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This brings me back to the text, and its context: “The fundamental problem of politics . . . is not the control of wickedness but the limitation of righteousness.” What did Kissinger mean by his memorable but paradoxical aphorism? Clearly, he saw analogies between revolutionary France, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, all hostile to the status quo; equally clearly, he identified with Metternich and Castlereagh, conservative statesmen seeking to contain the disruptive power and its ideology. The young Kissinger warned, however, against the pursuit of peace at any price: “Whenever peace has . . . been the primary objective of a group of powers, the international system has been at the mercy of [its] most ruthless member.” Rather, the goal should be “stability based on an equilibrium of forces”. His colleague Stanley Hoffmann summed up Kissinger’s view of politics: “His was a quest for a realpolitik devoid of moral homilies.” Kissinger saw the “conservative challenge” as a “redefinition of the classic theological version of humility, ‘Thy will be done’, only that reason took the place of God . . . The achievement of self-restraint is the ultimate challenge of the social order.”

The question implicitly posed by Kissinger, which is even more valid for our time than it was for the Napoleonic era, is: can the survival of Western civilisation be guaranteed solely by a politics based on peace, democracy and human rights, or do we require a politics that posits a balance of power between sovereign nation states, and which regards just war as, to quote Clausewitz, a continuation of policy by other means? Is a liberal conception of politics that pursues peace at any price the only legitimate one, or must it be complemented — and at times supplanted — by a conservative one that regards the use of military force as occasionally justified and even necessary? In short, can we trust the righteous to inherit the earth on our behalf, or is “the limitation of righteousness” a necessary condition of “the control of wickedness”?

Before I attempt to answer these questions, which are all variations on the same theme, let me quote another Dr K, namely Charles Krauthammer: “To understand the workings of American politics, you have to understand this fundamental law: conservatives think liberals are stupid. Liberals think conservatives are evil.” Actually, Dr Krauthammer exaggerates the symmetry: most conservatives will admit that plenty of progressive or liberal presidents — not only the Roosevelts, Wilson and Truman, but JFK and LBJ, maybe even Bill Clinton — were anything but stupid. But most liberals think most conservative presidents are stupid as well as evil. The Left claims a monopoly of wisdom, truth and justice in the political realm; the Right merely asserts that there are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in liberal philosophy.

It is rare for liberty and tyranny to confront one another without bloodshed. One such event, in which I happened to take part, was the fall of the Berlin Wall. I have written about the events of November 9, 1989, a number of times, most recently in Standpoint on the 25th anniversary, four years ago. The trigger for the opening of the Wall was the East German Communist Party spokesman Günter Schabowski’s press conference. Eight minutes before it was due to end, he unexpectedly announced new travel rules that would allow people to cross the border between East and West. The room was electrified: this was sensational news, though just how sensational we could not know. Someone (it is still unclear who) shouted out the question: “When do [the new travel rules] come into force?” This elicited the reply: “Immediately, without delay.” The careful choreography of the East German plan, which required a controlled opening of the border, was thereby cast to the winds. Several of the key players, including Schabowski himself, are now dead. So we may never know everything about what was happening backstage before and during the drama of those eight minutes.
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