Jeane Kirkpatrick, President Reagan’s U.N. ambassador, died today.
In this era when American foreign policy has once again been driven into a ditch by neoconservatives, her name is a reminder of another time when the U.S. made colossal errors based on fallacious theories. Kirkpatrick’s Big Idea, known eventually as the Kirkpatrick doctrine, was that it was OK for the U.S. to support repressive dictatorships because “authoritarian regimes” (like Chile’s Augusto Pinochet or, for that matter, Iraq’s strongman Saddam Hussein) were capable of evolving peacefully toward democracy, whereas “totalitarian states” — evil entities like the Soviet Union, Nicaragua or Cuba — were incapable of such change. We could talk to right-wing dictators; we could only fight the commies to the death.
It’s hard to think of another case where a public intellectual has had his or her ideas so swiftly and definitively repudiated by the march of events. Within less than a decade of Kirkpatrick’s formulation of her doctrine, the Soviet Union and its satellite states had peacefully thrown off their Communist leadership. Subsequent events there have hardly been without problems and dangers. But no one could take Kirkpatrick’s idea seriously after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In its own era, the Kirkpatrick doctrine looked like a nakedly obvious fig leaf for the ideological preferences of the Reagan team, who could relate easily enough to the Pinochets and Saddams of the world but who’d spent their lives winning elections by thundering against the reds. Today, Kirkpatrick’s legacy is a sad reminder to take all grand theoretical frameworks of global policy with multiple handfuls of salt.