This year marks the 40th anniversary of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” an essay that changed the world.
Commentary magazine, which published all of its 9,800 words, calls it “The Classic Essay That Shaped Reagan’s Foreign Policy”—and few would argue.
In 1981, Kirkpatrick was named by President Ronald Reagan to be the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and the rest is history. The decisions made by Reagan in the early 80s, with Kirkpatrick as a key adviser, led, just a few years later, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union. Changed the world, indeed.
And yet even with the Soviets gone, today, another empire, China, threatens us. Indeed, the Chinese, at the rate they’re going, could prove to be more of a threat to us as than the Soviets at their worst.
In the meantime, now, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is on an eight-day trip to the Middle East, visiting our allies in the region, seeking to bolster regional strength against another rival, Iran. Some of those allies—most notably, Saudi Arabia and Egypt—are intensely controversial here at home, and so that’s another reason why Kirkpatrick’s wisdom is still so relevant, and important.
So just what was it in Kirkpatrick’s article that made it, and her, so influential? And why is it worth remembering four decades later?
In her piece, Kirkpatrick focused on the foreign-policy failings of President Jimmy Carter, who had so badly mishandled the Cold War against the Soviets. The immediate issue, back then, was that the Carter administration was more critical of non-democratic allies than of actively anti-democratic enemies. Hence the “double standard” in Kirkpatrick’s title; our non-democratic allies were scorned, while our anti-democratic enemies were sometimes even praised. Indeed, the Carterites seemed determined actually to depose pro-American autocratic regimes, thus paving the way for pro-Soviet totalitarian regimes.
As Kirkpatrick wrote, “It is this belief which induces the Carter administration to participate actively in the toppling of non-Communist autocracies while remaining passive in the face of Communist expansion.”
Kirkpatrick thus put her finger on a central and enduring aspect of liberalism: namely, the instinct to focus intensely on the small flaws of friends, while being blind to the larger flaws of foes. She derided this liberal impulse as a formula for “self-abasement and apology.” And we might add that this mindset never seems to change—hence, decades later, Barack Obama’s notorious “apology tours.”
At its root, such thinking seems based on the idea that if a foreign government chooses to ally itself with the U.S., then that government can’t be much good. Why not? Because, as liberals like to believe, the U.S. isn’t so good, either. And this attitude, Kirkpatrick added, was a form of “masochism.”
Indeed, when Kirkpatrick’s article appeared, the Carter administration was meekly watching as a string of allied governments were being overthrown, including those of Somalia, Afghanistan, Nicaragua, and Iran.
In each instance, we might add, the Soviets were active on the other side—sometimes in a big way, sometimes in a lesser way. And just a few years earlier, Moscow had helped to engineer communist victories in Vietnam, Cambodia, Angola, and Mozambique. This was the reality of the Cold War—the Russians were playing for keeps. Read the entire story here
The Soviet Army marching during May Day celebrations. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)