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Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ronald Reagan’s envoy to the UN, died yesterday at 80. She picked a graceful moment to exit, the day after the Iraqi Study Group announced its recommendations, signaling, we are told, the return of realist reason to the Republican Party. In the coming days, expect eulogies that will compare Kirkpatrick’s diplomatic philosophy favorably to the neocon delusion that convinced Bush to believe he could lead a global crusade to “rid the world of evil.” Kirkpatrick did after all lambaste Democrats in the early 1980s for believing the US could be “world’s mid-wife” to democracy. “No idea,” she complained, “holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances.” But don’t believe the hype, for the righteousness that underwrote Kirkpatrick-style realism easily bleeds into the kind of blinkered moralism that so excites the neocons.
Bush’s ongoing commitment to Woodrow-Wilson style idealism has baffled many observers, seeming to stand at odds to the Republican tradition of diplomatic realpolitik, particularly to the kind of realism advanced by Kirkpatrick and other top officials in Ronald Reagan’s White House as late as the 1980s. But the realism that powered the rise of the New Right, which brought Reagan to power, was of a particular variety, deeply ideological and committed to a fulfillment of American purpose in the world. With the Cold War raging however there were few places in the world where such a robust view of American military and moral power could be applied. But there was Central America, where US-funded and trained anti-communist mercenaries in Nicaraguan and death-squad states in El Salvador and Guatemala slaughtered 300,000 civilians and tortured of hundreds of thousands more. Kirkpatrick has quite a bit of blood on her hands (as do a lesser group of civilian militarists, many of them Kirkpatrick acolytes like John Bolton, Otto Reich, and Robert Kagan who we will undoubtedly hear testifying over the next couple of weeks about her wisdom and foresight), having justified this carnage in the name of national security.
Yet more than just helping to turn Central America into a graveyard, Kirkpatrick used the region’s conflicts as a form of collective therapy to work through the crisis of self-confidence provoked by Vietnam and Watergate. It was Kirkpatrick who provided the moral and intellectual framework to rationalize Reagan’s Central American policy. In so doing, she began the synthesis of the realist and idealist traditions of American diplomacy into a new, and highly volatile diplomatic philosophy.
Kirkpatrick considered herself a realist when it came to foreign policy, in the tradition of Hans Morgenthau, Dean Acheson, and George Kennan. Though a lifelong Democrat, she found herself repulsed by the self-flagellation that she believed had overcome her party in the wake of Vietnam. Attracted as a result to Reagan’s bid for the White House, Kirkpatrick met with the candidate early in 1980 and pronounced his “intuitive grasp” of foreign affairs “generally correct and very realistic” and soon accepted his invitation to join his campaign.
Kirkpatrick was a consummate “action intellectual,” combining practice and theory to rebut the philosophical premises that underwrote post-Vietnam anti-militarism. Appointed by Reagan to the position of ambassador to the UN, she served notice that condemnation of Washington, which had come too easy in the past, would now have a cost. Her office compiled and distributed the voting records of each member nation, and, when one or another country maligned this or that US policy, she called its envoy into her office and demanded an explanation. In her speeches and writings, she repeatedly pointed out the hypocrisy of condemning Israel while praising Libya, say, or censuring Apartheid in South Africa while ignoring human rights violations in Cuba.
But Kirkpatrick did more than just point out double standards. Prior to serving as Ambassador to the UN, which under her tenure was raised to a cabinet-level position with direct access to the president, she worked as a Georgetown political scientist who mostly researched the minutia of the presidential nominating process. She had a broad engagement with intellectual history, however, and where other New Right groups offered visceral but not very effective reactions to the Vietnam Syndrome, Kirkpatrick wrote terse, accessible essays that updated the conservative tradition to the current moment. Drawing on Thomas Hobbes’ respect for the centrality of power in human affairs and Edmund Burke’s respect for the intractability of tradition to understand the limits of that power, Kirkpatrick not only pointed out what she described as the hypocrisy behind criticisms of countries such as El Salvador and South Africa but actively defended the institutions of those countries as important bulwarks of order and stability.
It was in Latin America where Kirkpatrick’s ideas were most fully elaborated and applied. In a series of articles, she used the region to refute what at the time seemed like an emerging dominant consensus regarding what should be the role of America in the world. The US military’s defeat by a poorly armed peasant insurgency in Vietnam led many in the Democratic foreign policy establishment to rethink the wisdom of seeing all global conflict through the bifocal lens of superpower conflict. They began to recommend an acceptance of “ideological pluralism,” that is, the belief that not all societies will follow the same road to development. According to this new perspective, third-world nationalism, of the kind that drove the US out of Southeast Asia, should be dealt with on its own terms and not as a cat’s paw for Soviet Communism. Proponents of this new forbearance believed that the US should work with Moscow to limit the proliferation of nuclear weapons, divert money from military to human development (since it was argued that poverty, not ideology, fed insurgencies), normalize relations with Cuba, forsake paternalism and intervention, encourage allies to democratize, and promote trade and development policies that furthered global equity even to the detriment of US economic interests. Even Carter’s hawkish National Security Advisor Zbigniew Brzezinski argued that increased technological and commercial interdependence had made the world less ideological (foreshadowing much of the techno-optimistic writing on globalization during the Clinton years). Old dogmas, Brzezinski suggested, concerning the relationship of territory to national interests no longer held, which meant that the US could adopt a “more detached attitude toward revolutionary processes.”
