Editor’s Note: This is an essay in our ongoing series, “The Foreign Policy Debate We Need.” Here, Giselle Donnelly, Michele Dunne, Shadi Hamid, Mark P. Lagon, and Gary J. Schmitt respond to Svante E. Cornell’s essay, “How Should America Deal with Authoritarian States?” Read Cornell’s original essay here, and his reply to these critics here.
No Doctrine Before Strategy—Giselle Donnelly
Any evaluation of the wisdom of a revived “Kirkpatrick Doctrine” demands an answer to a fundamental prior question: How should the United States achieve its geopolitical goals in the 21st century?
And even that question presumes that the desired ends of American policy remain the same. Since 1941, the United States has striven to build a global, liberal order that protects the “homeland” and secures the lives of its citizens by preserving a favorable balance of power across the critical regions of the Eurasian continent, unconstrained access to the seas, skies, near-earth space, and information domain, while fostering the growth and resilience of representative forms of governance—in George W. Bush’s summary, “a balance of power that favors freedom.” This was the approach outlined in Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Freedoms” address, in the Truman Administration’s National Security Council Directive 68, and in most important statements of America’s role in the world since then. It was both the plan and rationale for U.S. global leadership. Yet is not clear that the Obama and Trump administrations—at least in practice—have adhered to this canonical policy. It is even less clear what is to come after the 2020 election.
This is to say that the original Kirkpatrick Doctrine, with its distinctions between “totalitarian” and “authoritarian” dictatorships, was a response to the problems of a particular moment, but, more importantly, embedded within a clearly understood geopolitical paradigm and a relatively robust domestic political consensus. These last two conditions are missing, still, three decades after the collapse of the Soviet empire and two decades after the attacks of September 11. Not only are we unsure who our adversaries are, we are unsure what victory looks like.
Augusto Pinochet’s Chile was ever the poster child for the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, its serial brutalities excused both by the need for an alliance in the Cold War struggle against Russian communism and by the prospect of an eventual democratic transition. American policy contributed much toward the “roll-back” of Soviet-aligned governments and movements in South America, but the book is still open on Chile’s transition, as recent protests indicate. The United States has welcomed and celebrated Chile’s turn to market capitalism—also coincident with the end of the Cold War—but that has done little to mitigate the class and racial structures that Pinochet represented. A return to authoritarianism is hardly out of the question; a new Kirkpatrick Doctrine must place more emphasis on democratic consolidation.
Moreover, the China-Russia-Iran-Turkey “Axis of Weevils”—to steal Walter Russell Mead’s snappy formulation—presents a more complex (if also less existentially frightening) geopolitical conundrum than did the Soviet Union. Today’s “non-aligned” autocrats have many more opportunities to play both sides of the fence, as indeed do even America’s best allies—one thinks of Great Britain’s dalliance with the Chinese on Huawei, very “unflattering” strategic behavior indeed. A 21st-century version of Kirkpatrick probably will require a more flexible set of benchmarks.
In refashioning the Kirkpatrick Doctrine for a new era, it is most critical to think through how to apply its measures to a world increasingly defined by China’s quest to be a “rule-making” great power. This is the critical test of the time. If Beijing is to be constrained by the American-made “liberal international order”—which is finally coming to be accepted wisdom—we will need a lot of help from problematic and authoritarian partners. And Beijing will hold much appeal for the corrupt elites of such states, both economically, in the form of plentiful Chinese investment, and ideologically, in the form of promotion of national sovereignty over democratic legitimacy. What’s needed is not so much a Kirkpatrick revival as a Kirkpatrick remix—once the DJ establishes a strategic playlist.
Democracies (Still) Make the Best Partners—Michele Dunne
An American diplomat surprised me recently when we were discussing the U.S. “partnership” with an Arab state. “Democracies can only have real partnerships with other democracies,” she said; “relations with authoritarian states are tactical at best.” Her statement struck me as possessing a clarity that those of U.S. officials and foreign policy analysts often lack.
