by Matt Andersen

‘Even if our New Testament were a work of fiction and were presented to us as the achievement of an imaginative poet, its disturbing challenges and its exposure of the human plight would still be as valid as they ever were, and as vivid as ever a Shakespeare could make them’.

—Herbert Butterfield, ‘Christianity, Diplomacy and War’ (1953)

The Cambridge historian Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900 – 1979) was one of the most original writers of his age. Throughout his career, he exhibited a precocious capacity to comment on a wide range of themes, from his celebrated studies of George III and Lord North, histories of science from the Renaissance to the Industrial Revolution, and most famously his more theoretical reflections on the relationship between history and historiography embodied in his most famous book ‘The Whig Interpretation of History.’ Butterfield also expressed sharp insights on the great geopolitical questions of the day. So much so, in international relations scholarship he has been canonized within the ‘realist’ tradition.

Realism is understood within international relations theory as an approach to international politics that places power at the center of an analysis of international order. It is often regarded as a cynical interpretation of geopolitics, inspired by the ideas of Thucydides and Machiavelli, which regards any higher moral commitments in politics as superfluous. For realists, the highest goal of international politics should simply be preserving a balance of power between nation states, rather than fulfilling higher moral or ethical ideals. Traditionally, Butterfield has often been canonized as part of the broader ‘classical realist’ group of thinkers. Here he sits alongside figures such as Hans Morgenthau, Reinhold Niebuhr, E.H Carr, and George Kennan as a twentieth century reviver of this vision of statecraft. What supposedly inspired them was their criticism of the League of Nations, which they saw as proof that idealism in international relations was a recipe for disaster. 

Like all mythologies, there is a grain of truth to this story. A corpus of scholars in the mid-twentieth century used the language of ‘realism’ to advocate such a position. As Nicholas Guilhot among others have shown, they were sponsored by the Rockefeller Foundation, which hosted a series of conferences in New York in the 1950s to stimulate discussion and generate ideas that could challenge the ‘globalism’ of the more progressive faction of liberal international theorists. Butterfield was invited to take part. This was perhaps due to his prolific work on European diplomacy, where he did indeed emphasize the role of a balance of power between rival states in the long eighteenth century in Europe. He also shared some of their grievances with the liberal internationalism of the interwar years, particularly their overly optimistic conception of human nature.

Yet a deeper contextualist study of Herbert Butterfield’s international thought suggests he went far beyond the amoral dogmas of the tradition in its classical sense. Unlike the political realists, he sympathized with the ideals and goals of the League of Nations. He went as far as to argue in ‘Christianity, Diplomacy and War’ (1953) that it was ‘wrong for men to lose faith in the old League of Nations, for though it failed in spectacular manners . . . many of its activities had the effect of a kind of knitting process, fabricating a tradition of common action.’

While Butterfield was present in these conversations with the realists, there is little evidence to suggest he concurred with the more aggressive defenders of the tradition, such as Hans Morgenthau and Kenneth Thompson. This was initially identified by Butterfield’s biographer, Michael Bentley, who noted Butterfield’s ‘tense relationship’ with the realists. Bentley rightly points out that Butterfield’s vision of international affairs had little to do with the ‘new discipline centered around capital letters’, and much more to do with his interweaving of ‘history, science and God.’ Butterfield was uncomfortable with the degree to which his (mainly American) interlocutors understood and sometimes even romanticized ‘power’ as an end in itself. Alongside his fellow Christian interlocutor Reinhold Niebuhr, who also shared Butterfield’s grievances with this over-emphasis on power, Butterfield attempted to restore a Christian ethical perspective to these debates about geopolitics.


Butterfield’s ideas on international order were underpinned by his Christian ethical disposition. More specifically, these ethics derived from his interpretation of the social teachings of the Old Testament. The clearest exposition of his thoughts on this can be found in his 1947 book ‘Christianity and History.’ Butterfield argued that any meaningful approach to politics must be centered on the love of God, and the spirit of justice embodied by the prophets of the Old Testament. Butterfield said he admired the Jewish prophets due to their ‘insistence upon the judgment of God, and their vindication of the moral element in history during an age of cataclysm so much like our own.’ The collapse of political order due to human egotism was no excuse to abrogate one’s ethical obligation to pursue justice; instead, it intensified it. ‘Even amongst the ancient Hebrews,’ Butterfield contended, ‘this doctrine of judgment, far from solving all problems, merely provided an initial substratum for an ethical view of history.’ While all this may sound very abstract, it had tremendous practical implications in how Butterfield interpreted international politics. Justice, not power, was the cornerstone of his analysis of politics.

Butterfield warned against the pessimism of the realists who catastrophized in the wake of the Second World War, forsaking all hopes of peaceful cooperation based on shared values. Butterfield saw this melancholic attitude as contrary to the Christian way of thinking about history. In ‘Christianity and History’ he also addressed this attitude directly. ‘When I consider the paltriness of the literature which the twentieth century produces about its own tragedy’ Butterfield writes, I must confess that I know of no language that seems to me strong enough to indicate the contrast’. Butterfield contrasted the cynicism of his modern interlocutors with ‘the period associated with the Jewish Exile, (which) provides us with a remarkable example of how the human spirit can ride disaster and wing victory out of the very extremity of defeat.’ Butterfield’s ethical approach was dialectical. His emphasis on human’s sinful nature was synthesized by his commitment to the ideas of grace and redemption, which simultaneously suggested humans had a way out of their self-inflicted state of war.  

