The Prudent Irishman: Edmund Burke's Realism

The Prudent Irishman: Edmund Burke's Realism

Mini Teaser: One of the many consequences of communism's collapse is disarray in the conceptual structures of American foreign policy. Without a clear focal point, one-time hawks now flap like doves, while erstwhile doves behave like birds of prey. The strateg

by Author(s): John R. Bolton

One of the many consequences of Soviet communism's collapse is disarray in the conceptual structures of American foreign policy. Left without a clear focal point, one-time hawks now flap like doves, while erstwhile doves behave like birds of prey. Both the strategic role and the moral purposes of the United States in the world are disputed. For conservatives it is a matter of special concern that confusion exists with particular starkness among those who once held common views as "anti-communists."

Today, Cold War-era anti-communists argue among themselves--and the disagreements are not about tactics. Let us be frank: some have become near isolationists. Others enthusiastically espouse Woodrow Wilson's view that the world needs to be made safe for democracy and its family of values. Some of the latter seem to long for a new crusade to keep America at the top of its game, if nothing else. Then again there are those who see the world as still dangerous, but far more opaquely so than it was during the clearer days of the Cold War. They seek an interests-based foreign policy grounded in a concrete agenda of protecting particular peoples and territories, defending open trade and commercial relations around the world, and advancing a commonality of interests with our allies.

Finding myself in this third school, I often turn for guidance to that political philosopher whose understanding of the interplay of interests and values remains unsurpassed. Edmund Burke's insights into civil society seem strikingly apposite today to American foreign policy. Among those are his reliance on the accretion of experience and reasoning from empirical reality, his abhorrence of elevating abstract principles into a theology, and his fear of driving policy on the basis of metaphysics.

Burke's writings rarely cause the pulse to race, which perhaps explains his consistent lack of popularity among both the college-aged and those who stay that way intellectually while otherwise growing older. Moreover, Burke refused to conclude too much from existing evidence, and that makes him hard for the more passionate former anti-communists to swallow. Burke would have welcomed Irving Kristol's assertion that "no modern nation has ever constructed a foreign policy that was acceptable to its intellectuals." He was humble enough to believe, "Please God, I will walk with caution, whenever I am not able clearly to see my way before me." Burke had the sense as well to be humble for his country: "Among precautions against ambition, it may not be amiss to take one against our own. I must fairly say I dread our own power and our own ambition. I dread our being too much dreaded. . . . Sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin."

While Burke's speeches and writings are generally considered a guide to domestic policy (as we understand that term), much of his thinking and active politicking dealt with America, Ireland, India, and, most famously, France. The first three, of course, can properly be understood as imperial concerns, mixing both domestic and foreign policy. Burke's larger political struggle for individual rights against concentrated government authority--a tenet central to his party, the Rockingham Whigs--infused all of these foreign and imperial issues. Since America today finds itself grappling with issues of imperial maintenance--though we call it something else--and with the impact of that task on the philosophy and future of government at home, it may be that an examination of Burke's writings has something useful to teach us. That, in any event, is the premise of what follows.

The Americans

On this side of the Atlantic, Burke is often seen as a friend of the American Revolution, which he most certainly was not. He argued not on behalf of Americans seeking independence, but as a Briton striving, vainly as it turned out, to preserve his country's choicest asset from the foolishness of his own countrymen.

In the first place, Burke argued that it blinked reality for British policymakers to ignore what had happened in America, where "a fierce spirit of liberty has grown up." Not only was Burke undisturbed by the American love of liberty, he feared that London's efforts to reduce that liberty threatened his own:

. . . in order to prove that the Americans have no right to their liberties, we are every day endeavoring to subvert the maxims which preserve the whole spirit of our own. To prove that the Americans ought not to be free, we are obliged to depreciate the value of freedom itself.

Here is the confluence of interest and ideology so typical of Burke. He was not celebrating America's "spirit of liberty" as a pure value, but because his government's threat to America directly and tangibly threatened him.

Second, Burke was appalled at the arguments advanced by the parliamentary supporters of King George III, who seemed determined to justify policies such as taxation of the Americans solely on the basis that they had a sovereign right to do so. In the context of the period, the drumbeat in London about British sovereign rights was nearly an absolute, and would not tolerate objections based merely on practicality and history. Burke, however, disdained the "sovereign right" argument: "I am not here going into the distinctions of rights, nor attempting to mark their boundaries; I hate the very sound of them."

