Dictatorships and Single Standards: How Western Resolve Toppled an Evil Empire

Jeane Kirkpatrick’s seminal article, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” sounded an alarm about the entire direction of American foreign policy. Although the immediate issue addressed in the article was the contrast between the Carter administration’s antagonistic treatment of rightist dictators and its solicitude for leftist ones, Kirkpatrick’s larger concern was the crisis of spirit in America that had been triggered by our unhappy experience in Vietnam. This was something deeper than a failure of will; it was a loss of self-regard, a loss of belief in the justice of our own ways and principles. Some of the policies that Kirkpatrick criticized, she said aptly, “followed naturally from the conviction that the U.S. had, as our enemies said, been on the wrong side of history.” The natural concomitants of this crisis of spirit were a deterioration of America’s geostrategic position, an increase in the number of communist states, and a decline in the number of democracies. We did indeed seem to be on the wrong side of history.

Now, a decade later, we can observe a complete reversal of each of these trends. America’s spirit has been restored to health; its geostrategic position is one of strength and security. The cause of democracy is stronger than ever before in history, whether measured by the number of countries practicing democracy, the proportion of the world’s people living under democratic governments, or the appeal of democracy as a rallying cry for people not living under it. And communism is in a state of collapse that may well prove terminal. We may safely say that the 1980s has been a period of remarkable success for U.S. foreign policy, equaling the now much appreciated successes of the early post-war years which saw the reconstruction of Europe and the democratization of Germany and Japan.

Much of the credit for this stunning change must go to Ronald Reagan. Much credit also must go to the American public, which never lost its common sense, self-respect, and sense of right and wrong even when a portion of its intellectual and political leaders lost theirs. And some credit, too, must go to Jeane Kirkpatrick and others whose insights and arguments formed an intellectual countercurrent that helped to heal the spiritual crisis of the prior decade.

There are some who say that the crisis of communism is the result wholly of domestic economic problems in the USSR. This explanation is not convincing. The spirit that informs Gorbachev’s drive for radical reform is a sense of the failure of the communist system. That sense did not arise in a vacuum, but against the background of the rejuvenation of spirit of America, the competitor against which the Soviet Union measures itself. Had America continued in the state of malaise that President Carter dwelled on and exacerbated and had the Soviet empire continued to grow, Soviet leaders might have developed no feeling of failure even though the masses lacked soap. Or they might have been tempted to seek the solution to their economic problems through foreign conquest and tribute.

Instead, America in the 1980s, led by President Reagan, adopted a rhetoric of “standing tall.” It supported anti-communist insurgencies, thereby challenging communism’s claim to represent the inevitable course of history. It tightened the restraints on the transfer to the Soviet Union of militarily relevant technology, and it pressed forward with a Strategic Defense Initiative that holds the potential for neutralizing the enormous Soviet investment in nuclear missiles. This provided the context in which communist leaders came to feel that their system was failing.

Some credit also is due President Carter. The rise of democracy in this decade—a trend which is not identical to, but mutually reinforcing of, the crisis of communism—owes a good deal to his human rights initiative. President Carter erred in not recognizing, or pretending not to recognize, that the cause of human rights rested above all on the cause of democracy. But people around the world readily enough recognized the relationship. For example, in recent months in Eastern Europe popular movements have put the demand for free elections near the top of their lists. Despite his errors, by making human rights a rallying cry of U.S. foreign policy President Carter gave heart to freedom-seekers around the world and helped Americans to rediscover the simple truth that their country is a great force for good in the world.

The tide of democratization had its beginnings even before Carter’s presidency, when Greece and Portugal restored democracy in the mid-1970s. They were followed by Spain. Then one after another of the states of Latin America established or returned to elected government until almost all except the leftist dictatorships of Panama, Nicaragua, and Cuba had joined suit, with the direction of Paraguay still uncertain. The democratic tide then swept up important parts of Asia and now most dramatically Eastern Europe. According to the annual survey conducted by Freedom House, as of the beginning of this year some 60 countries containing nearly 40 percent of the world’s population were rated as “free,” which means democratic, and this before the major changes in Eastern Europe. Never have these numbers been so great.

