Conservatism is poorly understood in the United States. It is not right-wing liberalism or nationalism; nor is it political Protestantism. It has nothing to do with a neurotic longing for an ideal past, and reactionaries, who insist there is nothing left to conserve, show that they don’t know the meaning of the word. Conservatism has always had to make the best of a bad situation—the human situation in general.
But conservatism earned its name in the context of a particular kind of bad situation, that of imperial Europe in the late 18th and 19th centuries. The great conservatives of the time were all stalwarts of empire—think of British conservatives from Edmund Burke to Lord Salisbury and beyond, or of Clemens von Metternich on the continent struggling to uphold the Hapsburg order.
These statesmen saw that Europe faced a choice not only between empire and anarchy—or rather nationalism, which seemed to be the same thing—but also between different varieties of imperium. Would empire abroad be liberal and commercial—and thereby also extractive and conformist—or would it be traditional and tolerant of local custom? In the heart of Europe, would the model of imperial sovereignty be Napoleon or, say, Francis I of Austria?
Empire made acute problems that conservatism was designed to answer. How could harmony be maintained not only between rich and poor, noble and common, merchant and farmer—divisions endemic to political society heretofore—but also between Protestant, Anglican, and Catholic; Irish, Scots, and English; Hindu and Muslim; colonist and native? Neither faith nor blood nor citizenship, still less any national “proposition,” could unite the disparate peoples and sects of Europe’s empires. Unity was rather a fine balance to be sought, and peace required respect, in due measure, for every part of the whole.
Acknowledgement of authority supplied cohesion, and as Burke understood, this meant not only the periphery’s acknowledgement of authority at the imperial center but also the empire’s acknowledgement of authority in the provinces. When George III transgressed against the authority of America’s colonial constitutions, Burke sided with the colonists, for what the king could do to the Americans today he might attempt against the metropole tomorrow.
Empire made conservatism, and conservatism made empire durable and endurable. But the United States were born in rebellion against empire, and the most conservative Americans—the men branded Tories by the revolutionaries—opposed the breach with the mother country. The political labels tell the story. Americans from the time of the revolution called themselves republicans, Whigs, even democrats; their enemies were Tories or loyalists, words synonymous with “conservative” in the old country.
Jefferson may have mused about an empire of liberty, but the Founding generation and their sons rejected the imperial ways of Europe: America would be an exception to the entangling alliances of the European state system. Unlike every great power of the Old World, America would not seek hegemony. Were she ever to become “dictatress of the world,” John Quincy Adams warned, “she would be no longer the ruler of her own spirit.”
America exhibited her own kind of conservatism, but it could not be as unabashed or uninhibited as Burke’s or Metternich’s. The Adams family illustrated the problem: the clan’s conservative tendencies too often expressed themselves in tones approaching despair. America’s public persona was everything that Toryism was not: optimistic, Protestant, enlightened, and republican. And it was anti-imperial—or claimed to be.
The nature of the American Revolution—its rejection of British monarchy and European great-power politics—contributed an anti-imperialist cast to our national consciousness. But however much Americans might insist they hated empire, human nature said otherwise. What state has ever chosen modest republicanism over world power given the opportunity to seize the latter? Switzerland is a republic by necessity as much as choice. Athens, Rome, France, and semi-republican Britain all succumbed to imperial temptation. Why should America be any exception?
But if American conservatives have always been disadvantaged by the country’s Whiggish roots, the American empire has been exceptionally irresponsible because of its lack of self-awareness and the absence of conservative restraint. Because Americans prefer not to embrace Old World conservatism and have habitually denied the imperial character of our foreign policy since the 1890s, ours has been an exclusively liberal, commercial, and ideological empire. While we pretend to confront one great question that haunted Europe in the 19th century—empire or nation?—we refuse to consider the other—what kind of empire?
The last decade has shown us what happens to our kind of empire. Full of rational and cheerful contempt for the ways of the people we subjugate, we are astonished when our armies are met not with garlands but with suicide bombers and improved explosive devices. We have no respect for established authorities in the lands to which we bring Burger King and bikini contests, and thus we abolish illiberal orders but are shocked to discover we have unleashed tribal and sectarian civil war.
