To the Editor:

Jeane Kirkpatrick’s courageous and reasoned article [“Dictatorships & Double Standards,” November 1979] will upset the utopians and confound the cynics, and so it should. Its searing indictment of President Carter’s moralism in foreign policy has already been ratified by events, and the end is not yet in sight.

If consequences are the ultimate test of policy, Carter’s selective indignation toward other governments should receive a distressingly low score. It has perplexed and alienated our allies and given aid and comfort to our adversaries.

True, the confusion among American liberals between totalitarian and authoritarian regimes has persisted since 1945, but under Carter this pernicious error has influenced policy as never before. One reason for this is the shallow historical memory among some of Carter’s top aides: their concept of American responsibility was formed largely by the Vietnam experience and the U.S. civil-rights movement, and they have at best a dim recollection of the Yalta agreements, the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe, the Berlin blockade, the Korean war, the rape of Budapest in 1956, and the snuffing out of Prague’s spring in 1968.

This flawed historical consciousness, aided and abetted by an ill-founded sense of guilt about America’s “repression” in the Third World, adds up to a singularly destructive form of self-flagellation which must be overcome (at least in high places) if the United States is once again to resume its proper role as a respected, dependable, and compassionate leader of the free world.

Ernest W. Lefever
Georgetown University
Washington, D.C.

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To the Editor:

We are all in Jeane Kirkpatrick’s debt for her magnificent analysis of American attitudes toward pro-American and anti-American Third World autocracies. Despite the claims of “natural law” discoverers since Cicero and earlier, there cannot logically be a transcultural standard by which various cultures can be measured unless such a standard is hinged on religious faith, an anchor which is rigorously eschewed by the prophets of “development.” Let me just add a few footnotes here, without in the least attempting to question the main thrust of Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s analysis.

  1. The progress doctrine so well dissected by Mrs. Kirkpatrick has long been with us in other guises. A. T. Mahan, for example, meant much the same thing when he wrote, more than three-quarters of a century ago, of the West’s burden of Christianizing the world. It was only about a quarter-century ago that the devotees of global progress emphasized the central significance of private property and the free market. The abandonment of these earlier hallmarks and the abhorrence in which they are held by today’s “developmentalists” should alert us to trends in the future which may well find that such favorite themes as a free press or equal rights for women will be jettisoned in favor of God knows what. . . .
  2. Care must be used in defining friends and enemies among Third World oligarchies and autocracies. Anti-Communism, however admirable in itself, is not enough. Furthermore, measuring the degree of usefulness of any particular autocracy to the United States should be a continual process, and one should not hesitate to ask, “What have you done for me recently?” It is necessary also to examine the problem and prospects of the friendly autocrat cold-bloodedly. . . .
  3. Mrs. Kirkpatrick skirts another issue, which is probably even more weighty. She does, however, touch upon it in the last section of her article where she implies clearly that American foreign and security policy must be compatible not only with the “national interest” but also with the “defense of freedom.” No one will argue about the significance of the national interest narrowly conceived in terms of sovereignty, territorial integrity, national welfare, or even honor and prestige. But if something like “freedom” is admitted on equal terms with the national interest, all bets are off, and various weird preferences for one state over another will have to be given pedigrees as visions and versions of “freedom.” If one means collective freedom, one falls into the bottomless and ludicrous morass of “self-determination.” If one means individual freedom, one can hardly escape a confrontation with the concept of property rights as individual freedom, or with the conflicts among cultures and even nationalities as to what freedom is or is not. If there is no timeless transcultural standard of progress, how can there be a timeless and transcultural standard of freedom? We would be better advised to watch a narrow national interest and assume that it overlaps with “freedom.”

John W. Bowling
Troy, Alabama

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To the Editor:

In her article Jeane Kirkpatrick demonstrates the dire consequences of the inept attempts by the relevant U.S. institutions to move Iran and Nicaragua toward (Western) democracy on the basis of euphonious slogans (about human rights, for example). The author points out that what is known as “democracy” is a highly complex socio-historical phenomenon which took Britain seven centuries to arrive at. Within this subject, Mrs. Kirkpatrick says what has to be said.

