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Reinhold Niebuhr and International Relations Theory: Realism beyond Thomas Hobbes
Uppsala University, Disciplinary Domain of Humanities and Social Sciences, Faculty of Arts, Department of Philosophy. (Philosophy of Law)
2018 (English)Book (Refereed)
Abstract [en]

This is the first book in international relations theory devoted exclusively to the political thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. It consists of a study of the existential theology which lies at the basis of Reinhold Niebuhr’s theory of international politics and hence of the realist tradition as a whole. I seek to spell out the ways in which Niebuhrian realism was not only profoundly theological, but also constituted a powerful existentialist reconfiguration of the Realist tradition going back to Saint Augustine. Niebuhr’s religious thought, as much as his international political theory, cannot go without a detailed account of his reading of major continental thinkers usually couched as existentialist philosophers - namely Soren Kierkegaard and Friedrich Nietzsche - whose influence upon Niebuhr led to the emergence of a christian ‘existential realism’ very much distinct from the classical political realism of Thomas Hobbes.

My main claim is that Niebuhr’s ‘realistic liberalism’ made a particular impact upon the foundation of international relations theory as it sought to import the existentialist insights of continental existentialism into the overall framework of his Augustinianism. Kierkegaard’s insights about love and anxiety, as much as Nietzsche’s genealogical reflections on survival and power, were the novel ingredients that Niebuhr brought to a realist approach to international politics and which made it so original. I argue that through them, Niebuhr was able to recast Augustine’s formulation of the ‘impossible possibility’ of a world community, as well as his critique of political idolatry and of modern forms of collective pride and imperial hubris, in ways which still speak to us today. I conclude, however, that natural law theorists had an important point to make regarding Niebuhr’s incapacity to lay out a clear normative international political theory that could be back by a systematic and coherent set of ethical norms. 

Nonetheless, Niebuhrian Realism did develop an important theological and realist critique of Wilsonian idealism and an even more original departure from Hobbesian naturalism which is still predominant within the realist tradition. In doing so it allowed for a limited margin of dialogue between Niebuhrian realism and those contemporary strands of critical IR theory which have always defined themselves in opposition to the realist tradition. I claim that Niebuhr’s arguments in favour of a world community - as both a desirable possibility and a historical inevitability - go far beyond Hedley Bull’s ‘anarchical society’ as they suggest that international relations can only be approached from the viewpoint of a community whose anarchical nature already carries the suggestion of a permanent and anxious normative quest for a universal order. His ideal of a an anarchical community is not without significant faults and in exploring this notion I conclude by offering a critique of IR’s theory normative foundations.

Place, publisher, year, edition, pages
London: Routledge, 2018, First. , 200 p.
Keyword [en]
International Relations Theory - Reinhold Niebuhr - Thomas Hobbes - Realism - Liberalism - Existentialism
National Category
Political Science (excluding Public Administration Studies and Globalization Studies)
Research subject
Political Science
Identifiers
URN: urn:nbn:se:uu:diva-322582OAI: oai:DiVA.org:uu-322582DiVA: diva2:1098825
Available from: 2017-05-26 Created: 2017-05-26 Last updated: 2017-05-26

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