Burke stressed that trade had bound the colonies to England before, and could do so again; taxation had not previously been deemed necessary, and that was reason enough to abandon it now. "These are the arguments of states and kingdoms", he said. "Leave the rest to the schools; for there only may they be discussed with safety." Burke saw correctly that endless disputes with Americans over the abstract concept of sovereignty would "teach them . . . to call that sovereignty itself in question." He warned that "If that sovereignty and their freedom cannot be reconciled, which will they take? They will cast your sovereignty in your face. Nobody will be argued into slavery." To Burke, the theory of sovereignty was manifestly secondary to the practical need of keeping the Americans in the Empire.

As a result, Burke was fully content to allow Americans the fullest measure of liberty (which he called "the high spirit of free dependencies"), not for its own sake, but because so doing maximized Britain's chances for retaining America. His argument illustrated classic cost-benefit reasoning:

In every arduous enterprise, we consider what we are to lose as well as what we are to gain; and the more and better stake of liberty every people possess, the less they will hazard in an attempt to make it more. These are the cords of man. Man acts from adequate motives relative to his interest, and not on metaphysical speculations.

Indeed, Burke cited Aristotle in arguing against "delusive geometrical accuracy in moral arguments, the most fallacious of all sophistry."
Although all this talk about "liberty" might sound suspiciously like "democracy" and "human rights" in today's rhetoric, Burke would disagree. His ideas of "liberty" were just as grounded in reality as his strategy to keep America British. The man who ordinarily disdained broad generalizations said unequivocally that "Abstract liberty, like other mere abstractions, is not to be found. Liberty inheres in some sensible object." For Burke, that "sensible object" was, as it was for the Americans, the measure of taxation.

Indeed, he goes out of his way to note that in "the ancient commonwealths", disputes turned on political issues such as "the right of election of magistrates" because the "question of money was not with them so immediate." Not so in England, says Burke proudly, whose history he correctly summarizes for Parliament in his speech On Conciliation with America as having been the struggle between King and people over money. As for the colonists: "Their love of liberty, as with you, fixed and attached on this specific point of taxing. Liberty might be safe or might be endangered in twenty other particulars without their being much pleased or alarmed. Here they felt its pulse; and as they found that beat, they thought themselves sick or sound."

No mincing of words here--it is the money, not the principle, that measures liberty.

Because Burke's analysis and strategy for dealing with the American problem were so thoroughly rooted in practicalities, it comes as no surprise that in giving them expression he articulated the prudential guidelines that shaped so much of his political life. In the justly famous 1777 Letter to the Sheriffs of Bristol, Burke defends the 1766 Rockingham "plan of pacification" for the colonies as "being built upon the nature of man, and the circumstances and habits of the two countries, and not on any visionary speculations." This was, in fact, a plan of prudence, a quality that Burke characterizes "as the god of this lower world."

Unlike those beating the "sovereign rights" drum, Burke pleaded for "rational, cool endeavors" to bring the colonies back into line. He urged that government from London "ought to conform to the exigencies of the time, and the temper and character of the people with whom it is concerned, and not always to attempt violently to bend the people to their theories of subjection." Against those who saw no problem in unleashing force against the colonists to uphold sovereignty, Burke was nearly contemptuous: "A conscientious man would be cautious how he dealt in blood." Consistent with that approach, Burke was not afraid to shift his tactics or his positions as the need arose and as circumstances changed. When challenged on such changes, Burke answered: "Because a different state of things requires a different conduct."

Handling the American question in Burke's way might not have saved the colonies for Britain, but King George III could hardly have done worse than he did. Burke's approach was grounded in the political reality of his time, addressed to the vital national interests of England, and utilized practical, commercial, non-coercive means. George and his ministers stood on their absolute, abstract, sovereign rights, and lost the best part of their Empire forever.

Hastings and India

Burke's efforts to impeach and convict Warren Hastings, governor-general of Bengal, have confused many people who see Burke's long political campaign against Hastings through modern prisms. Indeed, at first glance, Burke's preoccupation with India seems to be exactly the kind of abstract concern with what today would be called "gross abuses of human rights" that calls into question the interest-based strategy Burke advocated in America. What explains this seeming anomaly?

Burke's interest in India (which, along with America, he never visited) stemmed principally from the same desire to protect individuals from the despotism of arbitrary government that motivated his domestic political battles. Hastings and his allies and subordinates, he believed, governed as if government had no limits. They did what they wanted, took what they wanted, destroyed what they wanted, and killed whom they wanted without regard either to English or Indian law or custom. That the government in question was British, and that its subjects were far-away Indians, mattered not in the slightest to Burke. He correctly saw that arbitrary, unchallenged government by his countrymen in India, as across the Atlantic, posed a direct threat to his countrymen at home. As Burke said in a letter, "I know what I am doing; whether the white people like it or not."

