what you need is not gentlemen politicians but real ones. You need professionals.

That brief speech, not found in Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day but added into the movie based upon it, epitomizes its caricature of an old order whose fictional representative, Lord Darlington, is a well-meaning dolt duped by the Nazis, who menaced Europe because professional politicians imposed a draconian peace at Versailles and then refused to make the sacrifices of fighting an altruistic war while Hitler was still weak—who failed to act in the spirit of Darlington’s response:

What you describe as amateurism is what I think most of us here still prefer to call honor. And I suggest that your professionalism means greed and power rather than to see justice and goodness prevail in the world.

With the term “realpolitik” generally held in deserved opprobrium, its advocates now use “realism”—which has the benign connotation of foreign policy as the art of the realistically possible. After over a century of foreign policies guided by false ideologies, from the hostility to traditional monarchal and aristocratic government euphemistically termed “making the world safe for democracy” to the radical extremes of social liberalism, realists’ professions of “traditionalist conservatism” increase the attractiveness of what is actually a negation of traditionalist conservative political morality—a school of thought which replaces false principles not with true ones but with amoral materialistic pragmatism.

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Agreeing with classical ethics and Christian theology, Edmund Burke insisted that “the principles of true politics are those of morality enlarged.” After all caveats are made, foreign policy must still be grounded primarily on moral considerations—on determining how a nation can realistically pursue goodness and justice—rather than material national interests. If self-destruction in pursuit of chimeras will not aid the cause of worldwide justice, some sacrifice of national interest in that cause is usually legitimate and at times a moral obligation. Just war principles are clear on this.

Summarizing traditional Catholic teaching in a 1960 article for The American Political Science Review, Jesuit Fr. Joseph McKenna stressed that “assessment [of whether the good to be achieved outweighs the harm] must be made in terms of moral rather than material gains and losses”—so much so that “In extreme cases the moral value of national martyrdom may compensate for the material destruction of unsuccessful war.” Justifications for war in the Catholic Encyclopedia include “the need of punishing the threatening or infringing power,” “oppression of the innocent, whose unjust suffering is proportionate to the gravity of war and whom it is impossible to rescue in any other way,” and “request of another state in peril.”

Such doctrines take to a higher level the prioritization of moral principle over earthly life found in the Church’s traditional teaching on capital punishment. For certain grave crimes, capital punishment may be used as an act of vindictive justice—to inflict harm on the offender as (imperfect) compensation for the harm the offender has caused, even if repeat offenses can be prevented through life imprisonment. Innocent soldiers can be sent to fight and die in wars inflicting vindictive justice upon offending nations.

While the Catholic Encyclopedia teaches that securing justice for others through altruistic wars is just, and common sense tells us it is noble, what is neither a necessary precondition nor a justification for war is “national interest”—a material consideration rather than a moral one. Even when fighting injustices detrimental to national interests, it is the injustice alone which makes use of force legitimate. If national interests are threatened only by morally permissible actions of other nations, only peaceful means can be used in opposition—and going to war under such circumstances is among the offenses for which a nation can rightly be punished with vindictive justice. While securing justice for others through altruistic wars is just, and common sense tells us it is noble, what is neither a necessary precondition nor a justification for war is a material consideration rather than a moral one. Tweet This

Realism diametrically opposed this, replacing moral considerations with Otto von Bismarck’s materialist belief that “it is unworthy of a great state to dispute over something which does not concern its interests.” Comparing the opinions of two critics of Winston Churchill admirably demonstrates the depths to which realism sinks. 

At the beginning of Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honor trilogy, alter ego Crouchback is eager to fight in World War II because: “The enemy at last was plain in view, huge and hateful, all disguise cast off. It was the Modern Age in arms. Whatever the outcome there was a place for him in that battle.” He ends, like Waugh, disillusioned—not because the war failed to serve British interests but because the Western Allies sellout of Eastern Europe to communism and promotion of leftist policies at home convinced him that, despite saving some parts of the world from tremendous evil, the war as a whole was not the noble crusade he had signed up for.

Pat Buchanan took a very different position in Churchill, Hitler, and the Unnecessary War—arguing that since Britain “had no vital interests in Eastern Europe to justify war to the death” it should not have allied with Poland against Nazi Germany, should not have fought the noble war for principle of which Crouchback and his creator wished to be a part. Predictably enough, Buchanan favors a compromise end to the Russian-Ukrainian War on the grounds that Vladimir Putin is “looking out to preserve Russia as the great and respected power it once was and he believes it can be again.” 

But while that goal can be morally legitimate, it is not a moral right and cannot justify war. Putin’s initiation of an unjust war makes him precisely the sort of aggressor whom the Catholic Encyclopedia teaches ought to be restrained and punished, even at the material costs of war. That cannot be changed by the fact that America has also, at times, started wars unjustly.

Historically, realism has been disastrous. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Catholic monarchs of Europe’s rival leading powers—France and the Habsburg dynasty (branches of which ruled both Austria and Spain)—consistently put interest above religious principles. Each allied with Protestant governments and supported Protestant rebellions within their rival’s borders. Spread of Protestantism and persecution of Catholics was the inevitable result. 

In one particularly egregious case, Spain’s King Philip II took steps to assure that England’s Catholic Queen Mary Tudor would be succeeded by her Protestant half sister Elizabeth rather than Catholic Mary Stuart—Queen of Scots, senior legitimate heir to England’s King Henry VII and wife of France’s Dauphin. Some French rulers sunk even lower, encouraging and aiding the Muslim Ottoman Empire’s brutal invasions of Austrian Habsburg territories.

The revolutions of more recent centuries have benefited from the same preference for interest over principle. In the 1790s, Spain was rule by a branch of the French Royal House of Bourbon—who allied with a revolutionary France that had beheaded and imprisoned their relatives against the First and Second Coalitions. Examples could be multiplied, but I doubt any is as poignant.

Edmund Burke would be appalled that some claiming to be his heirs reject “morality enlarged” in favor of sordid power politics, condemning wars to secure justice for others, compromising with perpetrators of injustice provided interest is the mutual goal—as if determined to prove he correctly assessed the state of the world when he lamented that “The age of chivalry is gone; that of sophisters, economists, and calculators has succeeded, and the glory of Europe is extinguished.”


  • James Baresel

    James Baresel is a freelance writer. Publications for which he has written include Tudor Life, Catholic World Report, American History, Fine Art Connoisseur, Military History, Catholic Herald, Claremont Review of Books, Adoremus Bulletin, New Eastern Europe and America’s Civil War.

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