December 8, 2006 [LINK / comment]

Jeane Kirkpatrick dies

Former Georgetown professor and Ambassador to the United Nations Jeane Kirkpatrick passed away in her sleep last night at the age of 80. She was a Democrat early in life, "but she grew disillusioned with the foreign policy of President Jimmy Carter." (I can relate to that.) See Washington Post. Mrs. Kirkpatrick was often considered abrasive and undiplomatic, but she expressed the U.S. position on issues clearly and forcefully at a critical moment in the history of the Cold War. She greatly enhanced the moral standing of the Reagan administration's hard-line stance against Soviet expansionism, at a time when appeasement was widely considered the only alternative to nuclear war. You might say she was a lot like John Bolton.

One of the most pivotal events during her term at the United Nations was the Falklands War of 1982. Being a Latin American specialist, she strongly favored the Argentine side in that conflict, while Secretary of State Alexander Haig favored Great Britain, our traditional NATO allies. It was a fascinating, dramatic policy battle within the U.S. government. Even though Reagan gradually adopted a pro-British stance, providing intelligence and minor logistical support, the rupture in relations with Latin American countries during that war forced Haig to resign. Not many people realize it, but the fallout from that war was one of the main reasons for the breakdown in cooperation between Latin American countries and international financial institutions, which contributed to the global debt crisis in the second half of 1982.

Scholars of international relations will remember Mrs. Kirkpatrick for her famous article "Dictators and Double Standards." In it, she bewailed the self-abasing tendency of many Americans to hold allied leaders to higher human rights standards than leaders of enemy countries. She condemned the "doctrine of moral equivalence" that saw no difference between the Communist East and the Free West. She also drew a controversial distinction between authoritarian leaders (who were friendly to the West and often open to democratic regime change) versus totalitarian leaders (who were implacably hostile and refused to consider any liberal reforms). Among the highest-profile autocrats of the 1980s, Augusto Pinochet would be considered an "authoritarian," while Fidel Castro would be considered a "totalitarian." The latter label would probably have applied as well to Muammar Qaddafi, but he surprised many people by reforming (somewhat) in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.

Back in those days, I tended toward a neutral, amoral view of international relations, not trusting the Soviets, but being skeptical of the Reagan administration's bluster. Eventually I came to respect Kirkpatrick and Reagan for their courage in articulating a moral vision in defense of the cause of freedom. Some day, I believe, she will come to be regarded as one of the heroes (or heroines) of the Cold War.