Jeane Kirkpatrick, Realist? Hardly

Jeane Kirkpatrick, US ambassador to the UN during Reagan’s first term and AEI senior fellow before and after her service, died last week at the age of eighty.

Having spoken with her at length on one occasion and seen her speak on a number of occasions (and having helped her down the stairs once when a fire alarm went off at AEI), it was clear that she remained a formidable intellectual and skilled debater to the last.

In the aftermath of Ambassador Kirkpatrick’s death, Slate‘s Timothy Noah wrote a short essay entitled “Jeane Kirkpatrick, realist,” in which he concludes, “Let it be said of Jeane Kirkpatrick, on the occasion of her death, that she didn’t have to wait to see an Iraq fiasco unfold to know that the invasion was wildly oversold. It’s a legacy of humility that her fellow neocons would do well to consider.” In general, his argument is valid; the foreign policy thinking of early neo-conservatives, insofar as they thought about foreign policy, was vastly different than that of their contemporary successors.

Noah’s mistake, however, is to assume that “realist”=”Realist.” The lower-case “r” makes a world of difference. Noah conflates the two, calling James Baker and Lawrence Eagleburger adherents of “foreign-policy realism” (no capital). I would argue that the two former secretaries of States are, in fact, capital-R Realists. To them, all foreign policy is essentially reactive, grounded in iron laws shaped by Westphalian era of international relations. States may differ in relative power capabilities, but all seek to use whatever capabilities they have to secure their interests in the midst of perpetual competition among states. Ideals — the world as it ought to be — have little place in this vision of international affairs.

This is very different from realism, a cast of mind that does not reject ideals, but rather acknowledges that when in pursuit of ideals one cannot be indifferent to reality as it is. This was the fundamental belief of the early neo-conservatives, both in the views on domestic policy and foreign policy. They emerged as a coherent group in opposition to the Johnson administration’s “Great Society” policies, which they felt produced disastrous unintended consequences despite the administration’s good intentions. Some — like Nathan Glazer — made the same argument about Vietnam. For the most part, however, they didn’t reject the ideals; they rejected brazen attempts to impose those ideals, regardless of the consequences. Accordingly, the view of foreign policy outlined by Jeane Kirkpatrick in her 1979 essay in Commentary, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” was largely consistent with the domestic policy views of thinkers like Daniel Patrick Moynihan, Irving Kristol, James Q. Wilson, and Nathan Glazer. Policymaking in pursuit of ideals isn’t the problem; failing to temper ideals with a sober assessment of reality is. That was the basis of Kirkpatrick’s thesis in “Dictatorships,” in which she suggested that the Carter administration’s pursuit of human rights at all costs in Iran and Latin America ushered worse governments into power. She didn’t dispute the value of democratization or the promotion of human rights. She rejected the Carter administration’s foolish pursuit of those goals.

Thus if she differed from contemporary neo-conservatives on Iraq and other questions — and I’ve argued about the generational divide in neo-conservatism before — it was a matter of means, not ends. There are strong reasons to doubt the commitment of Baker and others of the Kissingerian school of foreign policy to using American power for idealistic ends. Kirkpatrick was not of that ilk. She may have had doubts about the ability of the US to bring democracy to Iraq wholesale, but she did not doubt the importance of democratization as a goal for US foreign policy.

Therefore to call Ambassador Kirkpatrick a realist, as Noah does, may not be technically incorrect, but in this case the word “realist” conceals more than it reveals.

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