Open University

Dictatorships And Double Standards?


by David A. BellTuesday's Wall Street Journal, in an editorial that could have been titled "Two Cheers for Pinochet," cites the late Chilean dictator as proof of "the truth of Jeane Kirkpatrick's Cold War distinction between authoritarian and totalitarian regimes, with the former far more likely to evolve into freer places." That "far more likely" is an interesting sleight of hand. In her famous 1979 Commentary article "Dictatorships and Double Standards," Kirkpatrick actually wrote that "there is no instance of a revolutionary 'socialist' or Communist society being democratized [emphasis added]," although "right-wing autocracies do sometimes evolve into democracies." The Journal had to fudge, of course, because from our post-cold war perspective, it is is obvious that this central contention of Kirkpatrick's was simply wrong. Many communist societies were capable of democratization, and proved the point scarcely ten years after Kirkpatrick's article appeared. The fact that former dissidents and the West deserved most of the credit does not change matters: democratization occurred, and occurred (mostly) peacefully. What prevented most Soviet bloc countries from democratizing before 1989 was the brute fact of Soviet military power, not the nature of their political systems. Had the Soviets not intervened in Hungary in 1956, or threatened intervention in Poland in 1981, would those societies have remained communist? To be sure, some communist dictatorships (Cuba, North Korea) have had greater staying power, but then, so have many non-communist, "authoritarian" ones (Franco's Spain, Assad's Syria, Myanmar, or, for that matter Iraq, where Saddam would still be in power had we not invaded). It's remarkable how little these points have been mentioned in the often fulsome obituaries for Kirkpatrick. She may deserve kudos for her performance as U.N. ambassador, but not for this article, and its ultimately untenable distinctions.

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