The Home of American Intellectual Conservatism — First Principles

December 17, 2017

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

Ironically, it was Peel, the greatest foe of abstract theory, who understood diplomacy in the most complex way. Therefore, the question with which to conclude this essay is the one that he raised. “What is diplomacy?” he asked in the last speech he delivered in his life. It is “a costly engine” and “a remarkable instrument.” Here is a view of diplomacy as a set of instruments, useful for states pursuing different purposes, and in large measure indifferent to them. All states could employ resident envoys, diplomatic immunity, formulaic diplomatic language, and so forth to gain their ends, whatever those ends might be; and in its reflection of international pluralism diplomacy found one of its great strengths. Peel was firmly in favor of a general policy of non-intervention, not only because it kept national ends in line with national means, but also because it accorded with his view that there might exist many paths to the realization of the good life, institutionalized in the existence of many sovereign states and in the diplomacy that accorded equal legitimacy to them all. Yet diplomacy was also a stock of ideas—of attentiveness to the needs of others, willingness to settle for half a loaf, belief in the value of communication for its own sake, respect, courtesy, and calmness. If governments acted with other ends and attitudes than these, they might be employing the tools of diplomacy, but they would be acting undiplomatically:

Unless [diplomacy] is used to appease the angry passions of individual men, to check the feelings that rise out of national resentments . . . it is an instrument not only costly but mischievous. If then your application of diplomacy be to fester every wound, to provoke instead of soothing resentments, to place a minister in every court of Europe for the purpose, not of preventing quarrels, or of adjusting quarrels, but for the purpose of continuing an angry correspondence, and for the purpose of promoting what is supposed to be an English interest [ . . . ] then I say, that not only is the expenditure upon this costly instrument thrown away, but this great engine, used by civilized society for the purpose of maintaining peace, is perverted into a cause of hostility and war.

Here, a preference for order, a concern to moderate one’s own conduct, and an appreciation for the diplomatic art fused into one seamless fabric.

In the eyes of all three statesmen, there existed a natural affinity for skepticism about planned change at home, a seeking after some stability abroad, and an instinctive first reliance on the settled, ordered, unemotional, and comparatively inexpensive rules and norms of diplomacy. Diplomacy was their preferred form of international interaction, perhaps because it too tends to rest on case-by-case adjustment to developing social pressures rather than visions of far-reaching international reconstruction. Diplomacy, like conservatism, assumes that the world cannot be greatly altered in its major outlines. It will remain a world of many players, each bearing its own goals and interests which must somehow be accommodated without unnecessary conflict; it will not become a global empire guided by the improving zeal of one unchallenged center of power. In expecting a multi-state world to continue, it also presumes some sort of interaction among its constituent parts; and, rather than dreaming of abolishing all collisions among them, works in a modest way only to buffer them. In its affinity for pluralism, its adherence to persuasion and bargaining instead of force, and its reliance on the rule of law, diplomacy certainly betrays a connection to liberalism, but in its assumption of a consensual order, its capability for incremental as opposed to radical change, and its readiness to accept many ills in the status quo before it risks a leap in the dark toward a promised utopia, it shows its conservative side.

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