Even here, however, Burke proceeded with caution. He insisted on substantial and hard evidence before going after the East India Company, because "I feel an insuperable reluctance in giving my hand to destroy any established institution of government, upon a theory, however plausible it may be." Convinced that he was acting on more than a theory, Burke devoted sixteen years of his life trying unsuccessfully to convict Hastings, including a trial of over seven years before the bar of the House of Lords. As Burke himself said, in this matter more than any other in his whole career, "I laboured with the most assiduity and met with the least success."

For those unfamiliar with the history of eighteenth-century India, the charges and counter-charges surrounding Hastings get lost in such arcane matters as disputes over the Nawob of Arcot's debts, his invasion of Tanjore, and the retaliation of Hyder Ali of Mysore; the treatment of Cheyt Singh, the Rajah of Benares; and the seizure of the assets of the widowed Begums of Oude (among other means, through torturing their servants). The very complexity of the charges against Hastings only highlights how empirically grounded were Burke's concerns. Each of his allegations was supported by ample tangible evidence of high crimes and misdemeanors.
Burke was not unsympathetic to the notion that governing India was a daunting task:

All these circumstances are not, I confess, very favourable to the idea of our attempting to govern India at all. But there we are; there we are placed by the Sovereign Disposer; and we must do the best we can in our situation. The situation of man is the preceptor of his duty.
Burke in no way contemplated trying to make India look like England: "I never was wild enough to conceive that one method [of governance] would serve for the whole, that the natives of Hindostan and those of Virginia could be ordered in the same manner." Nonetheless, he asserted unambiguously that "there is no action which would pass for an act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery, and of oppression in England, that is not an act of extortion, of peculation, of bribery, and oppression in Europe, Asia, Africa, and all the world over."

Burke was deeply troubled that the British East India Company was a creation of Parliament, and thus that its acts, and those of its agents like Hastings, made Parliament directly responsible for them. Most importantly, Burke saw a direct proprietary relationship between himself and his parliamentary colleagues on the one hand, and Hastings and his subordinates on the other. Burke's concern was not a generalized, theoretical interest in colonial administration, but was centered on the nearly inevitable consequences of British maladministration and corruption:

But if we are the very cause of the evil, we are in a special manner engaged to the redress; and for us passively to bear with oppressions committed under the sanction of our own authority is in truth and reason for this House to be an active accomplice in the abuse.
Burke felt that "the credit and honor of the British nation itself will be decided by this decision."

The American Framers in Philadelphia were very much aware of the contemporaneous Hastings impeachment proceedings, and it influenced their drafting. George Mason of Virginia argued against limiting the grounds for impeachment to treason and bribery by saying, "Treason . . . will not reach many great and dangerous offenses. Hastings is not guilty of treason." In a sense, then, the final verdict on Hastings may be seen as contained in our own Constitution. For Burke himself, however, India had to be a profound disappointment. His failure to bring along the necessary support of the British body politic had much to do with causes beyond his control, including the magnitude of the huge financial and political interests arrayed against him, and the too-short attention span even of his supporters.

Burke and the Irish Question

Conor Cruise O'Brien devotes much of his recent thematic biography of Burke to psychoanalyzing him "at the Irish level." Although we abjure the couch here, there is no denying that Ireland's religious conflicts were more deeply personal to Burke than any of his other central political concerns. During the Gordon Riots of 1780, incited to secure repeal of the 1778 British Catholic Relief Act that benefited the Irish and reflected a substantial contribution by Burke, he was confronted in the street by a hostile crowd while walking to Parliament. In a rare public display of his feelings, Burke drew his sword and said, "If you want me, here I am, but never expect that I shall vote for repeal of the act I supported."

We need not decide, for our purposes here, whether Burke was a good Anglican, a covert Roman Catholic, or anything in between, in order to recognize the force of his analysis of the Irish problem. His views on religion were not based on theological judgments on the relative merits of consubstantiation versus transubstantiation, but on a practical appreciation for the crucial role of religion in the civil order:
I would give a full civic protection . . . to Jews, Mahometans, and even Pagans; especially if they are already possessed of those advantages by long and prescriptive usage, which is as sacred in this exercise of rights, as in any others.

