Sunday, December 17, 2006

Jeane Kirkpatrick in Retrospect: "Forces" versus People

One of the oddest traits of Jean Kirkpatrick's Dictatorships and Double Standards is her view of US (and Soviet) power with respect to social conditions in Third World countries. She sees many social factors that make the development of democracy difficult and warns that we cannot impose it at will. Yet she also appears to believe that social factors have no role whatever in the occurrence of revolutions. Rather, the Soviet Union can create revolutions at, which fortunately we are always able to stop.

Kirkpatrick is most often praised these days for acknowledging how difficult it is to create a democracy:

Fulfilling the duties and discharging the functions of representative government make heavy demands on leaders and citizens, demands for participation and restraint, for consensus and compromise. It is not necessary for all citizens to be avidly interested in politics or well-informed about public affairs--although far more widespread interest and mobilization are needed than in autocracies. What is necessary is that a substantial number of citizens think of themselves as participants in society's decision-making and not simply as subjects bound by its laws. Moreover, leaders of all major sectors of the society must agree to pursue power only by legal means, must eschew (at least in principle) violence, theft, and fraud, and must accept defeat when necessary. They must also be skilled at finding and creating common ground among diverse points of view and interests, and correlatively willing to compromise on all but the most basic values.

In addition to an appropriate political culture, democratic government requires institutions strong enough to channel and contain conflict. Voluntary, non-official institutions are needed to articulate and aggregate diverse interests and opinions present in the society. Otherwise, the formal governmental institutions will not be able to translate popular demands into public policy.

In the relatively few places where they exist, democratic governments have come into being slowly, after extended prior experience with more limited forms of participation during which leaders have reluctantly grown accustomed to tolerating dissent and opposition, opponents have accepted the notion that they may defeat but not destroy incumbents, and people have become aware of government's effects on their lives and of their own possible effects on government. Decades, if not centuries, are normally required for people to acquire the necessary disciplines and habits.


These are all sound points. What Kirkpatrick ignores is that the Carter Administration was not, in fact, calling on foreign governments to become democracies overnight, only to respect basic human rights. Respect for basic human rights is part of the necessary groundwork that can later lead to democracy.

While Kirkpatrick believes that objective social conditions have a great deal to do with whether a society is capable of democracy, and that the US has little power to change them, she has no patience for the view that objective social conditions have anything to do with causing revolutions.

The idea that it is "forces" rather than people which shape events recurs each time an administration spokesman articulates or explains policy. The President, for example, assured us in February of this year:

The revolution in Iran is a product of deep social, political, religious, and economic factors growing out of the history of Iran itself.

. . . .

Harold Saunders, Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern and South Asian Affairs, commenting on "instability" in Iran and the Horn of Africa, states:

We, of course, recognize that fundamental changes are taking place across this area of western Asia and northeastern Africa--economic modernization, social change, a revival of religion, resurgent nationalism, demands for broader popular participation in the political process. These changes are generated by forces within each country.

. . . .

So what if the "deep historical forces" at work in such diverse places as Iran, the Horn of Africa, Southeast Asia, Central America, and the United Nations look a lot like Russians or Cubans? . . . What can a U.S. President faced with such complicated, inexorable, impersonal processes do? The answer, offered again and again by the President and his top officials, is, not much. Since events are not caused by human decisions, they cannot be stopped or altered by them.

Something very odd is going on here. Although Kirkpatrick does not use the dread term "forces" in talking about countries' capacity for democracy, she makes quite clear that democratization is not simply a matter of individual will, but depends on objective social conditions. Yet she seems to have no concept that what predisposes a society toward revolution also has something to do with objective social conditions such as "economic modernization, social change, a revival of religion, resurgent nationalism, demands for broader popular participation in the political process." Revolutions are simply the result of Russians and Cuban stirring up trouble, or, at most, indiginous revolutionaries armed and encouraged by Russians and Cubans.

Kirkpatrick has half a point here. It is true that hard-core revolutionaries are generally a relatively small elite, and that it is this elite often tries to stir up revolution absent popular discontent. But for revolutionaries to move beyond a mere annoyance and actually menace the regime in power, they must have a certain critical mass of support. Attracting that critical mass does, indeed, depend a great deal on "broad historical forces" and objective social conditions, including the serious disruptions in people's lives that supposedly "traditional" governments can cause. And Kirkpatrick seems utterly blind to the fact that the revolutions in both Nicaragua and Iran (the countries she emphasizes) were exceptionally broad-based popular uprisings. Kirkpatrick is certainly right that in both countries it was a narrow revolutionary elite and not the general public that determined the direction of the revoultion. Doubtless it is true that in both countries the revolution moved off in directions the general public would not have chosen. But in both cases the broad public was willing to take that gamble.

Kirkpatrick heaps scorn on Jimmy Carter for saying there was not much he could do, and that he did not know whether the Shah would stay in power. She is amply clear that the United States, so powerless to create democracy, is omnipotent in maintaining autocrat in power. What Kirkpatrick is really saying is that Carter was a fool for not seeing bombing them back to the stone age or waging war on the entire population as acceptable alternatives.

Another thought Kirkpatrick should consider. If the Soviet Union was so omnipotent and could create revolutions and topple pro-Western governments anytime, anywhere regardless of objective social conditions, why did it choose such unlikely spots? If the Cubans can gobble up Nicaragua any time they want, surely Mexico would be a more attractive target. If they can wave their magic wand and create revolution in Iran, why not Saudi Arabia while they are at it? And, for that matter, what on earth possessed them to prefer Vietnam to India? Not once does she even address how the Soviets choose their supposed targets.

Kirkpatrick is doubtless right that the right conditions must be in place to create democracy. But she is dead wrong in assuming that conditions are unrelated to revolution.

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