kirk foreign policy

“Men of Kalidu, the cen­turies look down upon you!” So cried His Ex­cel­lency, Man­fred Ar­cane, Min­is­ter With­out Port­fo­lio to his Might­i­ness Achmet XI, Hered­i­tary Pres­i­dent of Hamnegri and Sul­tan in Kalidu. This day the wise and vir­tu­ous Min­is­ter, con­fi­den­tial ser­vant to the heroic Monarch, ex­horted the cap­tains of hun­dreds and of fifties and of tens, on the eve of their south­ward march to an­ni­hi­late the im­moral and mur­der­ous slaves of the Pro­gres­sive usurpers.

“Ask not what Kalidu can do for you,” the Min­is­ter con­tin­ued, in a burst of orig­i­nal elo­quence. “but what you, brave men at arms, can do for Kalidu.”

So Rus­sell Kirk’s brave and cyn­i­cally hon­or­able alter ego sends his poly­glot troops off into bat­tle with one of the most darkly hi­lar­i­ous Thucy­did­ian speeches ever ut­tered in the fic­tional War for the Third World. Kirk’s A Crea­ture of the Twi­light (pub­lished in 1966) ex­poses the fol­lies of what we all once knew as Lib­eral In­ter­na­tion­al­ism, but which now mas­quer­ades as the for­eign pol­icy of a “con­ser­v­a­tive” ad­min­is­tra­tion.

De­spite the good ef­forts of solid schol­ars like James Per­son, Wes­ley Mc­Don­ald, and Ger­ald Rus­sello, the man my stu­dents of three decades ago still call “Saint Rus­sell” is often con­de­scended to even in the move­ment he did so much to found. Checked off the in­tel­lec­tual list, it may be said; es­pe­cially in the Great De­bate on power and in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. Rus­sell pre­ferred a mod­est for­eign policy, shorn of ide­o­log­i­cal ex­cite­ments, a pref­er­ence not shared these days by some in the es­tab­lished con­ser­v­a­tive “move­ment.” Rus­sell has been ac­cused of the for­eign pol­icy equiv­a­lents of racism; namely, “iso­la­tion­ism”; and even anti-Semi­tism. The lat­ter charge is silly and out­ra­geous, and de­serves to be ig­nored; the for­mer is in­sid­i­ous and dan­ger­ous. That “iso­la­tion­ism” is still the “racism” of both major po­lit­i­cal par­ties is the great for­eign pol­icy ob­fus­ca­tion of our time. It masks the agenda of the “im­moral and mur­der­ous slaves of the Pro­gres­sive usurpers” of con­ser­vatism.

There has never been an iso­la­tion­ist party or a se­ri­ous iso­la­tion­ist po­lit­i­cal move­ment in the his­tory of the United States of Amer­ica. Clever New Deal­ers won what had been their los­ing rhetor­i­cal bat­tle thanks to an in­sane Japan­ese at­tack on Pearl Har­bor (cer­tainly en­cour­aged, per­haps caused, by Franklin Roo­sevelt and an ad­vi­sory cabal about the size of today’s neo­con­ser­v­a­tive move­ment) and an even more de­mented de­c­la­ra­tion of war on Amer­ica by Hitler’s Ger­many. Overnight what had been an 80 per­cent Amer­i­can con­vic­tion that we should stay out of Eu­ro­pean wars turned into the cru­sad­ing men­tal­ity of the “Four Free­doms” and “un­con­di­tional sur­ren­der.” Hon­or­able lead­ers of Amer­ica First were trans­formed into head-in-the-sand “iso­la­tion­ists” or nazi-symps (the govern­ment-spon­sored cam­paign to ac­com­plish this is a story that has not been fully told). They were, ex­cept for a few left-wing loonies, less iso­la­tion­ists than uni­lat­er­al­ists, as Man­fred Jonas so ably proved many years ago. But a New Deal war waged in part­ner­ship with the most mon­strous regime in human his­tory against the sec­ond most mon­strous regime in human his­tory wiped out the dis­tinc­tions and changed Amer­ica’s po­si­tion in the world for my en­tire life­time.