Thanks to modern medicine and Predator drones, only a few thousand Americans need die for this folly. But the toll upon the peoples we liberate is incalculable—as is the toll on our liberty and security at home, to speak nothing of our character. What did Adams say about becoming dictatress of the world?
It is not a coincidence that Americans began to call themselves conservatives at the same moment as they began to accept that their country had become an empire. At the dawn of the Cold War, Americans discovered a new passion for Burke in the works of such authors as Peter Viereck (Conservatism Revisited, 1949) and Russell Kirk (The Conservative Mind, 1953). And in George Kennan, we had perhaps the makings of an American conservatism of empire. A hard reality, the end of our republican innocence and prolonged adolescence, had to be faced.
But new varieties of liberal imperialism arose too, and rehabilitated the myth of American exceptionalism. We could have our armies stationed in far-flung lands without sacrificing our republican ideals. To the contrary, McEmpire was the fulfillment of those ideals, delivering the blessings of natural rights and free markets to a world that had always longed for them without even knowing it. Conservatism, always an ill fit for the American temperament, proved no match for Cold War liberalism, which soon stole its vanquished foe’s very identity.
By the time President George W. Bush came to recycle the liberal platitudes of Woodrow Wilson and John F. Kennedy, so-called conservatives had become the chief energumens of the gospel of bombs and Big Macs. Neoconservative David Frum denounced doubters as “Unpatriotic Conservatives” in the pages of National Review; he went on to write with Richard Perle a book that promised An End to Evil. Robert Kagan, meanwhile, set out to show that America had always been a Dangerous Nation and an empire aborning. There was a dollop of truth in all this: America does have an unspoken imperial tradition alongside its much discussed “isolationist” one, and conservatives who dissent from liberal empire are indeed out of step with the public creed—at least as it stood in the first term of George W. Bush’s administration.
But a funny thing happened on the way to perpetual peace. Ideological liberalism failed spectacularly in its nation-building enterprise, and Americans voted out of office the party of the president who had launched our version of the disastrous Athenian “Sicilian expedition.” Reality trumped opium dreams of global democratic revolution. And soon economic reality would bring the liberal economy crashing down to earth. What price empire now?
Serious conservatives are not essentially imperialists—they are realists, they work with the material at hand, however flawed it may be. In a perfect world Burke and Metternich may not have wanted empire; but empire was an established fact in imperfect reality. An empire restrained by tradition was preferable to the conflagrations of liberal imperialism or nationalism.
American conservatives today face a twofold challenge: to constrain our country’s imperial ambitions within the bounds of reality while preparing for a post-imperial future. For a choice that presented itself to Burke and Metternich—that of a durable empire—is not open to us, even if we had wanted it. Time moves faster now: empires topple in decades, not centuries. The pretensions to world power of the Ottomans, the British, the Germans, and the French rapidly dissolved in the 20th century. The Soviets gained and lost an empire of historic dimensions in the space of sixty years.
But America is different. We may yet lose this liberal empire only to gain another of a worse kind—for the collapse of liberalism has, in the past hundred years, often led to naked militarism and outright Caesarism. Our alternatives are limited: if the liberal dream is dying, the socialist dream is already buried. Only a sober conservatism seems to offer any prospect of a future not rationed or regimented. If our empire collapses, conservatism has the philosophical resources to train us to accept a more limited world. Or if we prove truly exceptional, conservatism may show a path back from Rome, so to speak, to Switzerland. In either case, the reality of empire and the “un-American” nature of conservatism must be accepted.
For all the horrors of the past decade, some remarkable works of scholarship and literature have shown us that American conservatism can at least diagnose our malady. Andrew Bacevich’s American Empire is the best introduction to the character of our liberal imperialism; his other works of the decade, from The New American Militarism to The Limits of Power and Washington Rules are equally valuable. John Lukacs’s Democracy and Populism: Fear and Loathing illustrates how much worse things might yet get. And works such as Thomas E. Woods’s Meltdown and Patrick J. Buchanan’s Suicide of a Superpower pointedly show the watershed we have reached.
But all of that is just a beginning. There is still need for a conservative remedy, one that applies the hard but humane wisdom of European thinkers like Burke and Metternich to the very different circumstances of the American empire today.
Originally published in University Bookman