The Prudent Irishman: Edmund Burke’s Realism

John Bolton, "The Prudent Irishman: Edmund Burke's Realism," The National Interest, Winter 1997-98.


Edmund Burke’s insights into civil society seem strikingly apposite today to American foreign policy. Among those are his reliance on the accretion of experience and reasoning from empirical reality, his abhorrence of elevating abstract principles into a theology, and his fear of driving policy on the basis of metaphysics.

Burke’s writings rarely cause the pulse to race, which perhaps explains his consistent lack of popularity among both the college-aged and those who stay that way intellectually while otherwise growing older. Moreover, Burke refused to conclude too much from existing evidence, and that makes him hard for the more passionate former anti-communists to swallow. Burke would have welcomed Irving Kristol’s assertion that “no modern nation has ever constructed a foreign policy that was acceptable to its intellectuals.” He was humble enough to believe, “Please God, I will walk with caution, whenever I am not able clearly to see my way before me.” Burke had the sense as well to be humble for his country: “Among precautions against ambition, it may not be amiss to take one against our own. I must fairly say I dread our own power and our own ambition. I dread our being too much dreaded. . . . Sooner or later, this state of things must produce a combination against us which may end in our ruin.”

While Burke’s speeches and writings are generally considered a guide to domestic policy (as we understand that term), much of his thinking and active politicking dealt with America, Ireland, India, and, most famously, France. The first three, of course, can properly be understood as imperial concerns, mixing both domestic and foreign policy. Burke’s larger political struggle for individual rights against concentrated government authority–a tenet central to his party, the Rockingham Whigs–infused all of these foreign and imperial issues. Since America today finds itself grappling with issues of imperial maintenance–though we call it something else–and with the impact of that task on the philosophy and future of government at home, it may be that an examination of Burke’s writings has something useful to teach us. That, in any event, is the premise of what follows.

The National Interest