And for Rus­sell Kirk’s life­time. Pre­oc­cu­pied as he was with the re­vival of the Per­ma­nent Things, the Moral Imag­i­na­tion, and the Roots of Amer­i­can Order, when Kirk’s baroque mind turned to matters of state he did not write much about power pol­i­tics and for­eign ad­ven­tures, at least not much by his stan­dards. (I once asked him what ex­plained the enor­mous vol­ume of high-qual­ity prose he man­u­fac­tured. “It’s the smell of the lamp,” he replied.) When he did write about the af­fairs of na­tions he pre­ferred to state prin­ci­ples rather than to offer pol­icy pro­pos­als or in­for­ma­tion. In fact it was one of Kirk’s com­plaints against neo­con­ser­v­a­tives that they “thrust upon us a great deal of use­ful in­for­ma­tion” but are de­fi­cient “in the un­der­stand­ing of the human con­di­tion.” Kirk gen­er­ally pre­ferred wis­dom to mere in­for­ma­tion, and al­ways came down on the side of what Thomas Flem­ing (in The Moral­ity of Every­day Life) calls “the nu­ances and tex­tures of human life” against the “ter­ri­ble sim­pli­fiers,” ide­o­logues of all kinds. As in all things, Kirk’s writ­ings on the great god Power ex­posed the ide­o­logues.

Kirk knew that power, and what one does with it, is much more im­por­tant to un­der­stand than mere mat­ters of in­ter­na­tional pol­i­tics. In fact, what one does about the lat­ter is al­ways a re­flec­tion of one’s con­vic­tions about the for­mer. Kirk’s life­long con­vic­tion about the Amer­i­can con­sti­tu­tional order was that it was founded upon the lim­i­ta­tion of power; that it was and is a pru­den­tial order; and that its suc­cess de­pends upon the utter re­jec­tion of ide­ol­ogy. Such in­sights are not sus­cep­ti­ble to cat­e­go­riza­tion by de­scrip­tive la­bels such as “iso­la­tion­ism” or “in­ter­ven­tion­ism.” Such la­bels are instru­men­tal; Kirk thought in terms of pre­scrip­tion.

He wished to con­serve the pru­den­tial Amer­i­can order, and so the in­stru­ments of preser­va­tion nec­es­sar­ily had to be guided by a healthy re­gard for how much power was re­quired to achieve that end. War in­creases the power of the state; thus war is to be avoided ex­cept in ex­treme cir­cum­stances, and al­ways to be re­garded skep­ti­cally, and never to be em­ployed in the name of a cru­sade. “Be­ware of right­eous­ness;” he loved to quote Her­bert But­ter­field to this ef­fect, be­cause right­eous­ness knows no bound­aries in the power it would em­ploy. The great­est dis­as­ter that could be­fall Amer­ica, Kirk un­der­stood, was “pre­ven­tive” war; that would take the wraps off power, and en­cour­age the “Pro­gres­sive usurpers,” who are pri­mar­ily in­ter­ested in be­com­ing hege­monic, both abroad and at home. In 1989, a decade and a half be­fore the pre­sent de­ba­cle in Iraq began, he wrote: “A ‘pre­ven­tive’ war, whether or not it might be suc­cess­ful in the field—and that is a ques­tion much in doubt—would be morally ru­inous to us. There are cir­cum­stances under which it is not only more hon­or­able to lose than to win, but quite truly less harm­ful, in the ul­ti­mate prov­i­dence of God.”

A Crea­ture of the Twi­light is set in West Africa, in a myth­i­cal coun­try that is part Mus­lim, part Chris­t­ian, part an­i­mist, and for­merly a part of the French em­pire. The “United Com­mon­wealth of Ham­ne­gri” (lit­er­ally, the black sons of Ham; one of Kirk’s dozens of plays-on-words that make the novel hi­lar­i­ous) is in tur­moil. Its ex­alted ruler has been as­sas­si­nated, “Pro­gres­sive” forces have taken power, and the hold­out regime of re­ac­tion is about to be erased by the na­tional army whose friends in­clude the usual pro­gres­sive sus­pects around the world. Be­cause the north­ern re­gion—Kalidu, where the forces of re­ac­tion re­side, also con­tains oil and a large hy­dro­elec­tric pro­ject, the United States is hedg­ing its bets, want­ing to be pro­gres­sive but want­ing also to se­cure the oil reserves to line the pock­ets of pow­er­ful cor­po­ra­tions. It is a clas­sic case of “Third World” diplo­macy. Not much is at stake in the geopo­lit­i­cal uni­verse, but every­thing is at stake in the moral imagination.

