November 26, 2011

Bismark's ideology

Democracy encourages truth telling by politicians about their priorities. We'll hear a lot in 2012 about flip flopping- especially if Mitt Romney runs for the Republican nomination and a fair number of people on the right in the UK deride David Cameron as a communist, just as I'm sure the knives will be out for Ed Miliband should he win an election. Those perceptions may well be fair- and there are good institutional reasons for wanting politicians who believe what they say before the election and then do it after the election. Often one way of ensuring that is obtaining people with a strong ideology whose ideology frames both their rhetoric and their politics: to use a phrase beloved of a conservative friend of mine, if someone is 'sound' they are more likely to be predictable in their political conduct and if you believe in the ideology that probably will make them more effective too.

The interesting thing is what this leads us to underrate- political flexibility and nous. The career of Bismark illustrates this perfectly. According to Jonathan Steinberg's recent biography, when Bismark was first selected for a political career he was brought in by the influence of the hardline conservatives in the Prussian state. This influence guarenteed him his first job and guarenteed him his Chancellorship in 1862. Bismark though was never a real conservative: he was in favour of breaking the German states and was capable of appealing over the heads of the pro-Austrian princes to their subjects. In the late 1860, his mentor Leopold von Gerlach wrote to Bismark saying that 'It depresses me that through your bitterness towards Austria you have allowed yourself to be diverted from the simple choice between right and revolution'. Bismark had nothing but contempt for conservative solidarity though: 'The system of solidarity of the conservative interests in all countries is a dangerous fiction' he wrote ' we arrive at a point where we make the whole unhistorical, godless and lawless sovereignty swindle of the German princes into the darling of the Prussian Conservative party'. The gap between these two writers- the first who wishes to side with anyone who opposes the French Revoluton and the second who sees ideology as unimportant in foreign policy is largely a division between someone for whom ideology is a central principle in foreign policy and someone for whom that central principle is statecraft.

The interesting thing about Bismark's attitude is that whilst he won the battle (surviving in power whereas Von Gerlach did not), he has not won the war. In Bismark's lifetime he never managed to sustain a political party with even a fractional support base. There have not been many Bismarkian politicians since- Henry Kissinger is a possible candidate and there will be others- but they are few. Most politicians today appeal to their electorate's interest or morality overseas- few see statecraft as a species of separate activity. Bismark's politics therefore died possibly when democracy was installed as the governing mode in the West. But its interesting nonetheless because I think his behaviour throws into relief the kind of politician that a democratic society finds difficult to sustain.