A history of Burke and the philosophy of foreign policy (Part 1)

Edmund Burke

Can a coherent policy of international relations be attributed to Edmund Burke? This is the task that one faces when arguing that, indeed a coherent policy can be found in his writing. Burke unlike other political philosophers and politicians does not make it easy: not many can say that they supported only one of the great revolutions of the 18th Century. As Monk notes in a review, this fueled the partisan approach to understanding Burke with the ire of William Hazlitt incurred for apparent hypocrisy. Hazlitt would not be the last either: Marx described Burke only as the ‘sycophant’, crudely reducing the complex debate of Reflections into a set of excuses for cynical motives. This part of the essay will analyse Burke’s own arguments surrounding the American War of Independence with the next part showing the continuity into the French Revolution.

Though Simms noted Burke’s first attacks on the foreign policy of the day being the Partition of Poland, he gives a brief account of his arguments against the British position in America. As the reader learns from previous attacks, Burke supported a fairly traditional Whig perspective of keeping Continental alliances so as to prevent a shift in the power balance of Europe. As was apparent by the Bourbons joining forces with the American colonists, this had failed drastically. In this context we see Burke emerge to criticize the use of German mercenaries as an ‘alliance of a few traders in human flesh.’ (Simms, pg. 609) This criticism of Britain’s reliance on George the Third’s position in Germany was in line with Burke’s other writings. He noted the gratitude at realizing the cause of the Americans with reference to them only fighting the ‘professional armies of Germany’ (Hart, pg. 222), perhaps reflecting his view of the injustice in the waging of the war.

Righteous indignation was apparently sidelined by Burke who favored the reconciliation between the colonists and the English in a speech he gave to Parliament. In this speech he talked of the need to ‘recollect’ since ‘whilst we are left naked on one side, our other flank is uncovered by any alliance.’ (Simms, pg. 634) His argument for reconciliation here raises two points. Firstly, that the end of the war must be brought about for the strategic purpose of protecting the nation from a European alliance. Secondly, he is arguing that right causes must be put aside so as to protect the country from a power which ‘threatened us with ruin.’ (Simms, pg. 634) Instead of the righteous rhetoric and ideological  principals that radicals stated Burke with for the freedom of the colonies, it seems instead that his his defense of the colonies was based on a realist’s analysis of the international state of Europe and the need to preserve the country he loved.

A cursory reading of Burke seems to reveal that there is no separation between his beliefs about America and those of France. It certainly contrasts with the radical liberalism that Paine espoused, one that Walker describes as being based on a vision ‘peaceful, democratic, and egalitarian societies interacting within a cosmopolitan international order based on reason and justice.’ (Walker, pp. 52) Burke’s criticisms of the war in the colonies was not based on vision but on reality; he realized that the problems in the colonies could lead to disaster in Europe. The overlapping of policy prescriptions thus, are not indicative of a shared ideology: realists and anti-imperialists could agree that the Iraq War was a disaster though they differ on principle. The tarnishing of Burke’s reputation was unfortunate and based on an optimistic reading of his speeches about the War of Independence. However, it also serves as an important warning for future men of letters to understand the views and principles for why those views are held, before entering into polemical attacks.




Hampsher-Monk, Iain (2015) How to Think Like Edmund Burke: Debating the Philosopher’s Complex Legacy, Foreign Affairs (January/February edition)

Hart, Jeffrey (1967) Burke and Radical Freedom The Review of Politics , Vol. 29, No. 2 (pp. 221-238), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge

Hitchens, Christopher (2004) Reactionary Prophet The Atlantic, (April edition)

Simms, Brendan (2008) Three Victories and a Defeat: The Rise and Fall of the First British Empire, 1714-1783 Penguin, London

Walker, Thomas C. (2000) The Forgotten Prophet: Tom Paine’s Cosmopolitanism and International Relations. International Studies Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 1, 2000, pp. 51–72.


A.J.P Taylor and Troublemakers

Though I have not had time to update the blog in the last few weeks, I have not forgotten about this space and hopefully I should have uploaded my essay on readings of Herodotus by Christmas Day.

However, I have to admit that I have recently become distracted from Herodotus after purchasing a copy of A.J.P Taylor’s The Trouble Makers: Dissent over Foreign Policy 1792-1939 from a small bookshop in Oxford. The book is essentially a series of lectures that details the changing values of radicals and their attitude to foreign policy in general. Having just finished his lecture on Gladstone, it is interesting to read that the attitudes towards our involvement in Europe have been based around a static set of arguments.

9780140225754-uk-300.jpg T.P.