Daniel Finkelstein makes an important point about the career of the late Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Reagan's first ambassador to the UN, who died last week. He refers to the essay that first brought Mrs Kirkpatrick to public attention. That paper, entitled "Dictatorships and Double Standards", distinguished between authoritarian regimes, with which the US might be able work, and totalitarian regimes, who were the real adversary. Daniel comments: "This is not now the position associated with neocons. It is worth noting that when she drew it, the left hated it."
The essay was published in Commentary magazine in November 1979, where it came to the attention of Ronald Reagan, then seeking the Republican nomination for President. Commentary has republished it this week as a tribute to Mrs Kirkpatrick; you can find it here, with free access. It makes fascinating reading. The double standards the title refers to are those of Jimmy Carter's hapless administration, which in Mrs Kirkpatrick's view was tougher on the human rights violations committed by right-wing authoritarian regimes than those committed by leftist totalitarian ones. The conceptual distinction between authoritarianism and totalitarianism is crucial to her argument. Authoritarian regimes grant some autonomy to civil society and are susceptible to political reform. Totalitarian regimes, by the extent of their control, are impervious to reform. As one recent writer has noted (Murray Friedman, The Neoconservative Revolution: Jewish Intellectuals and the Shaping of Public Policy, 2005, p. 154; note that, despite the title, Mrs Kirkpatrick was not herself Jewish):
She made it clear that she favored the encouragement of liberalizaton [sic] and democratization among friendly allies, but never at the expense of an existing government that was fighting for its life against violent forces. In demonstrating support for [authoritarian regimes], she provided the neocon rationale for silence, at least publicly, at the behavior of those right-wing regimes that Reaganites backed in Central America and other parts of the world as part of the effort to defeat Soviet expansionist designs.
There are many things one can say in retrospect about Mrs Kirkpatrick's argument. As political sociology, it was wrong. Totalitarianism is a valuable concept, and Mrs Kirkpatrick was more accurate in the way she described the Soviet Union of Brezhnev than were the ostensibly sophisticated Sovietologists of the 1970s who claimed the USSR was a "pluralist" system. (For an invaluable and erudite account of the "totalitarianism" debate, see Chapter 4 of Walter Laqueur's The Dream that Failed: Reflections on the Soviet Union, 1994, especially pp. 77-83.) But the power exercised by the totalitarian Communist regimes of the East was more fragile, and the prospects for their overthrow greater, than Mrs Kirkpatrick hypothesised. The dominant factor maintaining Communist tyranny was not an all-embracing mechanism of social control: it was the Red Army, and its use - actual and potential - in crushing revolt. Take that force away (or indicate, explicitly or accidentally, that it would no longer be used to repress political reform), and the system would collapse. Nor is this being wise after the event. I cannot give a reference, but I clearly recall that this point was made in American foreign policy debates in the early 1980s by the philosopher Michael Walzer. Walzer was no less an opponent of totalitarianism than Mrs Kirkpatrick, and he understood the phenomenon better.
Secondly, the policy conclusions generated by Mrs Kirkpatrick's analysis were - as Daniel points out - at odds with what we now understand by the term "neoconservatism". Neoconservatives are now often criticised for an ahistorical or even utopian view of the consequences of democracy. As one forceful critic formerly associated with neoconservatism, Francis Fukuyama, has argued in this context:
Promoting democracy and modernisation in the Middle East is not a solution to jihadist terrorism. Radical Islamism arises from the loss of identity that accompanies the transition to a modern, pluralist society. More democracy will mean more alienation, radicalisation and terrorism.
Note what Jeane Kirkpatrick had to say in her celebrated essay in 1979:
Hurried efforts to force complex and unfamiliar political practices on societies lacking the requisite political culture ... not only fail to produce desired outcomes; if they are undertaken at a time when the traditional regime is under attack, they actually facilitate the job of the insurgents.
The parallel is striking. Mrs Kirkpatrick was not arguing for what we now know as neoconservatism. She was arguing for conservatism. As an early historian of neconservative thinking on foreign affairs, John Ehrman (The Rise of Neoconservatism: Intellectuals and Foreign Affairs, 1945-94, 1995, p. 121) put it, referring to the late 1970s: "Although many neoconservatives still claimed to hold their original liberal anti-Communist views, they had become openly distrustful of any attempts to improve the world. Instead they were happy to settle for just preserving it."