Svante Cornell’s essay on how America should deal with authoritarian states, drawing on Jeane Kirkpatrick’s seminal 1979 article, observes that too many policymakers and analysts put on ideological blinders when observing authoritarians. He rejects the stale values-versus-interests paradigm, pointing out that U.S. foreign policy often has tried to advance freedom and protect national interests simultaneously. Cornell is correct in arguing, like Kirkpatrick, that authoritarian regimes are not all equally odious. He proposes to judge how to deal with a government by three criteria: how it treats its population, what ideology motivates it, and its approach to the outside world.
What Cornell proceeds to do, however, is privilege ideology strongly over the other two criteria, landing him squarely in the very trap that he (and Kirkpatrick before him) identified. While Kirkpatrick railed against President Carter’s failure to see the evils of communism, Cornell proposes a new bogeyman in political Islam. His examples from the Arab countries show the same credulity he condemns in others, a willingness to ignore or excuse the outrageous and dangerous brutality of certain Arab regimes if they claim a superficial ideological affinity with the West against political Islam
Regarding Egypt, for example, Cornell accepts the claims of strongman President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi that he is effectively fighting jihadism, “normalizing” relations with Israel, protecting Christians, and playing a “constructive role” in Libya,” every single one of which can be strongly disputed. He ignores the massive brutality of Sisi’s regime—tens of thousands of political prisoners, hundreds of extrajudicial killings, rampant torture including sexual abuse, and thousands of disappearances—the very abuses he claims characterize egregious authoritarianism, and which also create perfect conditions for extremism. While deposed President Mohammed Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood was far from an ideal democrat, the claim that he adopted a “one man, one vote, one time” approach is simply untrue.
Cornell’s determination to see Islamists as the new ideological enemy also applies to Morocco and Jordan, which he correctly notes are among the less brutal authoritarian governments. He fails to note that Islamist political parties play a major role in both countries, with one leading government in Morocco since 2011. He does not mention Tunisia, the sole success story of the 2011 Arab uprisings, in which the strongest political party is Islamist and has played a critical role in safeguarding the country’s nascent democracy.
Rather than using ideological affinity to determine how America should deal with authoritarian governments, I suggest adopting the American diplomat’s simpler idea. The United States is likely to have full, robust, and enduring partnerships only with states that are democracies. Democracies (including our own) have many flaws and will disagree with each other on many issues, but they share the basic assumption that government should be by and for the people. Authoritarian governments operate on completely different and nontransparent premises, making it more difficult to find common ground. With authoritarian states, the United States can have limited, tactical relationships that should vary in strength, warmth, and durability depending on how that state behaves in the world (including, of course, toward the United States) as well as how it treats its citizens.
Americans should by no means make unnecessary enemies of authoritarian states, particularly those that are relatively benign domestically and internationally. At the same time, Americans should not delude themselves about the motivations and actions of those regimes—and even worse, become complicit in them—out of the false hope that ideological affinity makes them true partners.
The False Promise of “Pro-American” Autocrats—Shadi Hamid
U.S. efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East have long been paralyzed by a unique “Islamist dilemma”: We want democracy in theory but fear its outcomes in practice. In this case, the outcomes that we fear are Islamist parties either doing well in elections or winning them outright. If we would like to (finally) get serious about democratic reform in the region, then we have to resolve this dilemma one way or the other.
The simple fact is that there is no way to both support democracy in the Middle East and oppose the participation of Islamist parties. If Islamist parties—most of which are nonviolent, accept the nation-state, and participate in the parliamentary process if allowed—are among the largest in their respective countries, then a democracy that excludes them is no democracy at all. A policy that views all Islamists as the problem can only end up justifying permanent autocracy. And there is nothing new about such an approach: America has consistently, albeit with varying degrees of enthusiasm, stood by “pro-American” authoritarian allies. And as New York Times correspondent David Kirkpatrick documents in a recent book, even the supposedly Islamist-friendly Obama Administration gave the Egyptian army what amounted to a wink ahead of the 2013 military coup against a democratically elected Islamist government.
Are we, as Americans, comfortable with consigning hundreds of millions of Arabs and Muslims to such a fate in the guise of anti-Islamism, which is essentially another way of saying they can’t be trusted to vote correctly? This is a moral question, but it is also a question of what’s in America’s long-term interests.
