Politics & Policy

St. Jeane of the U.N.

A diplomat who understood the importance, and abuse, of words.

EDITOR’S NOTE: Jeane Kirkpatrick, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. under Ronald Reagan, died Thursday at age 80.  William F. Buckley Jr. wrote the following about Kirkpatrick in the January 27, 1984, issue of National Review.

St. Jeane of the U.N., Part I

Several times in the past few years Jeane Kirkpatrick has let it be known that in due course she would be leaving the United Nations, and most generally this has been taken to mean that she would do so at the close of this session of the General Assembly, which event will happen in a few days. It is expected that she will be offered another post by President Reagan. It is not known whether she will accept another post. The guessing is that she would — if the offer were substantial. The guessing is almost certainly correct that she wouldn’t if she had any reason to suppose that the offer was merely that of a fancy title and nothing much to do. There will be time to focus on her future, but the time is now to evaluate her behavior and her mind, and the strengths she has brought to her position as ambassador to the U.N.

The magazine Encounter, the sturdy British highbrow monthly that is the King Solomon’s mine of anti-Communist analysis, ran in November an extended “conversation” with Mrs. Kirkpatrick, by George Urban. It is a convenient overview of our ambassador’s distinctive manner of thinking, which accounts for her impact on the United Nations and, indeed, on her larger constituency, the diplomatic establishment of the Soviet-American world.

To begin with, Mrs. Kirkpatrick does not like loose language. She is the kind of person who, if she told you that she had called you on the telephone “literally ten times,” would actually mean that she had telephoned you ten times. She begins by telling the interviewer that the word “peace” will not do to describe the relations between the Soviet Union and the United States, but that, on the other hand, neither will the word “war.” “We are certainly not ‘at peace’ with the Soviet Union, because the Russians are engaged…in a conscious policy of international expansion. This can take political or economic forms — both usually preceded and accompanied by ideological aggression.”

That term, she tells us, she needs to stress. Why? Because the cliché is that our differences with the Soviet Union ought to be settled by “competition.” “This is most misleading. I very much doubt whether ‘competition,’ when it is conducted by foul means as well as fair ones, covert methods as well as overt ones, lies as well as truth, is competition in the sort of sense in which John Stuart Mill understood it to be in a liberal parliamentary society. ‘Ideological aggression’ is, therefore, the correct label.”

This is important, she feels, because the failure to understand the distinction leaves us powerless to understand Soviet behavior. For instance? Most recently. Soviet behavior when the Russians knocked down the South Korean airliner. “We are reminded once again that the Soviet Union is a state based on the twin principles of callousness and mendacity, dedicated to the role of force, and governed by the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat, which in 1920 Lenin defined in these words: ‘The scientific concept of “dictatorship” means nothing more than unrestricted power, absolutely unimpeded by law or regulations and resting directly on force.’”

For old-timers who have known since early childhood what Lenin said, this may be yawn time. But the questioner (George Urban is brilliant at this kind of thing) pressed always for relevance. “Why and how has a sector of our media managed to attach a certain stigma to [the term] ‘cold war’”? — that being the term Mrs. Kirkpatrick adopts as correctly designating U.S.-Soviet relations. “How, indeed, has it succeeded in corrupting a considerable part of our daily usage, misusing words like ‘peace,’ ‘decency,’ ‘concern,’ ‘compassion,’ etc., and rendering them virtually unusable for meaningful discourse?”

Mrs. Kirkpatrick answers that “We have been manipulated into feeling that it is warlike behavior on our part to register the fact that [the Soviets] are waging a full-scale ideological combat against us. Also, in the U.S., where intellectual categories are the objects of fashion, it became terribly unfashionable to call the cold war ‘cold war.’” Mrs. Kirkpatrick goes on to attempt to communicate what it is that immobilizes the United States, the hold on us of false categories. She tells us about the influence of words on the American establishment. And for this explanation alone she should be celebrated. Stay tuned.

