Essays & Reviews

Morrisey and Mahoney on de Gaulle, Geopolitics, and Democracy

Will Morrisey, Professor of Politics at Hillsdale College, recently published a book on Churchill and de Gaulle: The Geopolitics of Liberty.  Justin D. Lyons (Ashland University) usefully reviews the book here. Morrisey credits their success in defending political liberty to their ability to frame successful geopolitical strategies. As leaders in and out of power, they defended their countries against the rising superpowers of the twentieth century: the tyrannies of Germany and the Soviet Union, but also, in a different way, the challenge of America’s rise to worldwide stature and eventual dominance.

Along with these similarities, according to Morrisey, there were two crucial differences: Churchill stood at the head of a maritime nation while de Gaulle led a land power situated on the dangerous northern European plain; Churchill enjoyed a stable political foundation and concentrated his attention on its defense while de Gaulle needed first to build such a foundation, even as he defended ill-founded regimes. Both leaders understood their supreme task to be the protection of their citizens as civil or political beings who should not be subject to tyranny. Although geopolitics focuses the attention of statesmen on political realities, Churchill and de Gaulle believed that moral principle and prudence can continue to widen the scope of human liberty.

Churchill’s writings on strategy are well known and many justifiably claim the title of Classic.  We would also call your attention to de Gaulle’s War Memoirs (and his memoirs of French politics from 1958-1962).  Assumption College’s Daniel J. Mahoney has written a superb account of the French Statesman’s political thought (foreword by Pierre Manent), which Morrisey’s book complements very nicely:  De Gaulle: Statesmanship, Grandeur, and Modern Democracy.

Mahoney argues that de Gaulle’s defense of the “grandeur” of France is tied to a fundamentally classical view of human nature and politics.  Mahoney demonstrates how de Gaulle repeatedly and explicitly rejected the cult of the Nietzschean superman, the Bonapartist separation of grandeur from moderation, and all temptations of personal and ideological despotism. He explicates de Gaulle’s self-understanding as a statesman or “man of character” who comes to the service of a democratic political order in a time of crisis. He articulates de Gaulle’s relationship to classical and Christian thought, his place in the French tradition, his profound debts to the Catholic poet-philosopher Charles Peguy, as well as his important affinities with Alexis de Tocqueville on the need to remain faithful to the dual imperatives of democracy and grandeur.  Mahoney explicates the Gaullist understanding of the “problem” of democracy:  The democratic statesman must correct the corrosive acids of modern individualism, while accepting that democratic individualism sets the inescapable contours of political action in our time.