The tide of democratization has contributed to the crisis of communism. It has done this by strengthening the confidence of Americans and other Westerners in the rightness and future of their own systems, by offering Third World students and intellectuals an alternative focus for their idealism, and by convincing many that the choice for countries outside the West is not limited to a choice between leftist and rightist dictatorships. Now the crisis of communism is likely to lend further impetus to the tide of democratization.

It is in the realm of ideology that the collapse of communism has been most dramatic. Until now, communism made great exertions in the realm of semantic warfare; it believed that controlling language is a key to controlling thought, and controlling thought a key to controlling action. Certainly no single term in the dictionary has been the focus of more tenacious semantic warfare than the word democracy. Communism, though always practicing dictatorship, always claimed to embody a newer, higher, deeper form of democracy. Communist regimes called themselves “people’s democracies”; they referred to the communist world as the “democratic camp,” and they named their own internal dictatorial practices “democratic centralism.” Free elections, free speech, and all the other political practices of the West were merely “bourgeois democracy” in their lexicon, not real democracy at all.

Now, all of a sudden, they speak of the need to democratize their societies, and what do they mean by this? Nothing else than free elections and free speech and the rule of law and vesting real authority in parliamentary organs. In short, nothing else than the practices of the bourgeois democracy they have so long denounced. It is all a bit reminiscent of the Gilda Radner character, Emily Litella, on Saturday Night Live, who after a table-thumping exposition on some subject is informed she has misheard the term, and turns to tell her audience, “never mind.”

The collapse of communism’s pretense that there are other and better kinds of democracy than “bourgeois democracy” strengthens the normative force of democracy throughout the world. No doubt lots of people in lots of places will continue to act in undemocratic ways for a long time to come, but it will be harder for them to justify this to their countrymen and to themselves, not to mention to the outside world. In the modern world, popular sovereignty has few competitors as the basis for the legitimacy of governments. Communism has now conceded that there is no mechanism for the exercise of popular sovereignty other than the procedures of representative democracy.

In “Dictatorships and Double Standards” Jeane Kirkpatrick took pains to remind her readers of the psychological infrastructure of democracy, citing John Stuart Mill on the popular attitudes and knowledge requisite to the practice of democracy. The development of what she called an “appropriate political culture” surely requires time, but it is also possible that a strengthening international consensus on the value and definition of democracy can ease and hasten the process.

Outside of the realm of ideology, communism’s collapse is, alas, much less far advanced, although the process continues apace with the fall of the execrable Ceausescu. Thus far, however, decommunization has been limited to those countries where communism was imposed from without by the Red Army. There the anti-communist cause is reinforced by nationalism. It. will be an important milestone if this process can also begin to encompass those countries that were communized by indigenous forces. Of these, Yugoslavia would seem the most likely possibility, especially now that democratization has already begun in Slovenia and Croatia. Still, the force of national conflicts within the polyglot country could affect its democratic prospects in unpredictable ways.

Within Poland, Hungary, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia, the story is a happy one, as is suggested by the urgent appeal in an editorial in the Nation magazine to the Czech people not to forsake socialism. This appeal comes too late. The process of transformation in these countries is already “irreversible.” This odd term has only recently entered our political vocabulary, and it is an unfortunate one. After all, nothing in political life is truly irreversible. What I mean, however, by “irreversible” is that the party apparatus is so divided and bereft of self-confidence and the popular demand for change so broad and deep that no Tiananmen Square option, or martial law option as in Poland in 1981, is left. The only country in Eastern Europe outside of Albania where such an option seemed plausible was Rumania, and even there it boomeranged. There will not soon be others volunteering to follow in the footsteps of Ceausescu.

It seems unlikely, too, that Soviet forces could restore Stalinist orthodoxy in these countries, now that the entire Warsaw Pact is involved. Of course, ultimately the Soviets dispose of sufficient military power to subjugate all of Eastern Europe again, but this would be a huge undertaking against aroused populations inspired by the Afghan example and reinforced, in all likelihood, by their own armies which in such circumstances would probably defect from Soviet control to the side of their countrymen, just as the Rumanian army did against Ceausescu. It would have to be carried out not only in the teeth of international censure but also despite serious divisions at home. Such a vast repression is all but unimaginable.

