Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

    rationalism n
    1: the doctrine that knowledge is acquired by reason without resort to experience

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, former Ambassador to the United Nations under Ronald Reagan, is the author of one of the three most famous essays in the history of American foreign policy, "Dictatorships and Double Standards," Commentary (November 1979)--the other two being George F. Kennan's call for "containment" of the Soviet Union and The End of History by Francis Fukuyama.  In it she argued that it was incumbent on the United States to differentiate between authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes.  Authoritarian regimes she argued, like Iran and Nicaragua, though they obviously did not meet our preferred standards of democratization, were fundamentally just harsh, but traditional, governments of countries which had known no other type of government and were perhaps not yet ready for democracy :

    Traditional autocrats leave in place existing allocations of wealth, power, status, and other
    resources, which in most traditional societies favor an affluent few and maintain masses in poverty.
    But they worship traditional gods and observe traditional taboos.  They do not disturb the habitual
    rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal

Essentially, the autocracies protect their own power and wealth, but leave most other aspects of life relatively untouched.  As the name implies, they are more concerned with who in society will wield authority, i.e. themselves, than with imposing any particular ideology.  Because this is the case, they in fact preserve many of the institutions upon which democracy can later be built, whether the Church or corporations or other civic organizations.

Totalitarian regimes, on the other hand, as the name implies, seek to totally reinvent and control every aspect of society.  This requires them to so violate the existing institutions as to render the society nearly incapable of evolving into a democracy.

These fundamental differences between the two types of regimes suggest important reasons that we should be more rigorous in our approach to the one than the other.  Because authoritarian regimes are less oppressive of their citizens and are more amenable to democracy they are more susceptible to pressure from without, but at the same time, particularly when Kirkpatrick was writing, at the very nadir of the Cold War, it was especially dangerous to destabilize these generally friendly regimes, particularly in light of the fact that they could be expected, over a period of years, to gradually transform themselves into more democratic societies.

Meanwhile, totalitarian regimes, like Cuba and Vietnam, though they tend to cast their ideology in the language of progressive democracy, which makes them seem somehow more akin to the U.S., in reality are much more oppressive of their people and, because they destroy traditional institutions, tend to create such devastation that it is extremely difficult for external pressure to aid the rise of democracy.  They are both worse for their people in the short run and more likely to endure in the long run.

This leaves America in a difficult position.  Neither type of government vindicates our ideals of liberal democracy.  We would of course like to see both become more democratic.  But the regimes we can most easily change are the less offensive ones, and ones that are likely to be our de facto allies.  Those regimes which truly brutalize their populations, and which at that time were generally allied with our enemy, the Soviet Union, tend not to be easily pressured.

Further complicating matters is the fact that in countries with authoritarian regimes, there tend to be reasonably well-organized and very well supplied guerrilla movements.  This was particularly true when the Soviet Union and the rest of the Warsaw Pact nations existed and stood ready to support them.  Totalitarian nations, with their much more restrictive internal controls, and with the U.S. showing no interest in supplying indigenous rebellions, tended to be relatively free of organized civil unrest.

All of these factors combined in the late 1970's to bring about the bizarre and tragic situation whereby the government of Jimmy Carter basically helped to topple the Somoza government in Nicaragua and the Shah in Iran.  In effect, this eliminated two friendly governments in important strategic locations, governments which while by no means ideal were hardly the two worst human rights offenders even in their own regions.  In the ultimate perversity, it seemed that they were actually targeted by the Carter Administration precisely because they were so closely associated with the United States.  Allies were destroyed, an action made possible because they were not as repressive as other regimes, and replaced by radical totalitarian regimes allied with the Soviet Union, with whom we were at war.

Looked at in the abstract like this, the Carter policy seems nearly suicidal.  But Jeane Kirkpatrick traced it to a dangerous faith in Rationalism, as opposed to reliance on Realism, as the basis of foreign policy.  The important thing to note here is that the critique of Rationalism that she offers is very similar to the general conservative critique of modern day liberalism.  The Left has an almost alchemical notion of mankind, believing that any transmutation that they can arrive at rationally can be then be engineered socially.  Able to imagine a utopian world in which Marxist guerilla leaders turn a illiterate, Third World, agrarian, nation into a liberal, egalitarian democracy (moreover, one that would be unfettered by such hoary institutions as the Church, the aristocracy, the military, etc.), they assume such an apotheosis to be imminent.

