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Dictators and double standards
Cold War II?
In 1979 Jeane Kirkpatrick published an essay titled "Dictators and Double Standards," in which she assailed the Carter administration for coddling communist dictatorships in China and the Soviet Union while allowing right-wing dictatorships in Nicaragua and Iran to collapse. The latter were longtime friends of the United States while the former were avowed enemies, she noted, making the policy perverse as it applied to American geopolitical interests. Moreover, she observed, while rightwing dictatorships sometimes evolved in a democratic direction, leftwing dictatorships never did. Thus the double standard was doubly misguided.
Kirkpatrick's essay won the attention of Ronald Reagan, then running for president. After he won the 1980 election, Reagan appointed Kirkpatrick to be United States ambassador to the United Nations. There she continued to expound her argument, confidently and often confrontationally.
Then Mikhail Gorbachev appeared in Moscow, and in half a decade, most of the communist world evolved in precisely the way Kirkpatrick said it never could. Dictators were replaced by democrats, or at least by people chosen in a more or less democratic manner. Even in China, where democracy remained off limits, market reforms liberalized commercial life for many millions of Chinese.
The Kirkpatrick doctrine was set aside and forgotten. It was seen to be outdated if not wrong from the beginning. The question of how dictatorships evolved appeared to have been answered, and the answer was that they evolved toward democracy.
Three decades farther on, the question is worth revisiting. It turns out that evolution doesn't run in a single direction only. Russia's democracy has devolved into a new kind of autocracy. Economic liberalization in China did not produce political liberalization, and even some of the economic liberalization has been reversed. India, Turkey, Hungary and other once promising democracies look less promising each year.
These developments matter most for the inhabitants of the countries in question, but they have ramifications for American policy. Two questions arise. First, what actions can the United States take to encourage evolution in a liberal direction—toward greater freedom for those inhabitants and greater respect for the sovereignty of neighboring countries? Second, what attitude should the United States adopt toward those illiberal regimes in the meantime?
The questions are connected. An American attitude of hostility would seem likely to foster not liberalization but rather the opposite. Dictators leap at any opportunity to cast other countries as enemies, and the United States has long been the enemy of first resort for autocrats. Russia's Putin and China's Xi have gotten ample mileage at home from warning against American efforts to contain and otherwise frustrate their countries' legitimate aspirations.
Historically, America's record of moderating illiberal regimes has been mixed at best. Reaganites claimed credit for Reagan's pressure on Moscow—via the Strategic Defense Initiative and his Berlin demand that Gorbachev "tear down this wall," among other moves—in causing the Soviet model to finally crack. Reagan's actions weren't without effect, but the more important factor was the rot within the Soviet system.
The liberalizing effect of American actions toward China has been even less demonstrable. Hostility during the Cold War accomplished nothing, nor did economic engagement after the 1976 death of Mao do any good. China, even more than Russia, is a large ship that can't steered from outside.
Which leaves the question of what to do until the ships change course on their own. An increasingly assertive school of thought in America contends that until China liberalizes, it should be treated as an enemy. Trade ties should be reduced; companies like TikTok should be shunned or outlawed. America's military should be strengthened and prepare for a showdown in the Taiwan Strait or the South China Sea.
As for Russia, the new hawks contend that American support for Ukraine in that country's war against Russian aggression should be maintained and even increased. Economic sanctions against Putin and his cronies should be intensified. There should be no letup until Russia withdraws from Ukraine and gives guarantees against future aggression, ideally including the retirement or overthrow of Putin himself.
These recommendations suffer from two weaknesses. The first is the lack of a time frame. How long will the increasing pressure be applied? As long as necessary, might be an answer; but it's not a sufficient answer. The resources of the American economy aren't infinite, and the patience of American voters is even less so. America maintained pressure in the Cold War for decades, but not without respites like detente in the 1970s. And comparatively speaking, the United States is much weaker than it was when the Cold War started, and even when it ended. Moreover, American opinion is much more divided than it was during the Cold War. We can't expect bipartisanship on anything these days, let alone a long, expensive struggle with no obvious end.
The second weakness of the regime-change argument—for such it amounts to—is that it assumes a liberal China or post-Putin Russia will be easier for the United States to deal with. There's not much evidence for this, and a lot against it. Would a democratic China be less likely to want to have its way in East Asia? Would Putin’s successor forget what Russia lost in the breakup of the Soviet Union?
American history suggests not. American policy didn’t become less aggressive as the United States democratized. If anything it grew more aggressive. Democracy was cited to assert an American "manifest destiny" to expand across North America in the 19th century and into Latin America and the Caribbean in the 20th century. America democracy produced a colonial war in the Philippines and foreign wars in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.
These wars weren't entirely unjustifiable, but that's not the point. The point is that leaders of a democratic China could be expected to be at least as imaginative as American leaders have been in rationalizing the extension of their country’s power. Comparable considerations would apply to a post-Putin Russia.
The problem for the United States is not the behavior of China and Russia. The problem is the power of those two countries. Powerful countries are all alike in the fundamental sense of wanting to shape the world to suit their interests. Power pushes out until it meets countervailing power.
Just so! say the China hawks and the Russia resisters. This is why the United States needs to build up its military strength and deploy it against Chinese and Russian aggression.
But where to deploy it? Not by any stretch of the imagination will China accept a status quo established when it was very weak and the United States immensely stronger. Russian power can no longer sustain the empire it ruled at the height of the Cold War, but to expect Russian leaders to be content with the sphere their country controlled before Catherine the Great is unrealistic.
Does this mean the United States should stand aside and let China swallow Taiwan and Russia Ukraine? Not necessarily. But it does require asking whether Americans will be willing to fight not simply one war for Taiwan but many. Chinese power won't disappear if a first attempt to take Taiwan fails. Nor will Putin's successors ad infinitum forget that Ukraine was Russia's for centuries before it became independent.
Solutions to difficult problems in world affairs never last forever. But solutions imposed by force have shorter shelf lives than those achieved by accommodation. The former leave one side embittered and aching to undo the imposed solution. The latter give both sides reason to preserve the new status quo.
To many, accommodation is akin to appeasement. Those who interpret it so should recall that appeasement was an accepted part of the diplomat's toolkit before Hitler gave it a bad name. Hitler gave everything he touched a bad name. Just because a criminal employs a wrench to commit a murder doesn't mean we ought to toss out our wrenches. Bolts don't tighten themselves.