The Collegian
Sunday, December 10, 2023

Realism, idealism not polar opposites, professor says

The University of Richmond's department of religion presented James Turner Johnson, a professor from Rutgers University, to lead a discussion titled "Realism, Idealism, and Just War: Thing about the Use of Force in American Debate."

Johnson, a professor of religion and associate of the graduate program in political science at Rutgers, argued against realists' either-or dichotomy that separates realism and idealism as polar opposites.

Johnson attributed the birth of political realism to theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and political scientist Hans Morgenthau, who flourished from the 1930s through the 1950s. Before this, idealism dominated the American political scene, Johnson said, citing examples such as the American Revolution, the struggle against slavery leading to the Civil War and the entry into World War I in order to pave the way for democracy.

Morgenthau's new, rationalistic argument was that there should be no direct connection between religious values and public decision-making. Political realists of the 1950s adopted this belief.

"This was nonpartisan in the sense that both political liberals and political conservatives embraced it and sought to practice it," Johnson said. "Their difference was not over values versus interests but over how to conceive the best interests and how to best serve them."

He then related this back to recent politics.

"American political commentators tend to describe the struggles over domestic and international policy as a conflict between liberalism and conservatism," he said. "But this does not correlate well with the realism-idealism dichotomy."

He said he thought a distinction separating realism and idealism as opposites did not serve policy debate and decision well, because no room was left for reconciliation of differences, which ultimately could lead to muddled outcomes.

Johnson then discussed the question of the use of armed force. Richard N. Haas, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote an op-ed article for the Washington Post in May 2009 stating that contemporary versions of just war thinking are strictly idealist and impractical for real-world politics. Johnson raises the question of considering Aquinas, whose description of what is required for a just war stands as a summary statement of the classic idea of just war: order, justice and peace, he said. This included both realistic and idealistic elements.

The final part of the discussion focused on Niebuhr's Christian realism, political realism, and the just war idea.

"[Niebuhr's] negative view of forms of Christianity tied closely to doctrines formulated in the past was central in his initial encounter with the idea of just war," Johnson said.

Some argue that Niebuhr's arguments provide a different approach from the positions of political realism or contemporary just war thinking. Johnson disagrees.

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"The sorts of correctives [associated] with Niebuhr's Christian realism are already implicit in the classic idea of just war," he said. "To be sure, consciousness of this has been lost with the rise of competing contemporary versions of just war thinking. Perhaps invoking Niebuhr offers a way of canceling out such effects.

"But so does a greater effort to understand classic just war thinking in itself — something Niebuhr's way of rendering the just war idea has hindered rather than helped."

Contact staff writer Mary Morgan at

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