The Kirkpatrick Doctrine and Domestic Policy

Jeane Kirkpatrick was the American Ambassador to the United Nations during Ronald Reagan’s presidency. A brilliant and principled woman, she was famous for her pithy characterizations of the surreal, indecorous nature of politics at the UN. She once said, for example: “What takes place in the Security Council more closely resembles a mugging than either a political debate or an effort at problem-solving.” International relations during the Cold War were heavy-handed and ominous, not to say apocalyptic. And yet, Noam Chomsky labeled Kirkpatrick the “Chief sadist-in-residence of the Reagan Administration.” That was enough for me. I’ll always be her greatest fan.

Kirkpatrick will be most remembered, however, for the foreign policy doctrine that took her name. There are, of course, exceptions to any rule about human beings, but the Kirkpatrick doctrine articulates what most mature observers of the world intuit but never say in polite company: it’s just not as easy for a left-wing totalitarian regime as it is for a right-wing authoritarian regime to return to the international community.

The premises here are that right-wing regimes seek to restore or maintain the social order, which has its origins in natural law, whereas left-wing regimes seek to change human nature itself, forcing citizens to adopt specific behaviors and ideas, thereby rejecting natural law and instead embracing economic planning and ideological indoctrination. The latter situation leads to cycles of fear and brutality and to the kinds of socioeconomic disasters that require more cycles of fear and brutality. Over time, left-wing regimes tend to double down, and so they’re more at risk of devolving into madhouses. By contrast, right-wing regimes tend to be satisfied by the assertion of law and order, at which point they’re prone to undergo liberalization.

The Kirkpatrick doctrine implies basic norms for conducting foreign policy.

Assuming we believe in free markets and political dialogue, it follows that in times of severe international crisis, we ought to tolerate right-wing authoritarian regimes. Also, we ought to refrain from intervening in the domestic politics of other countries in ways that support leftist ideologues who make nice when it’s convenient but who have no plans to allow political opposition once they’re in power. We might occasionally criticize right-wing regimes, but we’re prepared to allow law and order to take hold, and we prefer a right-wing regime if the alternative is the radical left.

These are disagreeable suppositions, but they should not shock anybody.

The alternative makes for worse outcomes. For decades now, especially in Latin America, the United States has ceded ground to socialists and communists. The strong notes of stability in countries like Panama, Costa Rica, Peru, Guatemala, and Chile have been countered by a long list of leftist regimes that flirt with narco-terrorist organizations and have ties to Iran, Russia, and China. These include stalwarts like Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua, but also, though in more on-again, off-again fashion, Brazil, Ecuador, Bolivia, Argentina, Colombia, and Mexico.

I’m not arguing for invasions. I’m pointing out that difficult decisions must be made regarding whom we support in such countries. Making nice with leftists is worse than making nice with rightists.

Yes, sometimes political change won’t come until people finally decide to overthrow their own leftist totalitarian governments. And it’s often a counterintuitive process whereby we let people get what they want, and hard. But this idea—that “tough love” must be taken to heart before nations rejoin the liberal democratic order—hasn’t been the philosophy driving the inept foreign policies of the Obama and Biden administrations.

A similar pattern appears in the domestic political dialectics of most Western democracies. It’s said all politics are local. Wrong, all politics are geopolitical. Whether at home or abroad, the left flaunts its angst more than the right, and the right yields more than the left.

Governor Morris, the man who finally put pen to paper to create the American Constitution of 1789, noted that to be a classical liberal is to master the art of losing without suffering too much. A century and a half later, Austrian novelist Robert Musil observed that the domestic left tends to be anti-patriotic because it views humans in universal terms. Compassion is centrifugal.

Morris’s and Musil’s insights are perhaps most true regarding close neighbors. After WWI, the German left embraced the Russian Revolution in ways that the English Labor Party could never stomach. Similarly, the American left now openly applauds every outbreak of Stalinism in Latin America. The results of such postures are suicide by charity—i.e., concessions and open borders that are not helpful for maintaining the domestic rule of law, much less regional stability. After WWI, Germany took an inflationary turn that led to the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Today, America seems prepared to concede more than just California, Illinois, and New York to the degenerate experiments of socialist fanatics who also happen to pander to illegal immigrants.

