A pragmatic approach to just war

The political realism of Reinhold Niebuhr: a pragmatic approach to just war

Robin W. Lovin

THE POLITICAL REALISM OF REINHOLD NIEBUHR: A PRAGMATIC APPROACH TO JUST WAR. By Colm McKeogh. New York: St. Martin’s; and London: Macmillan, 1997. Pp. ix + 180. $40.

This study is the work of a political scientist who provides a clear and concise introduction to Reinhold Niebuhr as a political theorist. McKeogh treats Niebuhr’s “Christian realism” as a pragmatic approach to the use of force that rejects both Christian pacifism and the skeptical (Niebuhr would call it “cynical”) exclusion of moral considerations from international relations.

Niebuhr’s position on these matters is already well known to most students of theology, and M. does not propose a revisionist interpretation. Rather, he explicates Niebuhr’s work in the context of contemporary political thought. The value of his study lies in the clear, systematic statement of a deontological just-war theory against which Niebuhr’s consequentialist and pragmatic approach to war can be measured. Political theorists will find here a useful introduction to Niebuhr’s work that relates him to the terms of their own discipline. Theologians will find a way to connect Niebuhr not only to the political realism of the Cold War era, but also to the more recent revival of just war thought and normative theory in international relations.

M.’s account of traditional just-war thinking offers only a limited engagement with the issues that sometimes sharply divide contemporary just-war theorists in their evaluations of specific military conflicts. It would be difficult to say much more about that without writing a much longer and very different book. Theologians venturing into this literature should note that it is more complex and contentious than it may seem here, just as the political theorists would be well advised to remember that international relations was only one focus in Niebuhr’s political thought. Both groups of readers, however, can profit from this brief, systematic examination of Niebuhr’s relation to the just-war tradition.


Southern Methodist University, Dallas

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