IT’S A COINCIDENCE that Jeane Kirkpatrick, the astringent U.S. envoy to the United Nations in the 1980s, and former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet died only a few days apart. But in death as in life, the two are associated with a political theory that defined the early days of the neoconservative movement in the United States. Unfortunately for Kirkpatrick, its author, the theory proved to be dead wrong.
The idea was that right-wing authoritarian governments were much better bets for conversion to democracy than left-wing totalitarian ones. This is how Kirkpatrick put it in “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” the influential 1979 essay in Commentary magazine that brought her to the attention of Ronald Reagan.
“Although there is no instance of a revolutionary socialist or communist society being democratized, right-wing autocracies do sometimes evolve into democracies -- given time, propitious economic, social and political circumstances, talented leaders and a strong indigenous demand for representative government.” Kirkpatrick’s article, which focused on the Carter administration’s policy toward Iran under the shah and Nicaragua under Anastasio Somoza, made some valid points about the differences between Marxist and traditional authoritarian societies. But the article -- and Kirkpatrick -- are remembered most for the suggestion that dictatorships of the right (especially those friendly to the United States) offered more fertile ground for democratization than dictatorships of the left.
Chile, where the murderous Pinochet eventually relinquished much of his power after a 1988 referendum, seemed to vindicate the Kirkpatrick doctrine. But then came the collapse of the Soviet Union and the creation of more democratic governments not only in the formerly captive states of Hungary and Czechoslovakia but also in Russia. And as China has shown, spectacularly, Marxist states can turn capitalist in a hurry, though political freedoms may still lag.
Like other reductionist theories, the Kirkpatrick doctrine ran up against the wisdom of H.L. Mencken’s observation that “for every problem, there is a solution that is simple, clean and wrong.”