The cen­tral char­ac­ter is Man­fred Ar­cane. As his name sug­gests, he is a mys­te­ri­ous lit­tle wiz­ard with dark se­crets, who seems to know some­thing about every­thing, and for what­ever rea­son is de­ter­mined to block the armies of progress. Could his mo­tive be greed? He has, we learn, a per­sonal con­tract that gives him a cut of Kalidu’s oil pro­duc­tion. He in­tro­duces him­self by say­ing, “All my days I have done evil.” But we see no de­sire for wealth; his (like his cre­ator’s) life is as­cetic, his needs are few, ac­qui­si­tion is a byprod­uct and not an end to his plans. Is it power? The world of Ham­ne­gri seems to re­volve around money and power, but Ar­cane wants to give power away. He spends many hours teach­ing the son of the mur­dered Sul­tan the tra­di­tions of his peo­ple, so that he might rule with grav­i­tas. “In the af­ter­noon sun,” writes Ar­cane’s pub­li­cist Gus Ran­dolph (more about him later), “the young chief sits be­side the Old Devil for hours, talk­ing, talk­ing, his slop­ing mer­ci­less young face earnest and def­er­en­tial. I never knew Ar­cane to take so much trou­ble with any­one be­fore . . . I be­lieve he talks to Mo­hammed on every­thing con­ceiv­able: the com­par­a­tive mer­its of var­i­ous automatic weapons, the econ­omy of a harem, French for­eign poli­cies, Kalidu ge­nealo­gies, pride and duty, love and ha­tred. Mo­hammed takes all this more solemnly than he does the Koran.” Ar­cane is a teacher, not a usurper.

But let’s back up. Kirk was con­sis­tent about power pol­i­tics over a long ca­reer. Here is a précis of his prin­ci­ples, taken from (in chrono­log­i­cal order) A Pro­gram for Con­ser­v­a­tives (which mor­phed in sev­eral ver­sions into Prospects for Con­ser­v­a­tives), The Amer­i­can Cause, The Po­lit­i­cal Prin­ci­ples of Robert A. Taft (with his then young friend, James Mc­Clel­lan), The Pol­i­tics of Pru­dence, and The Sword of Imag­i­na­tion. Few men other than Kirk wrote from 1954 to 1994 (ba­si­cally the length of the Cold War) keep­ing their ideas and their honor in­tact. I add to this précis thoughts from scores of con­ver­sa­tions with him be­gin­ning in 1975, when we be­came on-again off-again col­leagues at Hills­dale Col­lege.

The United States, Kirk al­ways con­tended, was uniquely fa­vored but not the tri­umphal end of West­ern Civ­i­liza­tion. Its in­de­pen­dence, a pre­scrip­tive and not a propo­si­tional cir­cum­stance, was framed by a con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem that at its heart and by its na­ture lim­ited the au­thor­ity of some men over oth­ers. It would last only so long as pru­dence pre­vailed over ide­ol­ogy; only so long as its reach did not ex­ceed its grasp. The ge­nius of its con­sti­tu­tional sys­tem was fa­vored by his­tory and ge­og­ra­phy (and Prov­i­dence, al­though Kirk was never fond of the “shin­ing city on a hill” metaphor) so that conquer­ing a con­ti­nent, un­der­go­ing a true rev­o­lu­tion (“In­dus­trial”) and nu­mer­ous hor­ren­dous wars, in­ter­nal and ex­ter­nal, did not ex­tin­guish the lamp of an or­dered lib­erty lit in an age that promised free­dom but gave the world ide­o­log­i­cal chaos.

The pru­den­tial order, how­ever, has al­ways been con­di­tional. Lead­ing us back to A Crea­ture of the Twi­light, here are some of Kirk’s fa­vorite ways of talk­ing about the prin­ci­ples of for­eign pol­icy.

“I have been sug­gest­ing—not to blind eyes, I trust—that a soundly con­ser­v­a­tive for­eign pol­icy, in the age which is dawn­ing, should be nei­ther ‘in­ter­ven­tion­ist’ nor ‘iso­la­tion­ist’: it should be pru­dent.”

“An ide­ol­ogy of De­mo­c­ra­tic Cap­i­tal­ism might be less ma­lign than an ide­ol­ogy of Com­mu­nism or Na­tional So­cial­ism or Syn­di­cal­ism or An­ar­chism, but it would not be much more in­tel­li­gent or humane.”

“The blood of man should never be shed but to re­deem the blood of man”—Kirk quotes Burke; and then says, “A war for Kuwait? A war for an oil­can!”

Per­tain­ing di­rectly to Africa, Kirk wrote, “The in­tended trans­la­tion of Amer­i­can in­sti­tu­tions to Africa has been a dis­mal fail­ure: Africa has in­sisted ob­du­rately upon re­main­ing African.” Rus­sell spent a life­time try­ing to teach us that the world is not made of play-dough or tin­ker-toys. A Crea­ture of the Twi­light may have been his best les­son.