It is thus no surprise that the howls of Lord Gordon's followers for "No Popery!" produced only disgust in Burke.

Nonetheless, the anti-Catholic Penal Laws specifically, and the Protestant Ascendancy in Ireland generally, were political facts of life during Burke's career. Thus it was the absolutism of the "No Popery" position, standing against any enhancement in the status of Catholics, that most offended Burke, not the absence of perfect freedom from religious discrimination. In fact, it was his Irish views that ultimately cost Burke his cherished parliamentary seat from Bristol in the wake of the Gordon Riots.

Burke's 1780 Speech at Bristol Previous to the Election tried (unsuccessfully) to justify his position on Catholic emancipation in the larger context of the Rockinghams' opposition to unchecked governmental authority. Indeed, by this argument, one almost unrecognized by modern commentators, Burke demonstrates the historical centrality of the Rockingham Whigs to the philosophical genesis of contemporary libertarianism by stressing the role of the individual over the group. As he put it, "This way of proscribing the citizens by denominations and general descriptions . . . is nothing better at bottom than the miserable invention of an ungenerous ambition . . . [to] hold the sacred trust of power."

Burke's efforts to constrict or eliminate the prohibitions of the Penal Laws against Catholics are, therefore, politically indistinguishable from the broader Rockingham efforts to establish the liberty of the individual vis-ˆ-vis the authority of government. "Crimes are the acts of individuals, and not of denominations", Burke insisted; to "punish them in the lump for a presumed delinquency . . . is an act of unnatural rebellion against the legal dominion of reason and justice." Most tellingly, "this vice, in any constitution that entertains it, at one time or another will certainly bring on its ruin."

France and Revolution

If Burke was affectionate toward the Americans, indefatigable on India, and overwrought on Ireland, he was little short of passionate about revolution in France--and with good reason. It was on this question that he made his most lasting contribution, and secured his reputation as the quintessential anti-totalitarian. Burke's greatest achievement was that, from the beginning and at a time when it was still widely popular, he understood the essence of the French Revolution, predicted its excesses, and opposed it resolutely. He was not looking for "constructive alternatives", "higher" truths, or a positive "spin." Burke was against the Revolution because it was destructively based on abstract reasoning; this time he intuited a great deal from existing evidence, and saw like no other that the metaphysics of this revolution carried within it the seeds of terror and despotism.

Burke was so passionately against the French Revolution--there is very little here about "rational, cool endeavors" to oppose the pandemonium engulfing Paris--because he saw that the delegitimizing implications inherent in the Revolutionist cause could not be contained within the boundaries of France. Precisely because that cause purported to be based on universalist principles, it required a like response to contain and ultimately defeat it. Burke did not shrink from the task, though it required him to confront the consensual enlightened opinion of his day--including the opinion of some of his closest friends--head-on. For him, opposing the French Revolution was his era's perfect confluence of concrete interests and philosophical values. Indeed, even Woodrow Wilson wrote of Burke on this point: "What a man was, we may often discover in the records of his days of bitterness and pain better than in what is told of his seasons of cheer and hope. . . . This is the test which Burke endures--the test of fire."

First and foremost, Burke attacked the French Revolution not as an embodiment of the French state, but as something new and "peculiar" in the world. In the Second Letter on a Regicide Peace, he characterized it as "the evil spirit that possesses the body of France . . . which inspires into them a new, a pernicious, a desolating activity." Seeing it thus, Burke saw no chance of ever making peace with the "system" created by the Revolution because it was "with the system itself that we were at war." It was "a war between the partisans of the ancient civil, moral and political order of Europe against a "sect of fanatical and ambitious atheists which means to change them all. . . . It is a sect aiming at universal empire, and beginning with the conquest of France."

Thus, quite obviously, revolution in this sense--that is, revolution committed not to righting specific wrongs but to transforming the world--necessarily takes on a completely different aspect from any prior or contemporary foreign policy matter. Indeed, Burke moved quickly to what may have seemed a surprising conclusion for him: No compromise was possible. For him, "this new system of robbery in France cannot be rendered safe by any art . . . it must be destroyed, or . . . it will destroy all Europe."

Second, Burke immediately identified the fundamentally totalitarian nature of the revolutionists, which also distinguished them from other governments. Indeed, he correctly saw that the consequences of the Revolution would be precisely the opposite of the liberating appeal of its slogans, such as "the Rights of Man." He cautioned, "You have theories enough concerning the Rights of Men. It may not be amiss to add a small degree of attention to their Nature and disposition. It is with Man in the concrete . . . you are to be concerned."