But I am interested in something vast, new, difficult yet crucial, lying beyond this subject. Surely one cannot accept a priori the belief that since it took seven centuries for democracy to grow in Britain, democracy cannot be “man-made.” What about Japan, where democracy was “man-made” within years? I have heard the skeptical answers to this question: the skeptics dig into the history of Japan and fish out what now seems to them to prove that antecedents of Western-style democracy were present in the history of Japan, in contrast to Iran or Nicaragua (or Vietnam, Korea, Russia). These ad hoc rationalizations after the fact are usually not even worthy of discussion.

In other words, Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s article points to something crucial outside its subject: today’s ignorance as to how democracy can be developed rationally by man; how quickly it can be developed, if at all; and where and when. Surely this ignorance should not be taken as something impossible to overcome.

Lev Navrozov
Riverdale, New York

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To the Editor:

Jeane Kirkpatrick’s article makes some good points about the need to protect our friends, “traditional autocracies” included, in order to maintain United States influence in the Third World so-called. However, the conclusions do not apply to United States relations with Latin America except in a very marginal way.

Most of the Latin American governments are dictatorships, or only quasi-constitutional, and many suffer from political instability. But now that the Somozas are gone, there are no Latin American regimes, except possibly in Haiti (not a very typical Latin American political system, either), that fit Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s description. . . .

I can think of no Latin American head of state (again excepting “Baby Doc” Duvalier of Haiti) of whom it is possible to conclude that “Without him, the organized life of the society will collapse, like an arch from which the keystone has been removed.” . . . In none of the other countries is there any danger of a situation in which “armies collapse, bureaucracies abdicate, and social structures dissolve once the autocrat is removed.” With the exception of a few of the smallest and most disorganized countries, two or three at the most, there is no danger that the political regime will be overthrown and destroyed by Communist-led revolution.

“Autocracy,” as used in Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s article, seems to be like Humpty-Dumpty—easily broken in a shattering that gives way to chaos. The only safe course with this kind of autocracy seems to be, as with an egg, to let it alone in hopes that it will hatch something worth having, perhaps even, eventually, “democracy.”

Actually Latin American political regimes are not at all like Humpty-Dumpty—no fear of their shattering in the fall when pushed over. The Latin Americans have a variety of ways of handling the succession, often unconstitutional. But crises of the kind that took Cuba from Batista to Castro and that twenty-one years later could bring results we don’t like in Nicaragua are highly exceptional—regardless of past U.S. excursions and alarums, e.g., the Dominican Republic in 1966, Chile in 1973.

The major countries of South America—Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Peru, Venezuela—have lived under both civilian and military rule since World War II; the civilians have gained power through more or less open elections; the military leaders, all with institutionally strong organizations, have intervened with varying degrees of frequency to forestall what they see as threats to the social order or to their own establishment. . . . These countries, with the bulk of Latin American population, wealth, and resources, face little threat from Communist takeovers unless there were to follow international upheavals so severe as to bring on revolutionary crises throughout the world. It was Nixon’s error and our misfortune that he thought the Chilean army needed U.S. aid in order to overthrow Allende.

Mexico has its own institutionalized combination of autocracy and representative rule. The Mexican regime is at no more risk than the leading South American countries of being destroyed by Communist-led revolution.

The smaller countries of South and Middle America have political and military institutions that are much less strong and organized than those of their bigger, richer neighbors, but they are still fairly flexible and far from depending for leadership on one man or one family. Their prospects for resisting Communist revolution are good. Less well-armored politically than the big countries, they nevertheless will not be allowed to go the way of Cuba if these big neighbors can help it.

Even the weaker Latin American political regimes have very little in common with those of other Third World countries. Some Latin American countries have a substantial record of political competition dating back as far as the mid-19th century and they have generally looked to Western Europe and the United States for their political models. U.S. stereotypes of Latin American politics have been much affected by viewing the whole region in a “banana republic” perspective. With its Third World focus, Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s article only freshens up the old misperception. (Also we might beware of complacency about how well U.S. political practice meets John Stuart Mill’s standards of political purity cited in the article.)

Latin American political systems, on the other hand, do not give much ground for Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s hope that “right-wing autocracies” will evolve into “democracies—given time, propitious . . . circumstances, talented leaders, and a strong indigenous demand for representative government. . . . [T]he first steps have been taken in Brazil [and] could conceivably also have occurred . . . in Nicaragua if contestation and participation had been more gradually expanded.” This description fits the hatching-of-the-egg model—promised in the article if Humpty-Dumpty can stay on the wall. But it has little to do with actuality in Latin America. In Brazil, for example, the civilian political institutions that take power back from the military may be no more or less representative than those dislodged in 1964. . . .