Kirkpatrick responded point by point to this sanguine philosophy of international relations, while broadly countering it with an old-fashioned conservative insistence on the dark-side of human nature. Carter of course either ignored or opposed much of the new liberal internationalism, yet Kirkpartrick successfully linked it to his administration to account for the fall of Nicaragua and Iran, the spread of insurgencies in El Salvador and Guatemala, the ongoing influence of Castro, and the emergence of revolutionary nationalism throughout the Middle East and the Caribbean.
Kirkpatrick provided the Republican administration with the argument it needed to justify ongoing support for brutal dictatorships. Autocrats, no matter how premodern their hierarchies and antimodern their values, allowed, she said, for a degree of autonomous civil society. By contrast, Marxist Leninist totalitarians such as the Sandinistas mobilized all aspects of society, which made war, as a means to maintain such mobilization, inevitable. Since political liberalization was more likely to occur under a Somoza than a Marxist regime like that of the Sandinistas, Kirkpatrick insisted that a foreign policy that forced allies to democratize was not only bad for US security but detrimental for the concerned countries as well: it led in Nicaragua and Iran not to reform but to radical regimes and was threatening to do the same in Bolivia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Uruguay, and South Africa. Kirkpatrick’s analysis was not original. It recycled not just dubious distinctions between “authoritarian” and “totalitarian” regimes but also well-rehearsed justifications for supporting Latin American dictators dating back to the beginning of the Cold War. Yet it did provide the Reagan administration with a rationale for undoing many of Carter’s human rights initiatives.
Kirkpatrick went beyond merely justifying alliances with unseemly allies. In repudiating the “rational humanism” of the liberal internationalists she gave voice to what may be called the Hobbesian impulse in US foreign policy an insistence that brute power and not human reason establishes political legitimacy. In a 1980 essay titled “The Hobbes Problem: Order, Authority and Legitimacy in Central America,” she invoked the seventeenth-century philosopher to attack Carter’s conditioning of military aid to El Salvador on the implementation of social reforms, including a land reform, and on the reduction of human rights violations. Such requirements, she wrote, were wrong-headed because they ignore the fact that “competition for power” rooted “in the nature of man” is the foundation of all politics. Kirkpatrick advised the incoming Republican administration to abandon Carter’s reform program and sanction the Salvadoran military’s effort to impose order through repression, even if it meant the use of death squads. Such a course of action was justified, she contended, because Salvador’s political culture respects a sovereign who is willing to wield violence. Proof of this was that one of the death squads took the name Maximiliano Hernández Martínez, a dictator who in 1932 slaughtered as many as 30,000 indigenous peasants in the course of a week. Kirkpatrick described Hernández Martínez as a “hero” to Salvadorans and argued that by taking his name the assassins sought to “place themselves in El Salvador’s political tradition and communicate their purpose.” (Perhaps a similar logic explains why a notoriously corrupt and brutal Contra unit in Nicaragua took the name the “Jeane Kirkpatrick Task Force”). Washington needed to think “more realistically” about the course of action it pursued in Latin America, Kirkpatrick argued elsewhere: “The choices are frequently unattractive.”
Kirkpatrick also repeatedly attacked what might be called the Kantian impulse in US foreign policy, after Immanuel Kant, the eighteenth-century Enlightenment philosopher who believed that human progress would result in a peacefully ordered world government. Again and again she hammered against the conceit that US power should and could be used to promote universal, internationalist abstract goals, such as “human rights,” “development” and “fairness.” She warned against trying to be the “world’s mid-wife” to democracy. “No idea,” she complained, “holds greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances.” In classic conservative terms, she cautioned that “thought set free from experience is unlimited by the constraints of experience or of probability. If history is not relevant then the future is free from the past. Theories cut loose from experience are usually blinding optimistic. They begin not from how things are but how they ought to be, and regularly underestimate the complexities and difficulties concerning how you get there from here.”
But it is important to emphasize that Kirkpatrick was not arguing against morality in foreign policy. Far from it, for she believed that a conviction in the righteousness of US purpose and power was indispensable in the execution of effective diplomacy. But for America’s foreign policy establishment, Vietnam shook that conviction. The optimism in which liberal internationalists approached the world, she charged, was but a thin mask to hide the shame they felt over American power. The problem, according to Kirkpatrick, was not idealism as such but Carter’s misplaced application of it, which not only led him and his advisors to doubt American motives but to abandon the responsibility of power for the abstractions of history. Carter’s White House, Kirkpatrick pointed out, repeatedly explained foreign policy setbacks in terms of impersonal terms, as “forces” or “processes.” “What can a US president faced with such complicated, inexorable, impersonal processes do?” Kirkpatrick asked: “The answer, offered again and again by the president and his top officials, was, Not Much.”
Setting the stage for today’s neocons, she called for a diplomacy that once again valued human action, resolve, and will. If America acted with moral certainty to defend its national interests, the consequence would, by extension, be beneficial for the rest of the world. “Once the intellectual debris has been cleared away,” she believed, “it should become possible to construct a Latin American policy that will protect U.S. security interest and make the actual lives of actual people in Latin America somewhat better and somewhat freer.”
American diplomacy here, even in the hands of a committed realist such as Kirkpatrick, is an article of faith, expressed in the self-confident writ of policy makers that when America acts in the world, even when it is doing so expressly to defend its own interests, the consequences of its actions (hundreds of thousands dead and tortured, millions exiled) will be in the general interest. It is in such assuredness that the roots of the punitive idealism that drives the new imperialism can be found, roots which first began to sprout in Reagan’s Central American policy and now are fully bloomed in the desert sands of Iraq.
GREG GRANDIN teaches Latin American history at NYU and is the author of the Empire’s Workshop: Latin America, The United States, and The Rise of the New Imperialism, from which this essay has been excerpted. He can be reached at: email@example.com