Ar­cane con­trols the ac­tion. He tells the story, but al­lows oth­ers a voice: Dr. Mary Jo Tra­vers, a so­cial worker Peace Corps vol­un­teer whose heart is Amer­i­can lib­eral good but who hasn’t a clue about evil; Au­gus­tus Enoch Ran­dolph, a black Amer­i­can Geor­gian whose tal­ent makes him use­ful to Ar­cane but whose slave psy­chol­ogy makes him also a crip­ple; var­i­ous news­pa­per re­porters who are stupid, ide­o­log­i­cal, ma­nip­u­lated, and de­spi­ca­ble; and T. William Tall­stall, the Amer­i­can “rov­ing am­bas­sador” whose per­sonal greed, pro­gres­sive rhetoric, and po­lit­i­cal am­bi­tion make him a per­fect “vice pres­i­den­tial hope­ful.” Sen­a­tor Eu­gene Mc­Carthy, a man Kirk grew to like and ad­mire, once said that the best rea­son never to vote for a politi­cian was that he had “vice pres­i­den­tial po­ten­tial.”

Ar­cane con­trols their voices, so the story is his. He re­veals just enough about him­self to show a pro­found sense of sin, a huge ego, a ro­man­tic sen­si­bil­ity against which he strug­gles, a ca­pac­ity for love that he both nearly de­stroys him­self to ful­fill and tries hero­ically to hide, a ruth­less prac­ti­cal­ity will­ing to use peo­ple but to pro­tect them when they show loy­alty or a need for re­demp­tion, a brave heart, and an utter vul­ner­a­bil­ity to true fem­i­nin­ity. He holds God at arm’s length. He seems to have ab­sorbed all of the lit­er­ary wis­dom the cult of the West has to offer. He is per­haps Rus­sell Kirk’s fan­tas­ti­cal de­scrip­tion of him­self.

That said, let us in­dulge him. A com­pli­cated char­ac­ter like Ar­cane can exist only in com­pli­cated places like Ham­ne­gri, or Ser­bia, or Colom­bia. Moder­nity doesn’t sit well in those places—or, as Ar­cane says at the end of the novel, “moder­nity be­numbs us.” Most of us Amer­i­cans have ad­justed to the con­di­tions of progress. Man­fred Ar­cane re­fused to ad­just.

As the Pro­gres­sive army slowly ad­vances, Ar­cane puts in place a bat­tle plan based first on “Poly­bius, my dar­ling among his­to­ri­ans,” but also on the Bible, Shake­speare, Kipling, Cer­vantes, Dante, Lenin, Napoleon, Machi­avelli, Yeats, Cather­ine of Si­enna, Lewis Car­roll, Cae­sar, Churchill, Homer, Vergil, Wal­len­stein, Muhammed, Or­well, “Rob­bie” Burns, Madame de Stael, and prob­a­bly sev­eral more. He re­lies on Arpad Nemo, tor­tured by the Nazis and, lit­er­ally, face­less (“Arpad” was the first Mag­yar leader; “Nemo” is “no­body”); Cleon and Brasi­das (the “mor­tar and pes­tle” of the Peloponnesian War), cute mon­sters who are only half human; Lady Grizzela Fer­gu­son, sur­vivor of British African ad­ven­tures; Mel­chiora ( his “Perse­phone,” god­dess of the un­der­world) who loves him un­con­di­tion­ally; Gus Ran­dolph, be­fore-men­tioned; and Colonel Jose Pelayo Fuentes y Iturbe. Pelayo is the leader of the “In­ter­ra­cial Peace Vol­un­teers,” an amus­ing and vi­cious bunch that the Pro­gres­sive army un­der­es­ti­mates at its un­do­ing. Along with Nemo and Ran­dolph, Pelayo has a long his­tory with Ar­cane. He fought with the Span­ish Blue Di­vi­sion in the USSR dur­ing World War II, on the side of the Ger­mans, and has spe­cial feel­ings about the Pro­gres­sives.

The Amer­i­cans, it turns out, funded the pro­gres­sive coup. The French want to re­assert their hege­mony, but have no more than a dis­tant and friv­o­lous hope. The Rus­sians are back­ing the pro­gres­sives, but are un­will­ing to be too pub­lic about it. The Red Chi­nese, using ex-nazi sur­ro­gates who think they can black­mail Ar­cane on the basis of false in­for­ma­tion about his mys­te­ri­ous past, are try­ing to get to the oil. How could Rus­sell have spot­ted such Chi­nese tricks in 1966? The Amer­i­cans are of course un­will­ing to spend any­thing but money in Africa, so Am­bas­sador Tall­stall, not hav­ing the clout to au­tho­rize as­sas­si­na­tions (as Dean Rusk gave to Am­bas­sador Henry Cabot Lodge in Viet­nam), bides his time, and even thinks that he may have of­fered dif­fer­ent ad­vice to his gov­ern­ment had he met the in­trigu­ing Ar­cane, who “gen­er­ally sees rea­son and will sit at the bar­gain­ing-table,” be­fore he threw in his lot with the agents of progress.

