The New Criterion, June 2012
The limits of universalism
On Burkean conservatism
I’d like to thank Roger Kimball for that generous introduction. Our friendship by now spans the decades since we met at Bill Buckley’s house. Bill infused the lives of all he touched. And he inspired a generation to define a new concept of conservatism for the contemporary era. It disputed not the need for progress but the proposition that progress could be invented and implemented as a bureaucratic exercise. Bill posed an alternative of progress as an organic expression of a society fulfilling its vision and culture in the flow of history.
I am honored to receive a prize commemorating Edmund Burke, whom Bill so admired. I, too, have found Burke’s vision of conservatism an apt guide to contemporary problems. Burke lived in a time comparable to ours: The French Revolution was in the process of destroying the established civil order and the monarchical principle. The American Revolution upended the prevailing international order.
Burke confronted the conservative paradox: Values are universal, but generally have to be implemented as part of a process, that is to say, gradually. If they are implemented without respect for history or circumstance, they invalidate all traditional restraints. Burke sympathized with the American Revolution because he considered it a natural evolution of English liberties. Burke opposed the French Revolution, which he believed wrecked what generations had wrought and, with it, the prospect of organic growth.
For Burke, society was both an inheritance and a point of departure. As he wrote in his Reflections on the Revolution in France, “[T]he idea of inheritance furnishes a sure principle of conservation and a sure principle of transmission, without at all excluding a principle of improvement.” A society proceeding in this spirit will discover that “in what we improve we are never wholly new; in what we retain we are never wholly obsolete.”
Hence prudence is “in all things a virtue, [and] in politics the first of virtues.” Its practice yields a politics, which, as Burke wrote in November 1789, “lead[s] us rather to acquiesce in some qualified plan that does not come up to the full perfection of the abstract idea, than to push for the more perfect, which cannot be attained without tearing to pieces the whole contexture of the commonwealth.”
That distinction defines the disagreement between conservatism and liberalism in our society, between viewing history as an organic process or as a series of episodes shaped by self-will. It also accounts, to some extent, for the difference between Burkean conservatism as I understand it and some aspects of neoconservatism.
Let me say that I consider the latter difference a family quarrel. Many neoconservatives are personal friends of mine, with whose analyses of any given situation I often agree, and whose convictions I respect. I have also become quite familiar with them, having been shot at by them from time to time from both sides of the dividing lines. We differ primarily on the role of history in achieving common objectives.
The difference is often put as an abstract debate over whether power or values is the dominant force in international relations. The advocates of a realist foreign policy are caricatured with the German term Realpolitik, I suppose to facilitate the choosing of sides. In this caricature, international relations is described as a series of clashing billiard balls, careering off each other at calculable and perfectible angles determined by their relative force. Values, it is claimed, are irrelevant to a “realist” foreign policy; the balance of power is its dominant, or even sole, motive force.
The alternative approach is often put forward in the name of “idealism” or a “values-based” foreign policy. For this approach, American values are universal and transportable, by predictable mechanisms and usually in a finite period of time. Strategic issues are dealt with on the whole by analyzing domestic structures. According to the neoconservative school of thought, relations are bound to be adversarial with imperfectly democratic societies; relations are certain to improve as democracy prevails. Geopolitical analysis is rejected because it presumes the continued existence of faulty governances. This school of thought calls on America to spread its values by the sponsorship of revolution and, if necessary, by force. Yet neither of these approaches seems to me to meet the Burkean test of accounting for the full variety of human experience and the complexity of statesmanship.
The billiard table is a seductive analogy. But in real foreign policy, the billiard balls do not react only to physical impact. They are also guided by their own cultural inheritances: their histories, instincts, ideals, their characteristic national approaches to strategy, in short, their national values. A realist foreign policy needs a strong value system to guide it through the inherent ambiguities of circumstance. Even Bismarck, the supreme realist, emphasized the ultimate moral basis of realist statesmanship: “The best a statesman can do is to listen carefully to the footsteps of God, get ahold of the hem of His cloak and walk with Him a few steps of the way.”
The neoconservative approach posits that universal peace is achievable by engineering a world of democratic institutions and that, if history does not move quickly enough, we can move it along by military force. My concern is that this ultimate goal is in practice so remote, and the method of reaching it so uncertain, that it leads to an interventionism exhausting our society and ultimately to abdication, as in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan. The difference is less one of destination than of pacing. The point is not that what exists is unalterable, but that the effort required to implement change will be more sustainable, if we temper the visionary aspect of policy with a recognition of the variety and complexity of circumstance.
