OJPS  Vol.4 No.1 , January 2014
The Realist of Distances: Reinhold Niebuhr and the “Great Debates” in IR
Author(s) Luca G. Castellin*

During the Twentieth century, Reinhold Niebuhr was not only an important public intellectual but also a seminal thinker in IR. His prophetic voice echoed in the American culture from the Thirties until the Sixties and beyond. At the same time, statesmen and public opinion found in his political theory an essential contribute both for reflection and action. However, the protestant theologian suffered a harsh contrast by scholars, in particular by the positivist ones. This article analyses the path of Niebuhr’s international political thought across the Great Debates of IR. From the First mythical debate until the last and still open one, it examines the role of Niebuhr’s Christian realism in the development of the discipline. By using Flannery O’Connor’s concept of realist of distances, this essay tries to prove how Niebuhr was able to anticipate and, what’s more, exceed all debates.


Cite this paper
Castellin, L. (2014) The Realist of Distances: Reinhold Niebuhr and the “Great Debates” in IR. Open Journal of Political Science, 4, 31-38. doi: 10.4236/ojps.2014.41005.
[1]   Ashworth, L. M. (2002). Did the realist-idealist great debate really happen? A revisionist history of international relations. International Relations, 16, 33-51.

[2]   Bell, D. (2008). Introduction: Under an empty sky-realism and political theory. In D. Bell (Eds.), Political thought and international relations. Variations on a realist theme (pp. 2-21). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[3]   Bentley, M. (2011). The life and thought of Herbert Butterfield. History, science and god. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[4]   Brown, C. (1992). International relations theory: New normative approaches. New York: Columbia University Press.

[5]   Brown, C. (1997). Understanding international relations. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

[6]   Brown, C., Nardin, T., & Rengger N. (2002). International relations in political thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[7]   Brunner, E. (1956). Some remarks on reinhold niebuhr’s work as a christian thinker. In C. W. Kegley, & R. W. Bretall (Eds.), Reinhold Niebuhr. His religious, social, and political thought (pp. 27-33). New York: MacMillan.

[8]   Bull, H. (1966). International theory: The case for a classical approach. World Politics, 18, 361-377.

[9]   Bundy, M. (1963). Foreign policy: From innocence to engagement. In A. M. Schlesinger, & M. White (Eds.), Paths of american thought (pp. 293-308). Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

[10]   Carr, E. H. (1939). The twenty years’ crisis 1919-1939. An introduction to the study of international relations. London: MacMillan.

[11]   Cochran, M. (1999). Normative theory in international relations: A pragmatic approach. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[12]   Curtis, S., & Koivisto, M. (2010). Towards a second “second debate”? Rethinking the relationship between science and history in international theory. International Relations, 24, 433-455.

[13]   Diggings, J. P. (2011). Why niebuhr now? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

[14]   Donnelly, J. (2000). Realism and international relations. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[15]   Dunne, T. (1998). Inventing international society. A history of the English school. Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan.

[16]   Easton, D. (1962). The current meaning of “Behavioralism” in political science. In J. S. Charlesworth (Ed.), The limits of behavioralism (pp. 8-25). Philadelphia: The American Academy of Political and Social Science.

[17]   Easton, D. (1969). The new revolution in political science. American Political Science Review, 63, 1051-1061.

[18]   Elie, P. (2007). A man for all reasons. The Atlantic Monthly.

[19]   Epp, R. (1991). The “Augustinian Moment” in international politics. Niebuhr, Butterfield, Wight and the reclaiming of a tradition. International Politics Research Paper, 10, Aberystwyth: Department of International Politics.

[20]   Epp, R. (2003). The ironies of Christian realism: The end of an Augustinian Tradition in international politics. In E. Patterson (Ed.), The Christian realists: Reassessing the contributions of Niebuhr and his contemporaries (pp. 199-232). Lanham: University Press of America.

[21]   Frost, M. (1986). Toward a normative theory of international relations: A critical analysis of the philosophical and methodological assumptions in the discipline with proposals toward a substantive normative theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[22]   Frost, M. (1996). Ethics in international relations: A constitutive theory. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[23]   Hall, I. (2002). History, Christianity and diplomacy: Sir Herbert Butterfield and international relations. Review of International Studies, 28, 719-736.

[24]   Hall, I. (2006). The international thought of Martin Wight. New York: Palgrave. http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/9781403983527

[25]   Halliwell, M. (2005). The constant dialogue. Reinhold Niebuhr and American intellectual culture. Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield.

[26]   Hoffman, S. (1977). An American social science: International relations. Daedalus, 106, 41-60.

[27]   Holder, R. W., Josephson, P. B., The irony of Barack Obama: Barack Obama, Reinhold Niebuhr and the problem of Christian statecraft. Farnham: Ashgate.

[28]   Hollis, M., & Smith, S. (1990). Explaining and understanding international relations. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

[29]   Jones, C. (2003). Christian realism and the foundations of the english school, International Relations, 17, 371-387.

[30]   Kaplan, M. (1957). System and Process in international politics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

[31]   Kaplan, M. (1966). The new Great Debate: Traditionalism vs. science in international relations. World Politics, 19, 1-20.

[32]   Kurki, M., & Wight, C. (2006). International relations and social science. In T. Dunne, M. Kurki, & S. Smith (Eds.), International relations theories: Disciplines and diversity (pp. 13-33). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

[33]   La Feber, W. (1976). America, Russia, and the Cold War 1945-1975. New York: John Wiley and Sons.