What Kirkpatrick was calling for was a foreign policy grounded in Realism.  Hard experience has demonstrated time and again that revolutionaries who set out to completely transform a society end up imposing an even greater tyranny than the one they replace.  Even more troublesome, they practically never fade away or evolve into democracies (at least they hadn't to that point--the collapse of Eastern European Communism offers a difficult counter argument), they are likely to endure until they in turn are overthrown by conquest from without or violent counterrevolution from within.  For these reasons, we are frequently, if not always, better off opting for the devil we know, the kind of traditional autocratic regimes which, though not democratic, at least offer stability and domestic order, tend to be fairly trustworthy allies, and frequently evolve into democracies.  Kirkpatrick's theory was ultimately vindicated at least in this regard as this was basically the process which occurred in places like Spain, the Philippines, South Africa, Chile, and so on.

In fact, the current case of Russia provides a really difficult test of some the implications of theory.  The complete failure of capitalism and democratic institutions to establish themselves in post-Soviet Russia begs the question of whether a brief period of fascist rule there might not have a salutary effect.  First, it would allow central authorities to reestablish the rule of law, both by curbing crime and corruption and by restoring the notion of property rights.  This sort of functioning legal system it now seems fair to say  is an absolutely imperative precursor of capitalism and democracy.  Second, it would provide a period of relative physical security and cultural freedom during which civic institutions could be revitalized--the Church, political parties, corporations, the military, law enforcement, the judiciary, etc.  Difficult as the prospect may be for us to accept, it may well be the case that a healthy Russian democracy will only flower in the wake of a period of authoritarian rule.  This is not to suggest that we should aid Vladimir Putin in oppressing his own people or even that we should turn a blind eye, it is merely to suggest that it might be in our own best interests and ultimately those of the Russian people to allow him some latitude to restore order to that badly disordered nation, even if in so doing he sometimes offends our delicate democratic sensibilities.

Other essays in this collection range over a surprisingly wide field, including some perceptive observations on American domestic politics.  The span of years and topics covered means that they don't necessarily fit together into a unified whole, but the dichotomy between reason and realism recurs often enough that they do present a coherent argument in the end.  Thus, in an essay on the failure of the efforts to reform the political parties, she's essentially arguing that the reformers bought into an illusion that they could make the parties adhere to abstract principles, simply because they could imagine this happening.

Similarly, in discussing the failure of the New Right to capture either the presidency or the Republican Party nomination in 1976, as theorists like Kevin Phillips, Pat Buchanan, William Rusher, and others expected they would, she points out that their theories were based on a faith that would have required a genuine transformation in the American electorate.  This faith, as the only incremental successes of even Ronald Reagan and the Republican Congress of '94 have demonstrated, was rather misguided.  It may be true--I hope to God it is--that people are reasonably conservative at their core, but it is surely no coincidence that for the past seventy years they have consistently elected candidates who have promised them ever greater government benefits.  While reason can build a case for why that should, even why it must, change, realism requires one to note the stubborn fact.

Today these essays are probably little more than a footnote to the history of the Cold War.  But they among the more interesting footnotes.  The fact that Kirkpatrick became a major player in the administration the defeated Communism and won the Cold War, the degree to which her ideas were turned into official U. S. policy, and the prophetic quality of much that she wrote, makes them well worth your while.


Grade: (A)