It is another story how neconservatism in foreign policy came to mean a belief that the spread of democracy rather than the pursuit of stability was the guarantor of our long-term security. In my view, the crucial intellectual figures in this were Paul Wolfowitz and (though he would acknowledge neither the role nor the label) Tony Blair. In my short book, Anti-Totalitarianism: the Left-Wing Case for a Neoconservative Foreign Policy, I argued that those of us who favour traditional liberal-democratic internationalist and interventionist principles might as well adopt the term "neoconservatism" for our own purposes, first because of the unnecessary energy expended in arguing about it when the epithet is thrown at us, and secondly because those intellectuals traditionally associated with the term seem no longer to hold by it. Forcing a split in that movement between those who hold to an instinctive suspicion of democratic interventionism - Irving Kristol is of this school - and those such as Wolfowitz who believe in the promotion of democracy seems to me a desirable goal. (To a certain extent the split is also reflected in differing views on the Israel-Palestine conflict, with those of the Wolfowitz tendency more aligned with the pragmatic centre in Israeli politics - supportive of a two-state territorial accommodation, yet aware of the formidable obstacles to securing a directly negotiated settlement - than with the now fractured Likud Party.)
Thirdly, the principal reason for encouraging such a split is that the conservative inclination, sceptical of a precipitate move to democracy in international affairs, doesn't work. I've said much recently about the ethical and strategic shortcomings of a realist foreign policy. I can certainly give a close parallel in Mrs Kirkpatrick's tenure as UN ambassador.
Notoriously, Mrs Kirkpatrick was the strongest proponent of the view that the Reagan administration should not take sides in the Falklands War. Her reasoning stemmed directly from her analysis of the qualified merits of working with authoritarian regimes. Yet the Argentine junta of that time was a peculiarly vicious one. In seizing the Falklands it had acted aggressively and in defiance of international law. In defeating it militarily, our side directly discredited an appalling tyranny and indirectly caused it to be replaced by a well-governed democracy that respected human rights. Mrs Kirkpatrick's counsel to the US Mission at the UN, Allan Gerson, later wrote a slightly breathless memoir in which he discussed his boss's dilemmas over the issue, and in particular her rivalries with the Secretary of State, Alexander Haig. Here's how Gerson summarised the issues at stake (The Kirkpatrick Mission: Diplomacy Without Apology, 1991, p. 123):
[T]he principles involved [in the Falklands dispute] were hardly all that clear. Were British Harrier jets sent to vindicate the rights of remote islanders against a tyrant? Were Argentinean troops in fact sent by a great liberator and foe of necolonialism? Was not the real issue the maintenance of the symbols of power by nations whose manhood needed a shot in the arm?
No, that was not "the real issue". This extraordinary equivocation - intended to evoke tough-minded common sense, but actually just unprincipled and obtuse - is one of the most astonishing passages I have come across in any memoir of that administration. I can find no trace of irony in Gerson's account, which continues with an oustandingly fatuous equation of national claims:
Symbols had to be preserved. Thatcher's and Galtieri's futures were riding on it. And so British citizens were told a "fascist dictatorship" was demanding sovereignty over their kinsmen. Argentinians were told that their dignity was being threatened by a fanatical British woman bent on establishing a reputation for herself as the "iron lady."
It is only fair to add that, after some hesitation, and owing particularly to the influence of the Defence Secretary, Caspar Weinberger, the Reagan administration did assist Great Britain diplomatically and in other ways in retaking the Falklands. It was a venture that confounded the sceptics of the projection of military power; refuted claims that the Falklands would be Britain's Vietnam (a more than usually ridiculous historical analogy drawn by Tam Dalyell MP); generated a "left-wing" campaign opposing military action against an imperialist right-wing dictatorship; and, incidentally, anticipated the principles of a Blairite approach to foreign policy, in opposition to what was then known as neoconservatism.
Jeane Kirkpatrick was an academic and diplomat of the highest intelligence. Her political principles were of their time - and they were wrong then, never mind now.