In his piece, Svante Cornell is admirably forthright about his premises. One such premise, drawing on Jeane Kirkpatrick’s classic if controversial essay, is that there is a fundamental difference between authoritarian and totalitarian states. But Cornell mistakes President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi’s regime for the former rather than the latter. Kirkpatrick characterized traditional autocracies as those that “do not disturb the habitual rhythms of work and leisure, habitual places of residence, habitual patterns of family and personal relations.” The Sisi regime and it supporters, however, do all these things, including encouraging citizens to inform on one another.
Totalitarian regimes, writes Cornell, are “murderous and predatory,” and indeed the Egyptian regime is unusually “murderous” even by autocratic standards; under Sisi, Egypt experienced one of the worst single-day massacres of the past century, with more than 1,000 killed. Cornell argues that Sisi has protected the Coptic minority. He hasn’t, as National Review’s Marlo Safi explains in considerable detail. Nor has Sisi embarked on religious reform or been the foe of extremism that he claims to be.
Sisi, in fact, has relied on the country’s clerical class to justify in explicitly religious terms the killing of protesters in a way his Islamist predecessor, the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi, could have never dreamed of. As former Grand Mufti Ali Gomaa put it, speaking after the aforementioned Rabaa massacre, “When someone tries to divide you, then kill them. . . . Blessed are those who kill them. . . . We must cleanse our Egypt of this trash.” That Gomaa and other pro-regime clerics would employ the kind of takfirist reasoning associated with ISIS—arguing that Morsi supporters were akin to heretics and therefore their blood was licit—belies Sisi’s self-styled portrayal as a beacon of “moderation.”
Cornell also cites the United Arab Emirates as one of the more promising Arab countries, in part because it is more secular. Yet this isn’t quite correct. What the UAE embodies is not “political Islam” in the traditional sense, but it is certainly a politicized Islam. As the leading American scholar of the Gulf, Gregory Gause, describes it, the UAE “represents a third trend in political Islam. Official Islam in the Emirates is tightly tied to state authority and subservient to it.” In short, seemingly liberal Arab regimes offer the false promise that repression can be wielded in the service of liberalism. But because politics and religion are inevitably intertwined in Muslim-majority countries, it is impossible to have religious freedom in the absence of political freedom. An authoritarian state will only be willing to allow religious expression that does not threaten the state. This should never be confused with “religious freedom” or “religious pluralism.”
What about authoritarian allies’ conduct abroad? Even the more “liberal” authoritarian states are “predatory” beyond their own borders. Take the UAE’s destructive role (along with Saudi Arabia) in the ongoing Yemen war, or that regime’s dogged support for a would-be dictator, Khalifa Heftar, in Libya. Or consider the fact that the UAE worked to undermineWashington’s (halfhearted) efforts to mediate between Sisi and the Muslim Brotherhood in an attempt to forestall an outbreak of violence after the Egyptian coup.
The notion that “pro-American” autocrats can be counted on to further American interests has been a mainstay of bipartisan foreign policy thinking, even though it’s been contradicted by actual events time and time again. Even the most casual observer can see that our reliance on authoritarian allies has not led to a more peaceful, stable region—if anything, the opposite is true. Authoritarian regimes are only good at providing an illusion of stability, and even then the illusion is a decidedly of a short-term nature.
Regime type matters. If regimes do not share our values, then it is difficult for them to be aligned with American interests over time, since values and interests are not, and should never be treated as, entirely separate. In other words, if liberal authoritarians are the answer to the question, then there is no answer. This doesn’t mean that U.S. policymakers should support Islamist parties, but it does mean that they should avoid taking sides in other countries’ electoral contests or buying into regimes’ self-serving claims that even nonviolent Islamist parties must be excluded by any means necessary. The maxim of “one man, one vote, one time”— that Islamist parties will cancel democracy after being elected to power—has never actually happened. (The one arguable exception is Hamas’s rise to power in 2016, but even that isn’t a clear-cut case, as Khaled Elgindy has argued).
If Americans believe in democracy at home, we should ask ourselves why. Some of those reasons are “procedural:” Democracy allows for peaceful transfer of power, particularly in ideologically polarized contexts; democracy regulates conflict and therefore contributes to peace and stability; democracy offers predictability, since losers of elections have the chance to fight, peacefully, another day. Such “minimalist” objectives of regulating conflict are even more important in a region like the Middle East defined by increasing levels of civil conflict.