If we want a political model for Latin America, it could well be the revolving door, except in Mexico. This revolving motion normally dislodges a military autocracy in less than ten years in the leading countries of the region. The door has become stuck beyond the usual term only in Brazil (since 1964) and Peru (since 1968), but even in these countries it now shows signs of once more starting to revolve. When these “revolutions” of the revolving-door variety take place, they are not social revolutions or uncontrollable crises. And we should resist the impulse to stick a foot in the door, and, if possible, also avoid giving it a push.

In Latin America the traditional U.S. policy of arm’s-length dealing with dictators still has much to be said for it, even when carried to doctrinaire extremes. The U.S. is generally more at ease dealing with governments of countries that have politically competitive systems—an alternation of “ins” and “outs,” even though neither party may be highly representative of a popular majority. And the U.S. can count on having better long-run relations with a Latin American country when the U.S. government has not let itself become too closely involved with a dictatorship, military or other, and has shown a decent regard for the civilian political class that stands ready to take over from the military when the latter’s mandate to rule is exhausted.

Elizabeth H. Hyman
Alexandria, Virginia

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To the Editor:

In an otherwise eloquent attack on the failure of American foreign policy to consider America’s self-interest and to distinguish between autocrats and revolutionaries as agents of social change, Jeane Kirkpatrick has added another name to the list of authors in COMMENTARY who are creating a myth about American liberals. . . . I refer to the myth that liberals are blind to the realities of Soviet expansionist desires and therefore are on the wrong side of every question which has some bearing on the relative influence and power of the United States and the Soviet Union. Two examples taken from Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s article will suffice to demonstrate the rhetoric used to promote this myth. In the first, Mrs. Kirkpatrick makes the claim that there is a set of beliefs “widely shared in the liberal community generally,” one of which is that any change, “including the establishment of a government headed by self-styled Marxist revolutionaries,” is preferable to retaining an incumbent autocratic government (emphasis added). The second is a quotation from Stephen Rosenfeld of the Washington Post which Mrs. Kirkpatrick cites approvingly. After referring to the fact that “Vietnam has been transformed for much of American public opinion from a country wronged by the U.S. to one revealing a brutal essence of its own,” Rosenfeld goes on to say that “This has been a quiet but major trauma to the Carter people (as to all liberals)” (emphasis added).

Not only are both of these statements patent exaggerations, they are undocumented as, in fact, is the rest of Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s article. Most liberals are as aware as anyone else of the lack of evidence that Marxist ideologues are benign democrats. They do frequently differ from conservatives and neoconservatives on how to deal with this problem, and it is on issues related to this problem that the discussion should be joined, not on the straw edifice erected to demonstrate how much wiser others (shall we call them non-liberals?) are.

There are a number of other serious flaws in the article that deserve discussion but would dilute the’ principal point of my concern. One does deserve mention, however. The very first sentence of the article condescendingly claims that the crowning achievement of the foreign policy of the Carter administration has been to “lay the groundwork for the transfer of the Panama Canal from the United States to a swaggering Latin dictator of Castroite bent.” . . . At least five earlier administrations, starting with that of Dwight Eisenhower, worked on the Canal treaty, and as for the crowning achievement of the foreign policy of the Carter administration, you may take your choice: the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty and the final de facto recognition of mainland China as a national entity certainly are more significant achievements, wise or unwise, as only the test of time will prove them to be.

Elliot Charney
Bethesda, Maryland

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Jeane Kirkpatrick writes:

Obviously, the letters of Ernest W. Lefever, John W. Bowling, and Lev Navrozov seem to me most discerning and persuasive. I appreciate their comments and will consider their letters first.

