The Wisdom to Secure Political Liberty

“Circumstances change but wisdom does not, and it teaches by example”—that thought forms the foundation of this valuable book by Will Morrisey, professor of politics and William and Patricia LaMothe Chair in the United States Constitution at Hillsdale College. Morrisey’s book is aimed at those “who want to learn the art of statesmanship” and pursues its lessons through examination of the thought and action of “two of its most accomplished practitioners.” The pairing of Churchill and de Gaulle is natural and important both because of the parallels between their labors and the thoughtfulness with which they undertook them.

Statesmanship consists in navigating the tension between necessity and ruling purpose, drawing the best out of existing circumstances. The statesman knows what must be done; he also takes into account the particular circumstances in which it must be done. Geopolitics, political interaction influenced by the overlay of political communities on the geography of the earth, points to the realm of necessity. Geography presents a set of stubborn realities. The presence or absence of natural boundaries, military chokepoints, hostile neighbors, and access to the sea all offer advantages or impose constraints upon what may be achieved, or should be attempted, politically. Churchill and de Gaulle faced different geopolitical conditions in this sense: Britain is an island, its relative security allowing for the development of a moderate commercial republicanism; France, with its exposed position next to Germany, was historically propelled toward a centralized statism and a more military republicanism. These realities would take on glaring importance in 1940.

Yet, despite these differences, Churchill and de Gaulle were bound together by similar challenges and purposes. Both played crucial roles in shaping the destinies of their countries through two world wars and the Cold War, and both strove to secure not only their country’s survival, but a prosperous and healthy political life for their peoples. This second consideration marks the meeting of necessity and ruling purpose—both sought to secure the rights of man within the context of geopolitical challenges. The book’s subtitle, The Geopolitics of Liberty, indicates this concern and points to a key facet of true statesmanship, that its aim should be the good of the people.

The pursuance of the people’s good raises the question of regime. Churchill and de Gaulle “faced this question of regimes in the starkest circumstances.” The regime involves four elements: the rulers (who, how many), the offices and institutions of rule, the way of life fostered by these, and the overall purpose of that way of life. In a well-functioning regime, these elements will reinforce each other, shaping the character of the people who live under it. A regime which is also healthy, in the Aristotelian sense in which citizens are capable of “ruling and being ruled in turn,” will also cultivate and maintain a free way of life. But sustaining political freedom in the modern world is a task beset with difficulties. Genuine political life is threatened by the increased scale of modern politics and by the “massification” of modern life—the standardized homogeny that threatens to undermine individual thought, responsibility, and the active virtues. Added to this, both Churchill and de Gaulle had to contend with large, centralized modern states armed with terrible new technologies aiming at world domination. To light the way through such tempests, statesmen must join political wisdom with political skill, fostering devotion to the regime’s way of life, maintaining that devotion through desperate trials, and charting a course toward survival and success.

Among the many useful parallels illuminated by Morrisey’s book, the comparable effort on the part of these two statesmen to shape their nations’ self-understanding stands out. Churchill labored to teach his fellow citizens that the greatness of Great Britain was not just a matter of its power or the physical extent of its dominions; it resided in devotion to the blessings of freedom and the guardianship of the weak from the depredations of tyranny. Churchill’s historical surveys of Britain treat the political development of Britain in terms of the growth of political freedom, the restraint of power, the liberalization of the modern British state, and the extension of British moderation to the world through her Empire. It is upon these foundations that he set the moral agenda of the Second World War. De Gaulle was also a writer of history, and he also endeavored to provide an elevated image of his country. He described for his people “a great national dream” through which they must strive to realize the greatness of France and to sustain a national character marked by equilibrium, measure, nobility, magnificence, and the exercise of prudential wisdom.

These corresponding projects illuminate another essential characteristic of statesmanship: the statesman must have vision stretching beyond his own regime while at the same time being devoted to it. Both Churchill and de Gaulle understood very well the weaknesses of their own regimes—such as the tendency of self-governing peoples to lapse into quarrelsome factionalism and passivity in the face of danger—and so tried to lead their people over the difficult ground of self-overcoming.  But these projects were pursued very differently, reflecting both their different temperaments and appraisals of the necessities they confronted. Churchill was a devoted parliamentarian; de Gaulle was not. Churchill sought always to work within long-established political forms. Distrusting the risks of political debate, de Gaulle sought to re-found French republicanism under strong presidential leadership.

Churchill and de Gaulle were to an extent bound together in facing the international challenges of the 20th century by shared purposes, which made possible the tempestuous but ultimately amicable relationship between them. They certainly did not see eye to eye on every issue, either about the conduct of war or the shape of peace. De Gaulle, for example, suspected the British of “a systematic plan to subordinate France to Great Britain.” Churchill worried that de Gaulle’s hauteur would alienate the Americans. To pilot through the treacherous and uncertain waters of allies and enemies, statesmen must have an understanding, not only of their own people, but the character, interests, and motivations of other nations. Both perceived the nature of the common enemy (a united Germany, imperial and Nazi) and the onetime ally/future foe (Russia, driven by universalist ideology inclining to tyranny), allowing them to forecast their conduct. In the face of these threats, each found in the other enough common ground to toil together.

The anticipation of American conduct and its results was more difficult. The material aid of the United States was essential, but the application of its robust strength would clearly transform the political landscape. As the world of the Cold War took shape, the leaders of Britain and France found themselves fallen from the political pinnacles they had once occupied. But therein lies another lesson of statesmanship: its wisdom may shape circumstances but not ultimately control them.

Morrisey’s historical and geopolitical surveys are invaluable in themselves, but their even greater merit lies in his invitation to the reader to think along with these two statesmen as they negotiate great geopolitical challenges while led by the purpose of preserving their peoples’ liberty. Though the particular challenges to freedom may change, dangers will recur. It will, therefore, always be of value to examine notable displays of wisdom that may guide us through our own trials. For anyone seeking to understand the art of statesmanship, this book is a necessity.