Four decades after the publication of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s famous essay Dictatorships and Double Standards, everything old is new again. Only the particulars of America’s predicament are different. Today, we face Russia’s hot war on NATO’s doorstep and a long-term struggle with a China that is both totalitarian and woven into the fabric of the global economy. Much like in the past, the United States and its allies need to do a better job in broadening coalitions against our two main adversaries.
Kirkpatrick wrote at the time about the need for a “morally and strategically acceptable, and politically realistic, program for dealing with non-democratic governments.” What might this look like in today’s world, where the faultlines are sharpening between the democratic and authoritarian worlds?
Kirkpatrick’s essay took a shot at the period’s naive attempts to democratize autocracies that were friendly to the United States. Such efforts ended up making way, as in Iran and Nicaragua, for much worse forms of totalitarianism and authoritarianism that aligned with the Soviet Union instead of America—all while dictators unfriendly to the United States were left alone or appeased. The relevant distinction, she observed, was between authoritarian regimes that were open to U.S. suasion and that could democratize one day, and the totalitarian communist states, incapable of domestic change and in lockstep with Moscow.
In our efforts today to build wide coalitions to push back against Chinese and Russian influence, we have to relearn how to make similar distinctions—though perhaps along slightly different lines.
Of course, many of the “traditional autocracies” of Kirkpatrick’s time have since been swept away by the third wave of democracy. While that is, on balance, good news, such democracies can also be fragile, flawed, and sometimes move in an authoritarian direction—as Turkey or Hungary have done. It would be splendid news if we could prevent such democratic declines. A world populated by consolidated liberal democracies would be far more amenable to U.S. interests. In this vein, if executed well, the Biden administration’s new European Democratic Resilience Initiative, for example, might make a meaningful difference in keeping other allies from following Hungary’s example.
Yet, much like in Kirkpatrick’s time, “architects of contemporary American foreign policy have little idea of how to go about encouraging the liberalization of an autocracy.” Take Poland and Hungary, both under populist, right-wing governments. For years, the two countries were treated by the popular media and Western policymakers as manifestations of essentially the same problem—and in many ways they were. After all, the leader of Poland’s Law and Justice party famously promised in 2012 to build a “Budapest in Warsaw.”
While both countries have de-democratized, albeit to a very different extent, the deep-seated differences between the two are far more important than the similarities. Regardless of who is in power in Warsaw, Poland is bound to be a thoroughly reliable ally of the United States, arguably more reliable than many of its traditional West European partners. Conversely, there are historic factors that account for Hungary serving as Russia and China’s fifth column in Europe.
Not only have Americans and Europeans long failed to make that and similar distinctions, they have also conflated issues that are critical to our interests—Hungary’s participation in China’s Belt and Road Initiative or Poland’s attacks on U.S.-owned media outlets—with a broader agenda of promoting liberal social and cultural values, fueling a predictable anti-Western backlash in Central Europe. Together, such policies harken back to Kirkpatrick’s warning against “hurried efforts to force complex and unfamiliar political practices on societies lacking the requisite political culture.”
Perhaps the least auspicious parallel between the present and Kirkpatrick’s time is the extent to which countries around the world—whether democracies or not—are seeking to stay out of the current conflicts between the West and China or Russia. That Indonesia, for example, appears extremely reluctant to disinvite Russia from the upcoming G20 summit in November is a testament to the limits of America’s ability to shape the foreign policy of countries of the Global South in ways that are conducive to its interests.
To take another example, there is no denying that Turkey has been helpful in boosting Ukraine’s defenses. Yet, apart from its problematic regional role, the government in Ankara was itself, until recently, a keen buyer of Russian weapons systems. Likewise, Saudi Arabia is a repellent, oppressive theocracy. But it is also a bulwark against an equally theocratic, and revanchist and aggressive, Iran. While we may want to wish plague on both houses, that does little to keep the region and its oil supply safe. Critically to the current war in Ukraine, an increased Saudi oil output could play a very helpful role in bringing down the Russian foreign exchange revenue funding Russia’s genocidal war in Ukraine.
Yet, the Biden administration’s record in building incentives for countries such as Turkey or Saudi Arabia to act as constructive players is decidedly mixed. Turkey, like other nominally pro-Western countries of the Middle East, is steering away from Western sanctions against the Kremlin. Riyad seems unwilling to dramatically boost oil production. It now accepts renminbi for its oil sales to China. “Who do these Gulf monarchs consider their true ally,” Josh Rogin asks in a recent article on Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, “the United States or Russia?”
While Rogin makes a compelling case for playing hardball with the Gulf autocrats, he does not address questions of why such regimes seem to have peeled off from Western alliances and what combination of sticks and carrots, if any, could have been deployed to prevent that. Here is one tentative answer: Appeals to democratic values are no substitute for a clear understanding of America’s first-order goals—containing and weakening China and Russia—accompanied by a strategy built ruthlessly around those priorities. As long as Washington itself is unsteady and erratic in the pursuit of those aims, it is hard to expect others to follow it.
The administration should be commended whenever it decides to do the unambiguously right thing—as in Ukraine, where, after weeks of self-deterrence, a more muscular approach appears to be emerging. Yet, much of the administration’s efforts are marked by lethargy and a lack of forward-looking strategic aims. In the abstract, a Summit for Democracy was an appealing idea. But can anyone remember what goals it was meant to achieve geopolitically, in what countries, and with what U.S. resources?
To deal with the current geopolitical landscape, what is needed today is not an abstract commitment to values of democracy, rule of law, and human rights. U.S. foreign policy must have a clear, reality-based view about what success looks like in different parts of the world. Thus, while we may have disagreements with Poland, Warsaw is a qualitatively different partner than Budapest. We might recoil at Mohammed bin Salman but there are solid reasons to stand with Saudi Arabia against Iranian proxies. In the Indo-Pacific, we have no choice but to engage constructively with the likes of Singapore, Malaysia, or the Philippines in containing China’s influence—however much those countries fall short of democratic standards.
To build broad-based alliances against Chinese and Russian influence around the world, the United States needs to roll out more effective sticks and carrots across different areas of policy—from defense through diplomacy, to trade and regulation. That is precisely where the lethargy and the inward focus of the Biden administration, epitomized by the slogan of a “foreign policy for the middle class,” become major problems.
Biden’s trade policy, to cite just one example, is simply a continuation of the boneheaded protectionism of the Trump years—keeping the World Trade Organization paralyzed, shying away from trade deals with our closest allies, and even continuing with some of the counterproductive tariff measures. Without aggressive liberalization efforts that could offer real market access and new opportunities to emerging economies, there is very little in the administration’s toolkit that could generate goodwill among the vast majority of countries around the world that are currently carefully sitting on the fence and watching the West confront its two major autocratic adversaries.
The administration’s gradual stepping up in Ukraine notwithstanding, Joe Biden risks falling, just like Jimmy Carter, into the trap of empty moralizing accompanied by haphazard action not matched by adequate resources. “Usually … governments behave hypocritically when their principles conflict with the national interest,” Kirkpatrick writes.
What makes the inconsistencies of the Carter administration noteworthy are, first, the administration’s moralism, which renders it especially vulnerable to charges of hypocrisy; and, second, the administration’s predilection for policies that violate the strategic and economic interests of the United States.
It would be good if the same did not ring true of our present moment.
Dalibor Roháč is a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and a contributing editor of American Purpose. Twitter: @DaliborRohac
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