St. Jeane of the U.N., Part II

Jeane Kirkpatrick wrote, a few years ago: “What wealth is to a capitalist, what organisation is to the old-style political boss, what manpower is to the trade unionist, words are to the new class.” By “the new class” she meant the people who run the media, and who, at levels as disparate as university faculties and radio deejays, tend to set the public mood.

Mrs. Kirkpatrick, in the Encounter interview, confesses that possibly her primary frustration, as a woman trained in the academy, is the repeated failure of the wordmen by whom she is surrounded to inquire into the empirical results of their preconceived ideas. She gives two examples, one of them from recent history, one of them from current history. Consider Pol Pot.

”A good many of the symbol-specialists in the U.S. and Western Europe [believed] that the apple-cheeked guerrillas following Pol Pot, with their pretty moralistic statements of intention, would offer a better deal to the people of Cambodia than they received under Lon Nol’s more or less conventional military dictatorship.”

She can understand their believing this at  the outset. “What I cannot understand is the absence of any genuine anguish, of any soul-searching, mind-searching, and history-searching, when these people became aware that two to three million Cambodians were slaughtered or starved to death by Pol Pot’s men.”

So it has gone in this, the bloodiest century. Jean-Paul Sartre, Mrs., Kirkpatrick reminds us, the dominant intellectual figure in postwar France, declared, in a famous article in 1952, that loyalty to the Soviet Union and to the Stalinist French Communist Party was the first priority of “moral man.” Until the day he died, Sartre was thought by many to be a political sage. Why do we not learn?

“When Marxists tell us that the people of Nicaragua will be freer and better off after the victory of the Sandinistas, it is perfectly possible to go and see what in fact has happened in Nicaragua after the Sandinistas came to power, and to determine whether the labor unions or the press or the Church are more or less free, or economically better or worse off. than they were before.”

Is it that easy? Precisely the point is that it is not, because ideological predispositions get in our way. That is why more space was devoted to our “criminal” venture in South Vietnam (Jimmy Carter’s words) than to the crimes of the men who conquered South Vietnam. It is so with Nicaragua. “Marxists [and many non-Marxist intellectuals] are not interested in [postmortems]. They uphold a holistic vision. The content of this vision is materialistic and empirical, but its operative quality is its apocalyptic end result: the demise of the sinful bourgeois order and the arrival of the New Jerusalem. It is this final vision that matters, and that is held with the tenacity of religion and paid for with all the sacrifices which the bloodiest of ancient religions have exacted…”

Mrs. Kirkpatrick believes that détente foundered on two mistaken projections. The first was that “Russian insecurity” would end if we permitted the Russians to achieve first nuclear parity, then superiority in arms. The second was that “the multiplication of economic ties” between East and West would demonstrate the advantage of conventional ties between two great powers. We know that neither of the two happened: The Soviet Union’s power increased, but so did its aggressiveness. Trade increased; so did Soviet hostility.

Mrs. Kirkpatrick will in the next few weeks decide whether to stay with the Administration elected in 1980. That election, says Mrs. Kirkpatrick, a registered Democrat, was historically important. She viewed it as a corporate act of the American will: to survive, by making the necessary economic sacrifices to effect rehabilitation, renewal, and rearmament. There are those who believe that much hangs on whether she agrees to continue as an important part of that Administration.

The point here is that Mr. Reagan needs a counterpart who knows the language of the academy. His insights are crystal clear. When he speaks of the special characteristics of the Soviet state he says exactly about the Soviet state that which is true. But truthfulness isn’t the currency of international exchange. No one notices when the Kremlin lies about the U.S., that is the routine thing. When we say the truth about the Soviet Union the tendency is to suggest that we have disturbed the peace.

Profound battles need to be waged to explicate the usefulness of candor in diplomatic talk. There is a robust brotherhood engaged in making the effort to seek out the special trenchancy that attaches to telling the truth. They need representatives within the Administration. We need Jeane Kirkpatrick.


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