Does this mean we should pay more attention to the faults of our autocratic allies then to adversaries like Iran or Venezuela? No. We should take both seriously. The reason, however, that many democracy promotion advocates focus on the former is one of practicality. Because they are our allies, and because they depend on the United States for security as well as economic and military support, we have more leverage over their behavior. And if we can use that leverage not in the naïve wish that they become democracies overnight but that they at least become less repressive, then we should, because we can. Doing so isn’t “just” in line with our ideals; it is also, ultimately, in our interests.
Ideals Are U.S. Interests: Assessing Kirkpatrick—Mark P. Lagon
Our times merit reconsidering Jeane Kirkpatrick’s “Dictatorships and Double Standards” of four decades ago. Since 9/11, the wars on terrorism have succeeded the Cold War in offering a sweeping rationale for exempting autocratic regimes from U.S. shunning, based on their ostensible strategic value. Svante Cornell takes on a plausible exercise: an updated, sophisticated form of U.S. realpolitik—which would compare well with a President offering admiration for autocrats and populists, including those who align with great power threats to the United States.
Cornell aptly highlights Kirkpatrick’s most marked contribution: subtle insights into how totalitarian regimes, long after Hitler and Stalin, represent a distinct breed of autocracy—one more dangerous at home and abroad, in both aims and methods, than the traditional sort. Today the type is manifest in China’s use of facial recognition technology, social credit scores, and concentration camps for Uighurs. Cornell is also right that subtle statecraft should of course account for differences between various non-totalitarian autocracies.
Yet Kirkpatrick’s 1979 article is best known not for its apt subtleties, but for what it came to justify—the so-called “Kirkpatrick Doctrine.” To assess a doctrine of working with illiberal allies, just take “constructive engagement” with U.S. Cold War ally South Africa in the 1980s (about which I was wrong at the time, and I won’t blame youth). Far more than quiet diplomacy, of the sort Kirkpatrick advocated, the end of apartheid was advanced by comprehensive sanctions embraced even by Margaret Thatcher and the U.S. Congress under Reagan.
From its very opening, Cornell’s essay falls into the trap of suggesting U.S. ideals and interests are at odds, requiring working with authoritarians to fight more imminent dangers to America (like Iran or terrorists). Yet our ideals not only serve our interests. They are our interests. The problem is not an unsophisticated realpolitik, but realpolitik itself. Given its creedal nature, if the United States fails to stand for free expression, equal access to justice, and pluralism for all in the societies of its allies, its legitimacy to wield its power in the world is sapped. The President I served also fell into this trap, admirably calling for a world without tyrannies in his Second Inaugural of 2005—and then contradicting himself by close alignment with Pervez Musharraf in Pakistan and Hosni Mubarak in Egypt.
On a personal level, I owe Jeane a great deal. As a mentor at Georgetown University and the American Enterprise Institute, she helped me start a career focused on human rights and international institutions. On topics for which she was known, and on those where only a closer circle knew her views, she was right about so much. She was right to be skeptical of the United Nations, including of its male chauvinism. She was right that the UN is like a legislature in which the U.S. government must engage and lobby. Unlike most fellow neoconservatives, she was right to oppose the invasion of Iraq, if privately.
Honoring her with her signature candor, she wasn’t always right. A nationalist, she felt a nation that couldn’t control immigration was hardly a nation—admiring Governor Pete Wilson, who did to the Republican Party of California what the current Trump posture will likely do to its long-term prospects nationally. She felt nationalism was the essential element of a strong democracy, like the United States and Israel. But what about when nationalist majoritarianism overtakes pluralism in such systems? Conservative intellects like Rich Lowry at National Review and Colin Dueck of George Mason University undervalue that concern.
For the thing she is best known—patience with friendly autocrats—she wasn’t on the mark. They aren’t meaningfully or sustainably friendly to U.S. interests, undercutting U.S. credibility as much as they inhibit their own people’s freedom to thrive. President Reagan’s own foreign policy evolved toward that realization—embracing democracy promotion as its core, and applying it to U.S. allies like Chile, Taiwan, South Korea, and Philippines. American interests and ideals remain inexorably bound together—whether at home, at our borders, or abroad.
