Monday, July 23, 2012

The virtue of prudence

I have been experiencing a gradual disillusionment with what has been labeled "neoconservative" foreign policy. I don't regret for a moment the ousting of Mubarak, or Saddam, or Gaddafi, or [soon, one hopes] Assad. But the consequences have reinforced my erstwhile Burkean skepticism about revolutionary possibilities. Before he became totally involved in diplomacy Henry Kissinger was a Harvard professor of politics who wrote a great deal about international relations theory. He was recently given an award named for the great 18th century conservative, Edmund Burke, and on that occasion Kissinger chose to address "The limits of universalism":
.... 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. .... [more]
Kissinger goes on to apply Burkean insights to certain of our current foreign policy dilemmas, including the "Arab Spring."

The limits of universalism by Henry A. Kissinger - The New Criterion