The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

October 20, 2018

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The Diplomacy of Conservatism and the Conservatism of Diplomacy
David Clinton - 10/15/08

This article is featured in the current edition of Modern Age (50:3, Summer 2008).

row of European flags

Conservatism is often, rightly, associated with the patriotism and public spirit that lead to military valor and heroism. It lays great stress on the groundedness of human existence, the situating of individual wellbeing in the historical and cultural circumstances of a particular time and place, and it is dubious that highly abstract phrases like “the human community” can possess much substantive meaning. A political orientation of this description might be thought, therefore, to have little in common with diplomacy, an activity that is conceived as an alternative to war, that celebrates an aptitude for compromise and conciliation rather than boldness and bravery, and that assumes the existence of cross-cultural norms—perhaps even a single truly transnational “diplomatic culture”—within which bargaining and representation are feasible and desirable. Yet, at least in the experience of three nineteenth-century political figures generally identified as conservatives, conservatism in politics led to a reliance on diplomacy in international relations. The association is all the more striking in light of the fact that the three represented different strands or forms of conservatism—all of which nevertheless pressed those who espoused them to emphasize diplomacy as the preferred form of international interaction. Sir Robert Peel, François Guizot, and John C. Calhoun may, from the distance of a century-and-a-half, have something to teach us about the predispositions that conservatism and diplomacy share.

They were contemporaries, all having been born in the 1780s and all entering their national political scenes by the second decade of the nineteenth century. They also left the political stage, almost simultaneously, in mid-century. More importantly, they occupied the top rung of the political ladder during the same time and therefore confronted the same international issues. Although influential as a member of the House and as Secretary of War under James Monroe, Calhoun is best known for his years as a dominant force in the Senate, serving there from 1832 to 1843 and from 1845 to 1850. After two previous abortive attempts to form a government, Peel attained the prime ministership at the head of a strong majority government in 1841 and held office until he divided his party over the repeal of the Corn Laws and was overthrown in 1846. Guizot was called to assist in forming a government in 1840, which lasted until his ouster in 1848; although serving only nominally as Minister of Foreign Affairs for almost all that time, in fact he was the guiding spirit in the government throughout those eight years. Peel and Guizot therefore held power concurrently throughout Peel’s premiership, and they used the years to construct what has been called the first entente cordiale. Because Calhoun served as Secretary of State under John Tyler for a limited but decisive period in 1844–1845, during that year all three were immediately involved in directing Anglo-French-American relations.

Finally, these three figures may be compared because they were all professedly conservative. Calhoun could not have been more explicit; his public utterances are filled with statements of this sort: “I aim not at change or revolution. My object is to preserve. I am thoroughly conservative in my politics. I wish to maintain things as I found them established. I am satisfied with them, and am of the opinion that they cannot be changed for the better.” His belief was that the Southern agricultural economy, based on slavery, was the truly conservative political, economic, and social force in the United States, and he constantly sought to preserve it for that reason. Peel, by contrast, the picture of British empiricism, would never be used, as Calhoun has been used, as a touchstone for political theory. Peel frequently described himself and his policies as conservative, perhaps in a defensive reaction to his many critics who claimed that he had no principles beyond remaining in office, and that at least twice in his public career he betrayed traditional Tory beliefs and cast his fellow Tories into the political wilderness by going over to the other side. Still, he repeatedly described his actions as having been guided by “true Conservative policy” and declared, “I am a Conservative.” Guizot, far more given to abstractions than Peel, shared his attachment to the label conservative; he frequently employed it to describe himself and the interests and currents of political opinion with which he aligned himself, and when his government was faced with difficulties he told the Chamber of Deputies that the remedy was for him and his fellow conservatives to be “more conservative than ever.”

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