Political mobilization is always more difficult on the right. Mavericks, businessmen, and people who are independently wealthy don’t bother that much with politics because politics don’t bother them that much. They also don’t gather together outside of places of worship or sporting events. Absent a ritual or a contest, they prefer life in smaller spheres.

This difference makes freedom of assembly dangerous.

It’s the liberal concession most often exploited by the left and unheeded by the right. In his magnum opus, Democracy in America (1835/40), Alexis de Tocqueville endorsed practically every right advanced by the American Constitution. One of the few that gave him pause was the right of assembly. After all, the actions of the masses distinguish a radical revolution that spirals into totalitarianism from a liberal revolution that can still return to the rule of law. Like Tocqueville, most European liberals learned from the Terror at Paris that the right to gather in public places carries more risk than other liberties because it unleashes the mob. In 1848, Tocqueville—unlike his bourgeois compatriot Frédéric Bastiat—backed General Cavaignac’s repression of the June Days uprising.

In effect, Cavaignac anticipated the Kirkpatrick doctrine in its domestic guise. For a liberal democracy to survive, it must limit unrest in the public square.

In the U.S., it’s now obvious that when the left takes over institutions, things fall apart.

Universities, corporations, intelligence services, churches, news outlets, federal agencies, and the military have all become unreliable, if not downright treasonous and dysfunctional. The left uses these institutions to spy on presidents, brainwash the public, jail and bankrupt their political opponents, underwrite corruption, and enact censorship—even sporting events have been politicized.

It’s this polarization of American culture that foreigners, especially conservative ones, have the hardest time seeing. Either they assume it’s always been this way, or else they believe Americans transcend such pettiness. This is because they’re primarily in awe of the unbridled successes of American society after World War II. But this means they’re still impressed by anyone credentialed by Harvard, Yale, or MIT, and they still fall for the fake reporting of The New York Times, CNN, or Bloomberg.

Europeans are also more accustomed to major institutions despising true conservatives.

Socialism is pragmatism in Europe. The European mind knows that liberal democracy will allow media corporations and educational institutions to proceed according to the latest leftist fashion. It’s in their nature to virtue signal and express resentment. As always, however, the tipping point is the appearance of those violent mobs resisted by Tocqueville and Cavaignac.

In America, we’re learning the same lesson: when law and order are sacrificed in favor of millions of illegal immigrants pouring over the border, when rioting and looting are allowed in major cities, when neo-racist violence dominates the streets and the schools, when political filters are applied by the welfare state and integrated into the best practices of most corporations, and when the justice system is abused in order to crush political opposition, then it’s time to consider alternative ways of defending the Constitution.

Mugging cannot become the first order of business in America. In the late nineteenth century, Europeans called political realism “decisionism.” I prefer the “Kirkpatrick doctrine” conceived broadly and applied vigorously to domestic politics. Kirkpatrick, we should note, was a member of the Democrat Party between 1948 and 1985. But supporters of McGovern and Carter, whom she called the “blame America first” crowd, embarrassed her. In 1985, she evolved and became a Republican. She took this leap the same year that she quit the UN.

After witnessing so many muggings in the international arena, she had a change of heart at home.

Photo of the Reagan Administration, 1981 — Wikipedia


  • Eric-Clifford Graf

    Eric-Clifford Graf (PhD, Virginia, 1997) teaches and writes about the liberal tradition as authored by men like Alexander Hamilton, Frederick Douglass, and Jorge Luis Borges. His latest book is ANATOMY OF LIBERTY IN DON QUIJOTE DE LA MANCHA (Lexington, 2021). All of his work can be found here:

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2 thoughts on “The Kirkpatrick Doctrine and Domestic Policy

  1. Whoa, Mr. Whalen, your appreciation is most appreciated. I should be reticent about accepting such a compliment for fear of having my head explode. I will, however, gladly accept that risk!

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