Ar­cane wins be­cause he does the un­think­able: he blows up the dam that rep­re­sents Ham­ne­gri’s progress. To the com­mu­nists, as Gus Ran­dolph later says, this was the “Sin against the Holy Ghost.” Pro­gres­sives wor­ship elec­tric­ity. As one of Ar­cane’s com­man­ders says, “Had our troops con­fronted a non-ide­o­log­i­cal enemy, our op­po­nents might have sus­pected that it was per­ilous to camp some miles below a large dam.” Being ide­o­log­i­cal, they fell into Ar­cane’s baroque trap. Moder­nity in­deed had be­numbed them.

Kirk pre­sents us in this story a time­less les­son. Power be­numbs us, and it isn’t all that hard to bring down su­pe­rior force, if one un­der­stands clearly enough what re­ally rules the world, and if one is will­ing to be de­vi­ous enough to put into ac­tion that knowl­edge. Ar­cane is a fancy, a made-up ruler of his lit­tle uni­verse, rem­i­nis­cent of Chester­ton’s Napoleon of Not­ting Hill, which was one of Kirk’s fa­vorites. But it’s pre­cisely be­cause Ar­cane knows his lit­tle uni­verse that he con­founds the ide­o­logues.

It’s in­ter­est­ing also that Kirk sym­pa­thizes with his fool­ish al­lies and evil en­e­mies. Ar­cane cau­tions against the im­pru­dent dis­em­bow­el­ment, im­pale­ment, and can­ni­bal­iz­ing of the de­feated pro­gres­sives. He is, as Gus Ran­dolph points out, “kind to the whole lot of us odd­i­ties.” He would not have be­grudged the neo­con­ser­v­a­tives their Machi­avel­lian­ism; after all, he calls him­self “Tan­cred, Knight of the De­vi­ous Ways.” He al­lows Nemo his re­venge against the Nazis, but that man is soul-dead any­way. He calls the so­porific lib­eral Mary Jo Tra­vers a “Child of Amer­ica” and means some­thing good by it; he be­queaths her ro­mance and sends her to a happy fate. If the Peace Corps vol­un­teers gen­er­ally look fool­ish it’s be­cause they were, but nei­ther Ar­cane nor Kirk con­demns them. Only the Pro­gres­sives are ci­phers, and that they de­serve to be. They are ide­o­logues.

“Ever since the end of the Sec­ond World War,” Kirk says else­where, “Wash­ing­ton’s con­duct of for­eign affairs has been af­flicted with lib­eral sen­ti­men­tal­ity.” Gus Ran­dolph has some­thing to teach us about that. Kirk’s M.A. the­sis was on John Ran­dolph of Roanoke; it later be­came a book that il­lus­trates the ambiguities of race and servi­tude, as well as the dangers of ex­er­cis­ing power. Gus Randolph—Au­gus­tus Enoch Randolph (Au­gus­tus the em­peror, Enoch who was taken up by God with­out ex­pe­ri­enc­ing death, Randolph the slave owner and ex­treme re­pub­li­can), the name is not acciden­tal—tries hard not to be a sentimental man. But he is too de­pen­dent on Ar­cane. Gus knows his own weak­ness, and has an exaggerated sense of Ar­cane’s dark­ness.

Why are you women wild about the Old Devil? he went on. Be­cause in the realm of the blind, the one-eyed man is king. Man­fred Ar­cane’s be­yond fear, being crazy. So you’re all ga-ga about him. You think he’s sweet and O so chival­rous. But if you knew him—if you just knew him! Lis­ten, girl: he’s done things that would make you run scream­ing up the street, if you heard half of them.

Gus is de­pen­dent upon Ar­cane be­cause he doesn’t un­der­stand that men are not evil be­cause they are com­mu­nists (or pro­gres­sives), but com­mu­nists be­cause they are evil. Or maybe they are com­mu­nists because they are in­no­cents, se­duced by the beau­ti­ful mis­tress ide­ol­ogy. Ide­ol­ogy, Kirk knew, was probably Satan’s best in­ven­tion, for the in­sid­i­ous way in which it lets both good and evil men strip themselves of his­tory and turn them­selves into mon­sters. In­ca­pable of com­pre­hend­ing the world of mystery or liturgy, the baroque or the me­dieval, Gus is stuck in moder­nity. It’s dif­fi­cult to make for­eign pol­icy if one is stuck in moder­nity.

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