Saturday, April 23, 2005

John Bolton and Edmund Burke

One of today’s hot button issues is the nomination of John Bolton as US Ambassador to the UN. “The National Interest” magazine has republished and article written by Mr. Bolton for their Winter 1997/1998 issue: The Prudent Irishman: Edmund Burke's Realism.

The article points out different attitudes regarding US Foreign policy since the fall of the Berlin wall and looks to 18th century philosopher Edmund Burke for suggestions on how to proceed.

In view of the polices of the current administration the first two paragraphs are interesting.

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.

The second school he mentions is similar to the post 9/11 policies of the Bush Administration. But Mr. Bolton sees himself as part of the third school, which is more attuned to the major conserative critics of the Bush administration. Some commentators have suggested that the appointment is a kick upstairs to a better title in a less significant job. If so, this could stem from the underlying differences with the majority opinion of the administration.

Strong opposition to four movements characterized Edmund Burkes career. The first three were the British Imperial policy in America, India, and Ireland. This has gained him approving selective quotes from left leaning commentators. The fourth was his ardent opposition to the French revolution, which gains him approving selective quotes from right leaning commentators. Both groups often have trouble with Burke because of this seeming contradiction. Bolton sees the four campaigns by Burke not as a contradiction, but deriving from a coherent worldview of protecting individual liberty. The colonial governements create obvious poroblems of indivdual liberty.

. . . [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:

A common conservative criticism of the UN can be summarized by saying the UN advocates policies that are strong on pure theory but with little understanding of the actual effect on the real people. To the extent he has discretion, I think that he will lobby against UN polices he sees as harming individual liberty or where he is not confident that they will actually benefit the people they are supposed to help.

If he is confirmed, I doubt Mr. Bolton’s tenure as UN Ambassador will be boring.

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