Mr. Bowling raises important questions concerning the relations between morality and politics which deserve expanded treatment, but I cannot resist a comment here. If I have understood him correctly, Mr. Bowling cautions against associating the “defense of freedom” with the “national interest,” first, because defense of the national interest seems to him justification enough for a foreign policy; second, because all other principles, including freedom, are transient and parochial (“If there is no timeless trans-cultural standard of progress, how can there be a timeless and trans-cultural standard of freedom?”); and third, because invoking freedom as a ground of policy opens an unmanageable debate about the proper definition of freedom. I respect Mr. Bowling’s argument, but cannot agree that a foreign policy should be or can be justified without regard to the moral quality of the nation that espouses it, or the moral consequences of implementing it.

I believe that I understand the considerable pitfalls involved in “moralizing” foreign policy and I agree with Messrs. Bowling and Lefever that the human-rights policies of the Carter administration illustrate these hazards. But the case against “value-free” foreign policy seems still more persuasive. Governments are not morally neutral: some protect their citizens against arbitrary power, some promote slavery; some cultivate individual freedom, some consign their critics to concrete boxes; some are restrained to a fault in the use of coercion, some would as soon starve their subjects as feed them. The fact that all nations with which the U.S. must deal do not meet our moral standards and the fact that the U.S. must sometimes, knowingly, deliberately, undertake morally repugnant acts, do not, I believe, mean that foreign policy is morally neutral. They only mean that morality in foreign policy (as in life) depends on prudential judgments about how to balance and apply competing principles in concrete situations.

The “realistic” foreign policy that pursues “national interest” without regard to morality ultimately founders on its lack of realism about the irreducible human concern with morality. The identification of moral purpose and national interest need not be articulated in order to be felt, but habitual silence about a nation’s ethos and purposes will eventually render citizens less certain that their cause is just, especially when, as in our own time, the nation’s morality is continually and aggressively denied by hostile powers. I believe that the rhetoric and behavior of many in this nation’s political elite reflect an ambiguity and ambivalence about the national interest that is rooted in prior doubts about its morality. If we—the likes of Mr. Bowling and me—cannot establish the connection between the national interest and the defense of freedom, we should not be surprised at the withering away of the nation’s reputation and power.

I share Lev Navrozov’s interest in how, when, and where democratic institutions can be brought into being. As he understands, in emphasizing the socio-cultural preconditions for democracy I did not intend to imply that a democratic system cannot be deliberately created or that seven centuries are necessarily required to bring one into being. I sought only to underscore the complexity of the task, and to emphasize that democracies cannot be brought into being by the good intentions of American policymakers who underestimate the difficulty of the undertaking. This does not mean that democratic institutions need be an entirely indigenous growth. In India, practices introduced by British colonial governments have apparently taken root. In Japan and the German Federal Republic, military-occupation policies designed to encourage the development of democratic institutions had the desired results. But a foreign power only rarely has the degree of control provided by colonial rule or military occupation.

A nation like the United States can encourage the development of democratic practices in countries which it does not rule, providing it has time, influence, and realistic expectations about the obstacles. The U.S. might have served as midwife to democracy in Southeast Asia if it had won the Vietnam war and stayed on to supervise the ensuing peace. But the need for uncoerced participation and restraint means democracy must ultimately be rooted in a people’s desires and habits. This need is the substance of John Stuart Mill’s comment on the cultural prerequisites for democracy (which I quote in my article). His comment did not concern “political purity” (as Elizabeth H. Hyman suggests). Neither Mill (nor I) postulated normative standards for judging actual institutions. He was instead concerned with the functional requisites of a particular kind of political system. There is nothing “complacent” about acknowledging that the U.S. has had such a system for more than two centuries. That is simply a fact. Miss Hyman should follow the advice of the late Martin Diamond and learn to face the facts, no matter how pleasant they may be.

Miss Hyman is even less sanguine than I am about the prospects for democracy in Latin America, though she is more optimistic about the Latin Americans’ capacity to defend themselves against Communist incursions. Concerning her comments, I would like to note that although only Haiti, Paraguay, Guyana, and, perhaps, Cuba fit the “personalist” model today, the quite recent experience of Argentina with Peron and Peronismo and of Brazil with Goulart caution against concluding that personalist populism has been superseded by history. Moreover, authority may be transmitted through personal relations whether or not a society is headed by a maximum leader. It is only necessary that particularistic norms take precedence over universalistic standards, and this condition prevails in many Latin American bureaucracies.

