Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:58 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 20:58 | SYDNEY

Defining 'conservative internationalism'


Michael Wesley


5 July 2012 13:42

Sam's discussion of conservative internationalism has piqued my interest, and not only because I spent a few years interviewing members of the Howard Government about its foreign policy philosophy.

I think Sam's onto something, but I think it needs better definition. One of the first things a senior bureaucrat told me about the Howard Government's foreign policy was that I'd need to reverse engineer its philosophical approach from its actions because Howard and his ministers were not into making big defining statements of principle.

Sam defines conservative internationalism by way of an attitude of respect for 'the practice of diplomacy, hundreds of years old and with its own traditions, language, lore and rituals (which) by embedding interstate relations in a web of tradition...takes some of the edge off the Hobbesian contest for power'.

I would go a bit further and add that the conservative approach to international affairs is one that relies on time-tested practices and understandings to find the best possible balance between the independent prerogatives of the state and the limits on state behaviour needed to maintain a dependable and stable international system.

At its core, conservatism accepts and tolerates society's imperfections as inevitable. Above all, it is suspicious of those who fixate on the imperfections and ignore what works, advocating instead grand schemes of reform; who in pursuit of perfection are prepared to sweep away the good with the bad.

What animates conservatism is a willingness to contemplate change only when it brings an absolute improvement in society; change must be carefully targeted so as not to disturb those valuable social institutions, accreted over time, that make society function. Grand schemes of reform more often than not raise expectations that can't be met, poisoning the ground for more pragmatic, incremental reforms and ultimately papering over problems and diverging positions with grandiose but ineffective institutions.

It seems to me that the 'internationalism' in Sam's formula is very different from the way the word is usually used. While the conventional use of internationalism is a belief that most problems in international affairs can be resolved multilaterally, I think conservative internationalism is very different. It is an internationalism embodied by the great Austrian statesman Prince Klemens Wenzel von Metternich (pictured), who wrote:

Isolated states exist only as the abstractions of so-called philosophers. In the society of states each state has interests...which connect it with the others. The great axioms of political science derive from the recognition of the true interests of all states; it is in the general interests that the guarantee of existence is to be found, while particular interests – the cultivation of which is considered political wisdom by restless and shortsighted men – have only secondary importance.

Conservative internationalism is therefore opposed to progressive internationalism (a belief that international affairs can be perfected by idealistic multilateralism) and conservative unilateralism or isolationism, which believes that the best hope for the world is for countries to leave each other alone, attend to their own interests and keep interstate relations minimal and managerial. It is a pragmatic approach to international affairs which doesn't underestimate the power of established practices and institutions, but advances states' interests by working with rather than against established institutions and practices. If we are entering a new bipolar age, as I've argued before, this may be just the approach that can broker relations between the Atlantic and Asian realms.

That said, conservative internationalism's Achilles heel is how it copes with change: change to broadly held norms such as racial hierarchy and the rights to empire; change to the distribution of power; and changes in technologies of communication and destruction. With the basic logic of the international system transforming from beneath, what are the institutions and expectations to be preserved and which should be discarded or made anew? This was the challenge that bedeviled Metternich. How will the next generation of conservative foreign policy makers compare? 

Image courtesy of Wikipedia.