Jeane Kirkpatrick Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Jeane Kirkpatrick
-REVIEW ESSAY: Dictatorships and Double Standards Revisited: Jeane Kirkpatrick shaped Reagan’s foreign policy but criticized his “New Right.” (Aileen S. Kraditor, May 15, 2024, Modern Age)
    -ESSAY: Revisiting Kirkpatrick (Niranjan Shankar, 24 Aug 2021, Quillette)
    -ESSAY: Jeane J. Kirkpatrick: 30 Years Unheeded: The foreign policy establishment gives something like pariah status to people like Kirkpatrick who make arguments that we should negotiate better trade deals, reconsider our Cold War alliances, and, most especially, subject American foreign policy to popular preferences. (William S. Smith, 6/13/20, National Interest)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : "jeane j. kirkpatrick"
    -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : kirkpatrick, jeane
    -Kirkpatrick, Jeane Jordan (1926- ), political scientist and diplomat (Women in American History)
    -Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Senior Fellow : Director of Foreign and Defense Policy Studies (American Enterprise Institute)
    -ARCHIVES : On the Issues  (American Enterprise Institute)
    -ESSAY : Europe Was Behind US Defeat at the United Nations (JEANE KIRKPATRICK, November 2001, New Perspectives Quarterly)
    -ESSAY : Target America: The Need for a Missile Defense System (Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, AEI, March 1999)
    -ESSAY : Why Are We in Kosovo? (Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, AEI, April 1999)
    -ESSAY : America the vulnerable and missile defenses (William J. Bennett, Jack Kemp and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, Washington Times, September 1998)
    -ESSAY : Expand NATO Now (Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, AEI, April 1996)
    -SPEECH : The Myth of Moral Equivalence (Jeane J. Kirkpatrick,  May of 1985)
    -SPEECH : The United States and the World: Setting Limits (Jeane J. Kirkpatrick,  Francis Boyer Lecture,  American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research, 1985)
    -SPEECH : Exit Communism, Cold War and  the Status Quo (Editor's Preview: These remarks by former U.N. Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick were delivered at Hillsdale College's Freedom Quest Gala on September 11, 1990.)
    -AUDIO SPEECH : 1996 Republican Convention in San Diego
    -DISCUSSION : Chemical Weapons : BURNING ISSUE : Should the U.S. ratify the Chemical Weapons Convention and join scores of other nations in destroying its chemical weapons arsenals? Following a  background report, former U.N. Ambassador Jeanne Kirkpatrick and former National Security Advisor Brent Scrowcroft debate the issue with Elizabeth Farnsworth. (Online Newshour, PBS, MARCH 13, 1997)
    -INTERVIEW : with Jeane Kirkpatrick (James K. Glassman, November 15, 2001, Tech Central Station)
    -INTERVIEW : with Jeane Kirkpatrick (Acton Institute)
    -SYMPOSIUM : American Power-For What? (Commentary, January 2000)
    -SYMPOSIUM : Clinton, the Country, and the Political Culture (Commentary, January 1999)
    -Jeanne Jordan Kirkpatrick (Distinguished Women of Past and Present)
    -ARCHIVES : kirkpatrick (NY Review of Books)
    -ARCHIVES : Jeane J. Kirkpatrick (Council on Foreign Relations)
    -ARCHIVES : "jeane j. kirkpatrick" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of  DICTATORSHIPS AND DOUBLE STANDARDS Rationalism and Reason in Politics. By Jeane J. Kirkpatrick (Theodore Draper, NY Times Book Review)
    -AWARDS : 1998 Casey Medal of Honor: Jeane Kirkpatrick (Center for Security Policy)
    -ESSAY: Dictatorships and Double Standards Redux: Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 essay bears keen relevance to America’s predicament today. (Dalibor Rohá?, 10 May 2022, American Purpose)

-ESSAY : Faux Realism : Spin versus substance in the Bush foreign-policy doctrine (Jeffrey W. Legro and Andrew Moravcsik, Foreign Policy)
    -ESSAY :  Democracies and Double Standards  (Robert Kagan, Commentary, August 1997)
    -ESSAY :  So now we know - it's no more Mr Nice Guy (BEN MACINTYRE, Times of London, MARCH 24 2001)
    -ESSAY : The Ex-Cons : Right-Wing Thinkers Go Left! (Corey Robin, Lingua Franca)
    -ESSAY : When Left Turns Right, It Leaves The Middle Muddled (SAM TANENHAUS, The New York Times, 09/16/2000)
    -ESSAY : TAKING STOCK: IS AMERICA IN DECLINE? (Peter Schmeisser, NY Times,  April 17, 1988)
    -REVIEW : of  THE BATTLE FOR THE FALKLANDS. By Max Hastings and Simon Jenkins (Drew Middleton, NY Times)
    -REVIEW : Dec 21, 2000 Lars-Erik Nelson: Military-Industrial Man, NY Review of Books
       Henry M. Jackson: A Life in Politics by Robert G. Kaufman