Wilson Lacked Burke’s Prudence

Woodrow Wilson’s liberal arguments for a European peace after the First World War came “not from prudence, not from principle as [Edmund] Burke had described principle, but from abstraction; and the states upon which he bestowed his blessing collapsed in less than two decades, because they were constructed in defiance of history, of real interests, and of the hard facts of power.” Hitler rose from the ashes of that war and Wilson’s ideal design for Europe.

Bernhard Thuersam, www.Circa1865.com


Wilson Lacked Edmund Burke’s Prudence

“Wilson did what he could to establish a better order among nations. His principles were confused, the times moved too fast for him (particularly in the ruins of the Austro-Hungarian system), and he proved far too thoroughly convinced of his own wisdom, too unyielding, to achieve anything which might endure.

Yet the errors into which he fell were not the errors of conservative policy; they were the errors of liberalism; they were the sort of errors which Gladstone made in diplomacy. The climate of 1918 and 1919 was liberal, and it is hard to say who might have done better in Wilson’s place. His failure was the failure of the nation’s political imagination in those years, a normative failure.

Certain liberal abstractions concerning the nature of political order and the nature of man lay behind Wilson’s doctrine of self-determination, behind his assumption that leagues of nations and paper constitutions and treaties might of themselves bring peace and contentment, behind his insistence upon fitting the map of Europe into his ideal design.

He had learned much from the Federalists and Burke; but he had not learned prudence, which Burke considered the highest virtue in a statesman. That aspect of Burke’s thought which defends prescription and prejudice, which perceives how dangerous it is to disturb anything that is at rest, which is prepared to tolerate an old evil lest the cure prove worse than the disease, he understood imperfectly.

Burke . . . never would have thought of approving a doctrinaire and wholesale shifting of boundaries, a vast abolition of governments and substitution of new ones, an overthrow of historical and natural groupings in favor of simple language-affinity. Burke would have perceived at once the consequence of abolishing the power which held together the heart of Europe and checked German and Russian ambition, the Austrian system.

To the conservative of Burke’s school, the world is at best a tolerable place, kept in order chiefly through respect for custom and precedent. It may be patched and pruned here and there; but the nature of man remains flawed, ambition always aspires to domination, and states are kept at peace only by a balancing of power, a recognition of the traditions of civility, and a concern for real interests. Parchment and declarations of the rights of man cannot restrain private or national concupiscence.

To the liberal, on the other hand, the world is infinitely improvable, and so is man himself; experiment and emancipation will lead to peace; and what ought to be, shall be. So Wilson thought and acted through the War and the making of the Peace.

The idea that power may be checked only by countervailing power always has been distasteful to the liberal. Wilson’s concept of self-determination, his championship of the League, and much of the rest of his program reflected that distaste. A vague confidence in Progress, Equality and the People overcame the cautionary precepts of Burke and the Federalists.

“You are a Liberal,” the Duke of Omnium says to Phineas Finn, in one of Trollope’s parliamentary novels, “because you know that it is not all as it ought to be; and because you would still march on to some nearer approach to equality; though the thing itself is so great, so glorious, so god-like, — nay, so absolutely divine, — that you have been disgusted by the very promise of it, because its perfection is unattainable.”

Trollope knew his Liberals. This yearning to march on toward some future universal condition of democracy and equality got the better of Wilson, when authority was his. Despite his earlier declarations that the American Republic – though a model for other states – could not be transplanted, he called upon America to make the world safe for democracy; and this same liberal universalism marked his arguments in the shaping of the evanescent Peace.”

(The Essential Russell Kirk: Selected Essays; George A. Panichas, editor, ISI Books, 2007, excerpts, pp. 507-509)

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