Twenty years ago, I took a course at Georgetown University on strategic thinking in foreign policy. It was taught by Prof. Jeane Kirkpatrick, who had gained well-deserved fame as the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations during President Reagan’s first term.
In an early lecture, Kirkpatrick read aloud from George Kennan’s American Diplomacy.
“I see the most serious fault of our past policy formulation to lie in something that I might call the legalistic-moralistic approach to international problems,” Kennan said in part of the passage Kirkpatrick quoted.
Later, in the same chapter of American Diplomacy, Kennan (writing in the 1950s) delivered what might seem like an observation on the war in Iraq. “In the old days, wartime objectives were generally limited and practical ones, and it was common to measure the success of your military operations by the extent to which they brought you closer to your objectives,” wrote Kennan. “But where your objectives are moral and ideological ones and run to changing the attitudes and traditions of an entire people or the personality of a regime, then victory is probably something not to be achieved entirely by military means or indeed in any short space of time at all—and perhaps that is the source of our confusion.”
When I later read Kirkpatrick’s famous 1979 Commentary essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” I realized there was a deep similarity between Kennan’s and Kirkpatrick’s thought.
“Dictatorships and Double Standards” dissected the moralistic mindset that inspired President Jimmy Carter to turn his back on pro-U.S., yet authoritarian, leaders in Iran and Nicaragua, when they were challenged, respectively, by Islamic and Marxist revolutions. Kirkpatrick perceived the root of Carter’s failed policy to be a mistaken faith in the idea that all nations are fated to undergo a liberalizing modernization. Within this framework, revolutions against right-wing authoritarians were not only historically inevitable but also morally desirable because they paved the way to the more democratic future that awaits us all. Left-wing authoritarians, by contrast, the Carterites believed, were on the right side of history, pushing for egalitarian modernization, and thus need not be resisted.
This moralistic double-standard in dealing with authoritarian regimes often put Carter Administration policy on the same side as the Soviet Union—and in opposition to our own national interests.
Kirkpatrick understood why this moralistic view was uniquely seductive to Americans, who, after all, cherished their own egalitarian and democratic tradition. She nonetheless believed it was wrong.
“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,” she wrote. “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 governments. 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.”
Richard Allen, top foreign policy advisor to then-candidate Reagan (and later Reagan’s first national security advisor), gave Reagan this article. Reagan loved it, got to know Kirkpatrick and made her a key member of his foreign policy team.
Now Kirkpatrick’s final book, Making War to Keep the Peace, has been published posthumously. It demonstrates that the principles guiding her thinking on foreign policy remained consistent in the three decades since “Dictatorships and Double Standards” was published. Most importantly, Kirkpatrick draws a clear line between the morally enlightened realism of President Reagan and the unrealistic moralisms of Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush.
It is simply unrealistic to expect the U.S. military to build nations—let alone viable democracies—in cultures we know little about and where the pre-conditions for representative government don’t exist, Kirkpatrick argues. This was one of the problems with Clinton’s nation-building misadventures in Somalia and Haiti. It is one of the problems with Bush’s misadventure in Iraq.
Clinton’s ill-fated decision to transform the first President Bush’s narrowly targeted famine-relief mission in Somalia into a full-blown exercise in nation building should have taught us a lesson, Kirkpatrick believed: “No one knows how to harmonize hostile elites, end violent behavior or induce respect for law and restraint in the use of power in another culture without a larger commitment of personnel, money and time than any President or any administration is prepared to make.”
This was one reason she opposed President Bush’s invasion of Iraq. In words that unmistakably echo her thoughts in “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” Kirkpatrick declares: “Iraq lacked practically all the requirements for a democratic government: rule of law, an elite with a shared commitment to democratic procedures, a sense of citizenship and habits of trust and cooperation. The administration’s failure involved several issues, but the core concern is that they did not seem to have methodically completed the due diligence required for reasoned policy-making because they failed to address the aftermath of the invasion. This, of course, is reflected by the violence, sectarian unrest, ethnic vengeance and bloodshed we see today in Iraq.”
Still, in the final analysis, Kirkpatrick was not a hard-edged Kennan-style realist. She was a Ronald Reagan realist. Like Reagan, she believed U.S. foreign policy must always be guided by a thoroughgoing analysis aimed at determining what practical course would best advance the national interest. Promoting democracy, in her view, was a good thing—when done in the right place at the right time by the right means (i.e. not by U.S. military intervention). It could be an instrument for promoting U.S. interests, but it was never a duty of U.S. policy.
“Policy under the Reagan Doctrine was established by prudential determination of the national interest in a particular context,” she explained (emphasis in the original). “It denied that assisting in the overthrow of an existing government was always wrong. Rather, it highlighted the need to weigh the legitimacy of such acts within their political and moral context: the nature of the government, the role of a foreign force and the existence of resistance. Moreover, even if such an act were justified, the Reagan Doctrine did not dictate that such action was always wise—rather, it counseled that the long-term costs and benefits of such action should be carefully weighed before taking any steps. Because once we intervened in a given situation, we are accountable for the outcome.”
Kirkpatrick did not put it this way, but I suspect it is in keeping with her thinking to say that a proper prudential analysis should have told us there is a vast difference between, say, supporting Roman Catholic Solidarity in Poland and actually invading a country in the Persian Gulf in anticipation that a group called the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq would help us construct a pro-Western democracy.
Avoiding Use of Force
She reminds readers that when Reagan used force in Grenada it was because several hundred U.S. medical students were being held captive with the imminent threat that they would be murdered—on an island where Soviet-armed Cuban Communists were building a potential Soviet airbase and where the U.S. had treaty obligations to defend local nations (the Organization of Eastern Caribbean States) that were pleading for our help.
Ronald Reagan generally refrained from using force to achieve U.S. goals, while carefully calculating the consequences of the policies he did pursue in consultation with brilliant, formidable, independent-minded aides—like Jeane Kirkpatrick herself.
“And we must remember that historic conflicts between enemies can be won with moral force, without firing a single bullet or missile; that cultural, market, political, and perhaps religious forces can be far more transformative in areas of the world where chaos and violence reign; and that America can contribute to the building of nations by any and all of these means—while preserving our military and reserving our sovereign right to wage war to maintain true peace,” she concludes.
Jimmy Carter believed that all nations were fated to undergo a liberalizing modernization and that it was the job of the U.S. to help history move in the modernizing direction. George W. Bush believes it is possible to end tyranny in the world and that it is the job of the U.S. to make it happen. Both Carter’s and Bush’s foreign-policies were well-intentioned. Both were Utopian. Both will have left messes for their successors to clean up.
Conservatives who want to rediscover in the post-Bush era what the basic principles of our foreign policy ought to be should start by reading Prof. Jeane Kirkpatrick’s Making War to Keep the Peace.