As yet, no democratic government exists in any of these countries, but the logic of change and the theme of popular demands is to stop at nothing less than democracy. Neither in Czechoslovakia nor East Germany nor Hungary nor Rumania have the communists sought a Polish or Soviet formula in which free elections are circumscribed by the reservation of numerous seats for the communists. And in Poland the communists have agreed that next time around the elections will be fully free and determinative. Will the Soviet Union follow suit?

In the United States, we have begun a debate about how to respond to these developments. The Marshall Plan cost America some 36 billion in 1948 dollars—a lot of money, but one of the best investments America ever made in its national security. The successful consolidation of the changes that have occurred in Eastern Europe could be worth as much, not least because they constitute a kind of laboratory experiment that will have a powerful influence on the Soviet Union’s own direction. It would be “pound foolish” to stint on aid to Eastern Europe because of our domestic budgetary concerns.

On the other hand, there are other good reasons why our assistance needs to be given with some care and judiciousness. We cannot rescue these nations; our task is to help them to rescue themselves by creating private economies. Public funds can serve to stimulate the growth of private enterprise, but they can also be used to retard it. The so-called SEED Act (Support for East European Democracy) enacted and signed last November is a step in the right direction. It offers some emergency assistance aimed at alleviating food shortages and facilitating currency stabilization, while its main emphasis is on programs designed to stimulate the growth of private business by encouraging investment both foreign and domestic, by training and technical assistance, and by encouraging similar efforts by the other industrialized democracies.

In the Soviet Union itself, President Bush is right to take the stance that we have an interest in the success of perestroika. If we can help stimulate the growth of the private sector there we should do so. The most important contribution we can make, however, may be in trying to stimulate the growth of a larger constituency for democracy in the USSR. So far, change there has been too much the product of initiative from above. While the populations of Hungary, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and East Germany, express great cultural affinity for the West the psychological infrastructure of democracy in the Soviet Union seems weak, notwithstanding the existence of the most admirable democratic opposition groups and individuals. As an essential part of the new friendliness in U.S.-Soviet relations so well displayed at the Malta summit, we ought to seek a geometric expansion of mechanisms and opportunities for reaching Soviet audiences with information about our political and economic ideas and a truthful picture of life in the West.

Finally, we ought not to adopt a stance toward China that saps the moral authority of our stance toward the Soviet bloc. If President Bush has concluded that the imperial threat posed by the Soviet Union has diminished, his first response should not be to cut the military. (There will be plenty of time to reduce defense outlays once the current happy changes have been consolidated.) Rather he should sever the bonds that inhibit his government from giving offense to the rulers of China on the illusory grounds that we need them as a counterweight against Soviet power. That illusion was one of the most pathetic features of the crisis of spirit in America that Jeane Kirkpatrick depicted in “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” In truth, it was China that needed America to protect it from the Soviet Union, not the other way around. It was against China that Soviet leaders proposed to Henry Kissinger to initiate a nuclear attack; they never, to our knowledge, have gone so far as to propose such an attack against the United States. America has always had the capacity to secure its own defense; only its will has been in doubt. Now that the Soviet threat to us seems to recede by the day, why cling to this thaumaturgic joker, the “China card”?

The key to America’s reversal of fortunes this decade has been the renewal of confidence in our own strength and our own principles. Those principles require that we keep faith with China’s democracy movement, not its oppressors. But what about our strategic interests? In this case, as so much more often than our “strategic thinkers” realize, our principles and our interests are as one. The path to our safety is now clearer than ever. It lies in the collapse of communism. What greater blow could be dealt to the crumbling house of communism than the triumph of China’s democracy movement which we know lies mighty beneath the surface? By what conceivable calculus is it in our interest to lend weight to those aged tyrants trying to keep it down?

The collapse of communism would herald not only a world more peaceful than we have known, but also more happy. It is entirely possible that the decade ahead will witness changes as rapid and positive as in the decade just past. We might ten years hence find a world the majority of whose people enjoy the dignity of self-government and where even many poor countries have made significant strides toward prosperity once freed from the distractions of the cold war and the myths of socialism. Such a triumph of democracy would constitute not an end to history, but rather, to paraphrase Marx, an end to pre-history and the beginning of a rich new chapter in man’s development.


  • Joshua Muravchick

    Joshua Muravchik is a scholar formerly at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research and now a fellow at the School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) of Johns Hopkins University. He is an adjunct professor at the DC based Institute of World Politics.

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