I wholly agree with Miss Hyman that most Latin American regimes are competitive (I emphasized just this point a decade ago in a book on Argentine politics), and I also agree that Latin American governments regularly feature both a military and a civilian bureaucracy. Nonetheless, the institutions of government in Latin America tend to be weak, and are often incapable of effectively managing conflict and competition for power. That is, of course, the reason the governments are frequently toppled by force. The weak institutionalization and the instability of regimes that are characteristic of Latin American governments mean then that they are, in principle and in fact, more vulnerable to violence, both anomic and organized.

Miss Hyman is surely correct in saying that Latin American culture and traditions are not especially hospitable to Communism; but what indigenous culture or tradition is? Communist regimes do not come into being because their leaders persuade a majority of would-be subjects that Communism will fulfill the nation’s aspirations. They come to power by coups (as in Czechoslovakia, Grenada, South Yemen); by invasions and/or military occupation (as in Eastern Europe, South Vietnam, Afghanistan, Cambodia, Angola, Ethopia); by guerrilla war (as in Cuba, China, North Vietnam, and, one fears, Nicaragua); or by a combination of these (as in Afghanistan and Angola)—always aided and abetted by the weapons and advice of the socialist fatherland. Occasionally Communist influence expands when the Soviets and/or Cubans and/or Chinese manage to persuade an incumbent ruler that there exists a harmony of interests between them (as in Guyana, Somali, Mozambique, and, one fears, Jamaica). Whether Central or South American governments will prove vulnerable to these tactics depends less on the indigenous tradition or the preferences of the masses than on the skill, ruthlessness, and external support of counter-elites. Neither Miss Hyman nor I can be certain about whether the governments of Argentina, Brazil, and Chile (inter alia) might “evolve” into stable democracies, but the experience of Venezuela, Costa Rica, and Mexico indicates that such evolution is possible. The prior experience of each with constitutional democracy enhances the possibility of a return to government by consent, as does the fact that each is governed by relatively traditional authoritarians who generally respect the autonomy of other social institutions (e.g., family, economy, church).

Elliot Charney’s letter is less concerned with the spread of democratic institutions than with the status of liberalism at home. He therefore reproaches me for purveying “the myth that liberals are blind to the realities of Soviet expansionist desires” and consequently “wrong” about all questions that involve U.S.-Soviet relations. I have until recently considered myself a “liberal.” Even now, I forgo this characterization reluctantly and only because I believe, as charged, that too many prominent and powerful spokesmen for contemporary liberalism are blind to the realities of Soviet expansionism, and blind, too, to the requirements for self-defense which that expansionism imposes on the U.S. I’m afraid Mr. Charney’s letter fuels my fears. In defense of “most liberals” he asserts that they are “as aware as anyone else of the lack of evidence that Marxist ideologues are benign democrats.” But are they as aware as anyone of the superfluity of evidence that Communist ideologues breed malignant tyrannies? That is the question.

Finally, concerning the crowning achievement of the Carter administration’s foreign policy, I insist only that the record is dismal. Neither the Panama Canal transfer nor the settlement with People’s Republic is the sort of diplomatic “triumph” that I admire. In both cases we exchanged concrete for intangible goods: birds in the hand (control of the Canal, Taiwan’s security) for birds in the bush (an enhanced reputation in Latin America, a new “realism” in international affairs). Maybe these exchanges will produce the promised benefits, maybe they won’t. Certainly it is too early to celebrate.

Of course, I applaud President Carter’s role in promoting the Egyptian-Israeli peace. But last summer, when I wrote my article, that agreement appeared to be on the verge of disintegrating. I later decided not to change my statement because it seems to me that despite President Carter’s imaginative, facilitating role, most of the credit for the historic rapprochement must go to Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin, and to the governments they head. It is they who transcended entrenched enmity, they who assumed the risks.

I very much hope that before long it will be possible to give the Carter administration credit for some authentic successes in foreign policy. The violent attacks this nation has endured in Iran, Libya, and Pakistan; the limited and reluctant support available to us in that forum of “world opinion,” the United Nations; the naked Soviet military intervention in Afghanistan; the continued Cuban-Soviet subversion of governments in the Caribbean, Central America, and Africa; and the President’s own impending reelection contest just might lead him to abandon his romantic view of foreign policy and to adopt instead an attitude toward the world that is more like his attitude to domestic politics.

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