More disturbing to Burke was that "the Rights of Man" ultimately seemed to have little or nothing to do with what was really happening in France--the ever-growing power of the government over aspects of life that had never before been thought "political":

What now stands as government in France is struck out at a heat. . . . To them the will, the wish, the want, the liberty, the toil, the blood of individuals, is as nothing. Individuality is left out of their scheme of government. The state is all in all.

Burke saw the greatest threat from this new kind of "state" as directed against the institution of property: "It is the contempt of property, and the setting up against its principle certain pretended advantages of the state (which, by the way, exists only for its conservation), that has led to all the other evils." (Burke's reduction of the key function of the "state" to a parenthetical here, I note parenthetically, should dispel any doubts about his libertarian credentials in economic policy.)

Third, Burke saw the Revolution as stemming directly from Rousseau and other "modern philosophers", the very mention of which phrase "express[es] everything that is ignoble, savage and hard-hearted." Worse than anything else, the French Revolution and its progenitors were theorists who knew so little of reality that they could not conceive of the consequences of their ideas. He described them as "fanatics: independent of any interest, which, if it operated alone, would make them much more tractable; they are carried with such a headlong rage towards every desperate trial that they would sacrifice the whole human race to the slightest of their experiments."

Specifically, these philosophers simply did not care about people as individuals: "They consider men in their experiments no more than they do mice in an air-pump."

This utter disregard for the circumstances into which the Revolutionists' theories were to be interjected troubled Burke nearly as much as the substance of the theories themselves. He correctly saw that the disregard for circumstances would ultimately harm not the theorists, but the innocent citizens who were subjected to their will:

Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind.

The gentlemen who were thus prepared to ignore circumstances were the idealists, the metaphysicians, in thrall to abstract principles and absolute rights. To Burke they were the most dangerous of men. This was a point he returned to again and again. "Nothing", he insisted, "can be conceived more hard than the heart of a thorough-bred metaphysician." He dismissed the Encyclopedists as a "flight of the magpies and jays of philosophy." He attacked the English Jacobins as "sublime metaphysicians . . . the horrible consequences produced by their speculations affect them not at all." He denounced "the greatest of all evils--a blind and furious spirit of innovation, under the name of reform." He even greatly feared "the ill consequences of keeping good principles and good general views within no bounds", although that was the least of the problems he feared from the Revolution.

Burke's thought covers far more territory than this brief survey can convey, and generalizing from any sampling can be dangerous. In all likelihood, too, Burke would have objected to the writing of this essay because it attempts to apply his thinking to circumstances he never envisaged, let alone lived. As it happens, though, he cannot object, and so we have proceeded with due humility.

In many respects, the difference between Burke's policy preferences concerning America, India, and Ireland on the one hand, and revolutionary France on the other, accurately define the differences within the contemporary debate among former conservative cold warriors. Although coming at the end of his career and life, the French Revolution summoned all of Burke's energy in a last, furious defense of the values and interests he had always championed. This confluence of bad theory and evil reality created a danger that summoned his greatest legacy in Reflections on the Revolution in France, and the letters and speeches associated with it.

Yet it was precisely his earlier analyses that suited him so well for his concluding role: his understanding of the importance of circumstances in setting policy, his emphasis on prudence and "rational, cool endeavors", and his devotion to practicality over abstraction. More than any of his contemporaries, and precisely because of his earlier experiences, Burke understood and foretold the unprecedented dangers created by the French Revolution, when most of his friends and former Whig allies saw it as a great step forward in the march of progress.

The problem many foreign policy analysts have today is that our "French Revolution" problem is over. Our anti-communism, so passionate and so blessed by a confluence of values and interests as was Burke's opposition to France in revolution, has prevailed. Instead of the bright distinctions and clear battles to fight, we now have to face the ambiguities that Burke understood so well in contexts as disparate as colonial America, imperial India, and neighboring Ireland. Unlike Burke, whose greatest challenge came at the end, we might have to acknowledge that our greatest challenge is now behind us.

Burke saw that the French Revolution required a treatment different from his earlier efforts. After all, he said, "a different state of things requires a different conduct." So, too, after the Cold War, America faces in the world "a different state of things." This is not to say with any certainty that there are no more French Revolutions left in our future. To the contrary, our experience tells us the opposite. And in such new circumstances, "a different conduct" will again be required. But we are not there yet, and those who disagree are today doing America a grave disservice.

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