Conservatives and Geopolitical Change
What is the conservative to do,” Henry Kissinger asked in an essay in 1954, “in a revolutionary situation?” In a stable order, conservatism is in a sense unnecessary, Kissinger wrote, because society’s cohesion makes a revolutionary challenge unthinkable. But once a viable alternative to the prevailing order appears, conservatism’s role becomes at once necessary and difficult — necessary because without it there is nothing to curb the destructive effects of precipitous change; difficult because, in the course of defending what was formerly assumed to be permanent, “the conservative position comes to be dominated by its reactionary — that is, counter-revolutionary — wing” and thus deepens the very social schisms that it is conservatism’s role to prevent.
Kissinger saw two possible answers to this problem, embodied respectively by the 18th-century British statesman Edmund Burke and the 19th-century Austrian statesman Klemens von Metternich. Burke’s answer to the conservative dilemma was to avoid irremediable schisms by mediating and moderating the forces of change; to fight revolution not with counterrevolution but with a slow rear-guard action that softens its edges, rendering change less destructive to the polity. This, Kissinger said, was historical conservatism — “to fight for conservatism in the name of history, to reject the validity of the revolutionary challenge because of its denial of the temporal aspect of society and the social contract.” Metternich’s answer was different — he did not want to tame revolution but to make it impossible; to govern, as he put it, “so as to avoid a situation in which concessions become necessary.” This was rational conservatism — “to fight for conservatism in the name of reason, to deny the validity of the revolutionary question on epistemological grounds, as contrary to the structure of the universe.”