It is better to understand Butterfield’s international political thought through the rubric of Christian internationalism. While Butterfield maintained, like the political realists, that human nature’s vices placed necessary limitations on what could be achieved in the international sphere, his theology of justice rendered it impossible for him to simply accept the prevalence of egotism as the status quo. He believed the Bible did not just stress human sin, but the notion that humans could be redeemed from their sinful nature. Butterfield sympathized with the intentions of the League of Nations and similar multilateral projects in the postwar world insofar as it pursued the end of fostering the international community, which he believed was a realizable ideal. He simply believed that there ought to be a more realistic conception of human nature which would temper the more utopian excesses of any theory that promised to outlaw war altogether. This dialectical approach was inspired by Butterfield’s engagement with Reinhold Niebuhr and the Christian realist tradition of theology

Butterfield’s reflections on foreign affairs do not represent a calculating and cynical realism, but an ethic of redemption that acknowledges the reality of conflict but likewise suggests there is a way out. Due to human sin, conflict is somewhat inevitable, but due to grace, humans should strive to work their way out of these problems, maintaining their moral integrity and ethical responsibility. For Butterfield, ‘there would not seem to be anything in the fundamental constitution of the globe which would make it inconceivable or impossible to achieve in the long run a common life and an international order on a world-wide scale – especially with forms of communication becoming so easy and rapid.’


In his own papers stored at Cambridge University, Butterfield left only two articles that he had penned for ‘Christianity and Crisis’ behind. C & C was a journal founded by Reinhold Niebuhr and John C. Bennett at Union Theological Seminary in 1939. Butterfield served for nearly a decade as a managing editor. Butterfield’s relationship with Protestant Christian ethicists like Niebuhr heavily influenced his ethical approach to international thought.

The first was a 1958 essay titled ‘Western Policy and Colonialism’ where Butterfield addresses his de-colonization in North Africa. Butterfield was no stranger to commenting on the status of the colonies, describing it in ‘Christianity, Diplomacy and War’ as an ethical aberration. Butterfield rubbished claims that it had anything to do with geostrategy, noting it was nothing more than ‘the exploitation of Asia and Africa by the white man.’ Once again, Butterfield displays a remarkable sensitivity to the moral and ethical dimensions of the international situation, going as far as to chastise his fellow Europeans for not displaying the same degree of compassion. The core of his argument against European policy in the colonies was the pursuit of cynical strategic interest over ethical commitments. For Butterfield ‘there is something wrong either with democracy or with democratic leadership if, instead of marching ahead for the sake of an ideal with the wind behind us, we are defending our vested interests with our eyes clouded by gloom’. Butterfield called for a spirit of ‘charity’ in international affairs, which ‘requires a vivid appreciation of the needs and predicaments of other men.’ This was far from the language of power and egotism that characterized much of the realist literature of this age. 


Conveniently completing this essay was a 1959 essay under the heading ‘Internationalism and the Defence of the Existing Status Quo.’ Butterfields echoes the same vision of an ethical foreign policy, driven by a Christian morality. He opens the essay dealing with the ‘international idealism’ of the architects of the League of Nations. While Butterfield maintained his sympathy for the British and French technocrats who were ‘virtuous’ in their intentions, they were ‘pharisaic’ in their actions as they presided ‘over a system that simply coincided with their vested interests,’ merely preserving the status quo rather than distributing power in the international arena more effectively and using diplomacy to resolve conflict. Paradoxically, it seems that Butterfield’s critique of the League of Nations was that its idealism was substituted for a cynical realism. Butterfield could never advocate such a negative approach, for it advocated his sense of Christian ethical responsibility. His vision of foreign policy was far more ambitious than the simple goal of maintaining a balance of power or the status quo.

Butterfield’s ideas provide us with a useful guide not necessarily on what to think about the international order, but how to. Though the study of history does not provide one with a one-size-fits-all theoretical apparatus to superimpose unto contemporary problems, it does lend to a certain sensibility towards the nuances of human affairs that aid our ability to explain and understand the world as it is. A more historically informed analysis of the geopolitical upheavals of our day would do much to purge contemporary international thought from its technocratic malaise. Butterfield understood that foreign policy was not a scientific endeavor. He had little time for the nascent discipline of International Relations theory, which he regarded as an attempt to turn the pressing questions of international order into value-free, pseudo-scientific wagers. He always maintained that the questions at stake when thinking about international order are ethical and historical in nature. Butterfield maintained throughout his life that there was no greater intellectual base for ethical and historical thought than the insights of the Old Testament prophets.

Matt Andersen is a DPhil Candidate in Intellectual History at Brasenose College, Oxford. His work broadly sits at the relationship between political thought and religious ideas from the interwar years to the early Cold War. His dissertation research focuses on a genealogy of ‘Christian realism,’ with a particular focus on the social, political, and international thought of the neo-Orthodox Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr and the Methodist historian Herbert Butterfield. He also serves the editor of the Oxford Centre for Intellectual History.

Edited by Thomas Furse

Featured image: “Sir Herbert Butterfield (1900–1979), Fellow (1923–1955), Master (1955–1968),” Ruskin Speer, © the artist’s estate / Bridgeman Images, photo credit: Peterhouse, University of Cambridge, non-commercial use.