The current situation in the Middle East is instructive. The Arab Spring was initially greeted with exuberance as a regional, youth-led revolution on behalf of liberal democratic principles. But, as Burke recognized, revolution succeeds through the confluence of many disparate grievances; the dissolution of the old regime inevitably brings with it the need to distill from these grievances a new version of domestic authority. This process is often violent and far from automatically creates a tradition of civil tolerance and individual rights; it is, at best, the beginning of a journey toward these goals. America can, and should, assist on this journey. But we will fail if we settle for one-party elections and sectarian dominance as a democratic outcome.
Attempts to transform the political structures of Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan amidst conflict conditions faltered when American public opinion came to question the length, cost, and ambiguity of the effort. The United States has now embarked on a new series of commitments to shaping the future evolution of other states in North Africa and the Middle East. I do not question the sincerity or the nobility of the effort. But an attempt to promote humane values will come to nothing if it cannot be sustained over time. And to be sustainable, it must be placed within a framework of other traditional American national interests and a recognition of the American public’s appetite for extended interventions.
As the Arab Spring unfolds, some of the key issues to be resolved include: Do we have a preference as to which groups come to power? Or are we agnostic so long as the mechanisms are electoral? If so, how do we avoid the risk of fostering a new absolutism legitimized by managed plebiscites? What outcomes are compatible with America’s core strategic interests? Will it be possible to combine strategic withdrawal from key countries like Iraq and Afghanistan and reduced military expenditures with doctrines of universal humanitarian intervention?
The Arab Spring has not abolished traditional strategic realities or traditional factional forces within the societies experiencing upheaval. A plausible vision counsels a willingness to relate our efforts to a pace somewhat more evolutionary—sometimes even ambiguous—than will necessarily satisfy the YouTube and Twitter generation. It is not an abdication of principle to adapt American foreign policy to the domestic circumstances of other societies and to other relevant factors, including national security.
In the end, what is at issue are concepts of world order and human progress. The extreme realist model proposes a world of equilibrium, punctuated by conflict. The United States, in this view, cannot shape history toward humane or democratic outcomes because history cannot be shaped, only enacted. The neoconservative model substitutes a democratic teleology of history and assigns America the responsibility (and the ability) to urge it along through diplomacy, the encouragement of revolution, and, in the extreme, through force.
American Burkean conservatism can make its distinctive contribution in transcending this cleavage. A world order of states embracing participatory governance and international cooperation, in accordance with agreed-upon rules, can be our hope and should be our inspiration. Progress toward it is possible, and desirable. But this progress will generally need to be sustained through a series of intermediary stages. At any given interval, we will usually be better served, as Burke wrote in the passage quoted earlier, “to acquiesce in some qualified plan that does not come up to the full perfection of the abstract idea, than to push for the more perfect,” and risk a collapse and abdication by insisting on the ultimate immediately. We need a strategy and diplomacy that allow for the complexity of the journey—the loftiness of the goal, as well as the inherent incompleteness of the human endeavors through which it will be approached.
An attempt to operate on principles of power alone will prove unsustainable. But an attempt to promote values without an account for culture and nuance—as well as other intangibles of circumstance and chance—will end in disillusionment and abdication.
The distinction between idealism and realism rejects the experience of history. Idealists do not have a monopoly on moral values; realists must recognize that ideals are also part of reality. We will be less frequently disillusioned if we emphasize a foreign policy designed to accumulate nuance rather than triumph through apocalyptic showdowns, and our values will benefit over the longer term.
Such an effort must be based on an awareness of our cultural heritage—the preservation of which is a vast challenge in our social media and Internet age. The generations brought up on books were obliged to internalize concepts and think through complex ideas transmitted across time. When information is acquired by being “looked up” on the Internet, a surfeit of information may inhibit the acquisition of knowledge, and respect for it. When facts are disaggregated from their context and called up only when needed, they risk losing the coherence of historical perspective. As Burke wrote, “People will not look forward to posterity, who never look backward to their ancestors.”
When identity is established by a consensus of episodic “friends” on social media pages, the immediate may overwhelm the important. Reaction to stimuli may transcend reflection on substance. Overcoming this danger may be the ultimate cultural task for the Burkean conservative.
Editor’s note: The following remarks were delivered at the inaugural Edmund Burke Award for Service to Culture and Society at The New Criterion’s 30th Anniversary Gala in New York City on April 26, 2012. You can read more about it here.