Jeane Kirkpatrick’s Realism: Still Relevant After 40 Years

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” an astute critique of what was then the United States foreign policy establishment’s outlook. On reading the essay, anti-establishment Republican Ronald Reagan invited the Georgetown University political science professor and lifelong Democrat to become a senior foreign policy advisor to his 1980 campaign for president.

As she observed, the prevailing worldview among both liberal Democrats and establishment Republicans was that “events are manifestations of deep historical forces which cannot be controlled and that the best any government can do is to serve as a ‘midwife’ to history, helping events to move where they are already headed.”

This perspective on contemporary events, Kirkpatrick wrote, “is optimistic in the sense that it foresees continuing human progress; deterministic in the sense that it perceives events as fixed by processes over which persons and policies can have but little influence; moralistic in the sense that it perceives history and U.S. policy as having moral ends; cosmopolitan in the sense that it attempts to view the world not from the perspective of American interests or intentions but from the perspective of the modernizing nation.”

She took aim at the Jimmy Carter Administration and Washington establishment’s “moralism, which renders it especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy” and its “predilection for policies that violate the strategic and economic interests of the United States.”

She reinforced Reagan’s own thinking and helped implement it as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, with a national-interest realism that helped Reagan win the Cold War, as Margaret Thatcher noted admiringly, “without firing a shot.”

The establishment consensus that Reagan swept away had failed, Kirkpatrick said, “not for lack of good intentions but for lack of realism about the nature of traditional versus revolutionary autocracies and the rela­tion of each to the American national interest.”

In practice, this meant that Kirkpatrick had to take the heat as the principal intellectual and moral defender of supporting numerous U.S. allies that were traditional authoritarian regimes in the habit of some very nasty violations of human rights. There is no denying that overcoming the mortal threat of the Soviet empire would not have been possible had not the “good” Western democracies acted in concert with no small number of traditional regimes of the bad and the ugly variety.

Three decades after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union, Kirkpatrick’s lessons have been forgotten by today’s generation of Republicans on Capitol Hill and in their self-referential Washington think-tanks. Influence over federal appropriations and the comforts of pseudo-intellectual sinecures have conditioned them so that it’s always time to go wobbly.

Republican foreign relations staffers on Capitol Hill are mostly in thrall to the dangerous doctrines of hyper-moralistic ex-Republicans such as Max Boot and Peter Wehner. The world would be a safer place if those staffers would follow Boot and Wehner into the sunset of post-Republican utopia and make room for realists to advise Republican members of Congress.

Reagan and Kirkpatrick never advocated pre-emptive war. Nor did they believe it was America’s national vocation to pursue, as George W. Bush proclaimed in his second inaugural address, “the ultimate goal of ending tyranny in our world.” They pursued a realistic strategy to win the Cold War and roll back Soviet Communism without having to unleash nuclear missiles in a Pyrrhic World War III.

Following the West’s victory in the Cold War, Kirkpatrick told a forum hosted by Midge Decter that it was time for the United States to become “a normal country, in a normal time.”

At the same time, Kirkpatrick wrote, “There is no mystical American ‘mission,’ or purpose to be ‘found’ independently of the U.S. Constitution. . . . There is no inherent or historical ‘imperative’ for the U.S. government to seek to achieve any other goal—however great—except as it is mandated by the Constitution or adopted by the people through elected officials.”

George W. Bush and his administration, on the other hand, became at once utopian and bellicose. One would have thought that the younger Bush’s toxic unpopularity would have instilled a lesson in the next generation of Republican aspirants to the presidency.

But by 2016, the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination—with one exception—had embraced the liberal establishment pieties that Kirkpatrick had criticized so unsparingly. Three candidates—former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, U.S. Senator Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), and Senator Marco Rubio (R-Fla.)—offered nearly identical foreign policy platforms in effect calling for renewing the George W. Bush Administration’s prescription of sentimental humanitarianism and militarism, only at a higher dose.

The exception was Donald Trump, who has struggled for more than two years to assemble a coherent foreign policy team. Since winning the presidency, it has not been easy for him to put his promises and mandate for foreign policy change into practice. Most Republicans who have made a career out of foreign policy since the end of the Reagan Administration and the fall of the Soviet empire have been heavily conditioned by the foreign policy project of the second generation of neoconservatives.

The neocon generation gap is exemplified by elder statesman Norman Podhoretz, who praises Trump’s outer boroughs realism, versus his son John Podhoretz, who is hung up on considering the president from Queens to be too icky for polite Manhattan company.

Second-generation neoconservatism is marked by what Kirkpatrick identified in 1979 as “moralism, which renders it especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy” and a “predilection for policies that violate the strategic and economic interests of the United States.”

Taking bad advice from Condoleezza Rice, President Trump appointed as his first secretary of state a cos­mopolitan corporate bureaucrat. Trump’s first ambassador to the U.N. was a disloyal, extrava­gantly ambitious moralist who had denounced Trump as unfit for the presidency while she campaigned for Marco Rubio in the 2016 pri­maries. She used her position at the U.N. pri­marily to promote herself as a candidate for president in 2024, or (as Bill Kristol dreams) as a primary challenger to Trump in 2020. Trump’s second national security adviser, after the three-week tenure of Michael Flynn, was a deterministic Petraeus acolyte, like his mentor a pseudo-intellectual apple polisher.