[34]   Landon, H. R. (1962). Editor’s introduction. In H. R. Landon (Ed.), Reinhold Niebuhr: A prophetic voice in our time (pp. 11-25). Greenwich: Seabury Press.

[35]   Lapid, Y. (1989). The third debate: On the prospects of international theory in a post-positivist era. International Studies Quarterly, 33, 235-254.

[36]   Linklater, A., & Suganami, H. (2006). The English school of international relations: A contemporary reassessment. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[37]   Mearsheimer, J. J. (2001). The tragedy of great power politics. New York: Norton & Company.

[38]   Morgenthau, H. J. (1946). Scientific man vs. power politics. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

[39]   Morgenthau, H. J. (1962). The influence of Reinhold Niebuhr in American political life and thought. In H. R. Landon (Ed.), Reinhold Niebuhr: A prophetic voice in our time (pp. 97-109). Greenwich: Seabury Press.

[40]   Nardin, T. (1983). Law, morality and the relations of states. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

[41]   Niebuhr, R. (1932). Moral man and immoral society: A study in ethics and politics. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[42]   Niebuhr, R. (1940). Christianity and power politics. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[43]   Niebuhr, R. (1941-1943). The nature and destiny of man: A Christian interpretation. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[44]   Niebuhr, R. (1944). The children of light and the children of darkness: A vindication of democracy and a critique of its traditional defense. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[45]   Niebuhr, R. (1946). Discerning the signs of the time: Sermons for today and tomorrow. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[46]   Niebuhr, R. (1949). Faith and history: A comparison of Christian and modern views of history. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[47]   Niebuhr, R. (1952). The irony of American history. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[48]   Niebuhr, R. (1953). Augustine’s political realism. In Christian realism and political problems (pp. 119-146). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[49]   Niebuhr, R. (1956). Intellectual autobiography of Reinhold Niebuhr. In C. W. Kegley, & R. W. Bretall (Eds.), Reinhold Niebuhr: His religious, social, and political thought (pp. 1-24). New York: MacMillan.

[50]   Niebuhr, R. (1959). Nations and empires: Recurring patterns in the political order. London: Faber.

[51]   Niebuhr, R. (1965). Man’s nature and his communities: Essays on the dynamics and enigmas of man’s personal and social existence. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

[52]   O’Connor, F. (1969). Mystery and manners. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux.

[53]   Patterson, E. (2003). Niebuhr and his contemporaries: Introduction to Christian realism. In E. Patterson (Ed.), The Christian realists: Reassessing the contributions of Niebuhr and his contemporaries (pp. 1-24). Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

[54]   Patterson, E. (2003). Niebuhr and his critics: Realistic optimism in world politics. In E. Patterson (Ed.), The Christian realists: Reassessing the contributions of Niebuhr and his contemporaries (pp. 25-51). Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

[55]   Quirk, J., & Vigneswaran, D. (2005). The construction of an edifice: The story of a First Great Debate. Review of International Studies, 31, 89-107. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0260210505006315

[56]   Rice, D. F. (2012). Reinhold Niebuhr and his circle of influence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[57]   Rosenthal, J. H. (1991). Righteous realists: Political realism, responsible power, and American culture in the Nuclear Age. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

[58]   Schlesinger, A. (1956). Reinhold Niebuhr’s role in American political thought and life. In C. W. Kegley, & R. W. Bretall (Eds.), Reinhold Niebuhr: His religious, social, and political thought (pp. 125-150). New York: MacMillan.

[59]   Schlesinger, A. (1992). Reinhold Niebuhr’s long shadow. New York Times, 22 June.

[60]   Schlesinger, A. (2005). Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr. New York Times, 18 September.

[61]   Singer, D., & Small, M. (1966). The composition and status ordering of the international system 1815-1840. World Politics, 18, 236-282.

[62]   Smith, M. J. (1986). Realist thought from Weber to Kissinger. Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press.

[63]   Smith, T. W. (1995). The uses of tragedy: Reinhold Niebuhr’s theory of history and international ethics. Ethics and International Affairs, 9, 171-191. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1747-7093.1995.tb00177.x

[64]   Smith, S., Booth, K., & Zalewski, M. (1996). International theory: Positivism and beyond. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

[65]   Thompson, K. W. (1955). Beyond national interest: Evaluation of Reinhold Niebuhr’s theory of international politics. The Review of Politics, 17, 167-188. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/S0034670500013061

[66]   Waever, O. (1996). The rise and fall of the inter-paradigm debate. In S. Smith, K. Booth, & M. Zalewski (Eds.), International theory: Positivism and beyond (pp. 149-185). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/CBO9780511660054.009

[67]   Waltz, K. (1979). Theory of international politics. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

[68]   Wight, M. (1966). Western values in international relations. In H. Butterfield, & M. Wight (Eds.), Diplomatic investigations: Essays in the theory of international politics (pp. 89-131). London: Allen & Unwin.

[69]   Wilson, P. (1998). The myth of the ‘First Great Debate’. Review of International Studies, 24, 1-16.

[70]   Wrightson, P. S. (1996). Morality, realism, and foreign affairs: A normative realist approach. In B. Frankel (Ed.), Roots of realism (pp. 354-386). London: Frank Cass.

[71]   Zambernardi, L. (2010). I limiti della Potenza. Etica e politica nella teoria internazionale di Hans J. Morgenthau. Bologna: Il Mulino.