The jury is still out on the quality of the replacements for those failed appointees.

Trump’s optimistic vice president follows policy and ideological predilections more in common with Bill Kristol, Nikki Haley, and Max Boot than with the thinkers and writers who contribute to American Greatness.

The risky adventure in Venezuela has Mike Pence’s name stamped all over it. Evil and inimical to American interests as Nicolas Maduro’s regime is, it is naïve to believe that U.S. intervention to remove him will usher in an era of honest, democratic government and the rule of law in that unhappy country.

Profound ignorance of Latin American culture is at the heart of the universalist, intellectually lazy neocon-CIA playbook approach to the Venezuelan problem. While it is true that most Venezuelans want to be liberated from Maduro, they will not welcome the gringos as liberators. If the Trump administration performs a “good deed” in Venezuela in any way similar to what the George W. Bush administration did in Iraq, the deed will not go unpunished.

Reagan paid close attention when Kirkpatrick wrote in “Dictatorships and Double Standards”:

Although most governments in the world are, as they always have been, autocracies of one kind or another, no idea holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, any­time, anywhere, under any circumstances. This notion is belied by an enormous body of evidence based on the experience of dozens of countries which have attempted with more or less (usually less) success to move from autocratic to demo­cratic government. Many of the wisest political scientists of this and previous centuries agree that democratic institutions are especially diffi­cult to establish and maintain—because they make heavy demands on all portions of a popu­lation and because they depend on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.

The reductio ad absurdum of second-generation neocon virtue-signaling today is the ongoing campaign of Graham and Rubio, both of whom were humiliated by Trump in the 2016 primaries, regarding Saudi Arabia.

Rubio and Graham are stridently calling for crippling economic sanctions against Saudi Arabia, our most powerful ally in the Middle East and a country that is getting ever closer to an historic rapprochement with Israel, even as they want to tighten sanctions against the Saudis’ current arch-enemy, Iran.

This is madness. Economic sanctions are rarely an optimal instrument. Deliberately harming the economy of any country and disrupting major world markets is never unambiguously in the interests of the powers that impose sanctions. Today’s sanctions against Iran could be justified because Iran is a hostile, dangerous power, but no one should expect the sanctions necessarily to prove effective. Sanctions, however, are almost infinitely more desirable than armed conflict with an unpredictable power such as Iran.

In any event, sanctions can be justified against today’s Iran because, as Jeane Kirkpatrick would have noted, Iran is a hostile and revolutionary authoritarian regime, not a traditional one as is Saudi Arabia.

Doctrine matters in ideological dictatorships. The Soviet Union called the United States “the main enemy.” Khomeinist Iran calls the U.S. “the Great Satan.” The Soviets really meant, and the Iranians really mean, these epithets.

Rubio and Graham want to, in the latter’s words, “sanction the hell out of Saudi Arabia” because Saudi Arabia’s government last fall assassinated Jamal Khashoggi, a prominent Saudi citizen who had been writing columns for the Washington Post critical of the current rulers in Riyadh.

I have a personal perspective on this. I lived in Saudi Arabia from 2009 until 2015. I actually knew Khashoggi. The grisly reports of his murder gave me nightmares.

Utterly misleading media coverage and wrong-headed political actions following the Khashoggi murder prompted me to write an Encounter Broadsides monograph, published this week, further discussing the topics of  Khashoggi, Dynasties, and Double Standards.”

Another personal credential: I witnessed the Reagan-Kirkpatrick leadership at close hand. Kirkpatrick was one of the most influential figures in my early career, as she gave me the opportunity to work as a junior staffer on her team at the United Nations.

We need to bring Kirkpatrick’s realism back into focus as a proper means of dealing with the international dangers of our time. Her doctrine clearly was that no sane practitioner of statecraft would want to do such things as throw world energy markets into chaos and cripple the economy of our biggest Middle East ally because its authoritarian government did one of the nasty, offensive things that authoritarian governments tend to do.

While not condoning Khashoggi’s murder, it’s important to recognize that he was not, as Rubio and Graham portray him, a martyr for press freedom and democracy. He was actually a lifelong Saudi agent of influence who became a turncoat, at the end of his life working as an anti-Saudi propagandist for the interests of the revolutionary Muslim Brotherhood and its sympathetic regimes in Turkey and Qatar.

The Reagan-Kirkpatrick response to Khashoggi-style crises—crises of horrifying human rights violations by allies during the struggle against the Soviet empire—was to practice quiet but earnest diplomacy with the authoritarian allies while resisting liberal establishment and publicity-hungry senators’ calls for harming those allies’ economies and security.

The internal struggle over Republican foreign policy today is putting Trump’s adherence to the Reagan-Kirkpatrick approach in contrast to the sentimental humanitarianism, bellicosity, and self-defeating moralism of the likes of Nikki Haley, Bill Kristol, Lindsey Graham, and Marco Rubio.

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