Getting Realistic—Gary J. Schmitt
Svante Cornell’s essay makes the important points that “the nature of regimes’ ideologies matters, and American policymakers need to spend more time trying to understand them,” and that, with respect to policymaking toward these regimes, there are three key criteria: “how a regime treats its population, what ideology motivates that regime, and the regime’s approach to the world around it.” All true enough.
But for an essay that clearly understands itself to be more hardheaded about living in a world where liberal democracies are not simply the norm and authoritarian regimes of various stripes still exist, it falls short about what it means to be realistic in practice.
Take, for example, the short shrift the essay gives to the George W. Bush Administration’s view that promoting democracy would create a safer world for America—a policy, says Cornell, whose “results were not encouraging.” But is that the case? For all its problems, is democratic Iraq, unlike Saddam’s Iraq, determined to build weapons of mass destruction? Is democratic Iraq warring with neighbors? Was Iraq, after “the Surge,” relatively stable until the Obama Administration decided to pull out all U.S. forces? Or, is democratic Afghanistan, for all its flaws, the open training ground for terrorism it was before 9/11? Aren’t vastly more women and children receiving the education and opportunities that we associate with basic human rights than during the reign of the Taliban in the 1990s? One can rightly complain about the state of both Iraq and Afghanistan today, but it’s demonstrably and objectively the case that we are safer with both now being democratic.
Using Jeane Kirkpatrick’s 1979 essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards” as the underlying framework for much of his analysis, Cornell states that drawing a distinction between benign or even friendly authoritarian regimes and ambitious, hyper-nationalistic regimes is essential for sound statecraft. Broadly put, the former are essentially to be left alone, while the latter confronted as need be. It’s a policy distinction, he writes, that in its time “became known as the Kirkpatrick Doctrine, and it profoundly influenced the Reagan Administration’s foreign policy.” And, indeed, Reagan did seem initially taken with Kirkpatrick’s thesis, arguing in a speech at the 1980 GOP Convention that: “[O]ne takes the world as it is, and seeks to change it by leadership and example; not by harangue, harassment, or wishful thinking.” But, of course, Reagan didn’t stick to that view, with his administration taking a rather direct hand in pushing out friendly autocrats in Asia and Latin America—not just “nudging,” as this essay has it. The point is, if the Administration had kept to the Kirkpatrick stance, it’s unlikely that any change for the better would have happened, with officials taking what they perceived to be the safe path of the status quo.
Such decisions are always judgment calls, of course, and mistakes will be made. But there will be an inevitable tendency under Kirkpatrick’s and Cornell’s view to see “national interests” as trumping “democratic promotion” in most cases, without assessing whether continuing ties with an authoritarian regime are truly necessary, partially necessary, or just a convenience. Moreover, there is always the question of what lies ahead. Policymakers, if they are being realistic, have to factor in just how reliable ties with autocrats will be given their uncertain claims to rule. According to Cornell, for many of today’s “traditional” autocrats, “Over time, they are likely to gradually develop in a more pluralistic direction.” Maybe. But as history suggests, when popular desires finally turn to political pluralism, as they inevitably do when reforms have been put in place that are inadequate to meet rising expectations, can or should American elected officials and policymakers ignore those ambitions so as not to risk U.S. ties to the leadership?
The answer, Cornell argues, has traditionally fallen between “two poles,” where “some believe it is America’s mission to promote freedom in the world . . . [and] others claim that foreign policy should be about national interest alone.” He then notes, “In reality, U.S. foreign policy has frequently tried to both advance freedom and protect the national interest.” As a factual proposition, this last sentence is more or less accurate. But the question is why. And the answer is that they are not totally distinct goals—or poles. As I have noted elsewhere, “there is plenty of fact-based scholarship that shows liberal democracies are more peaceful toward each other, more likely to be better trade partners, and less likely to adopt policies that create the internal distortions that lead to civil wars, coups, and mass migrations.”
To the extent a Kirkpatrick-informed analysis revives attention to the notion that “it’s the regime, stupid,” it’s to the good. But to the extent it leads to a too formulaic understanding of what in fact is in the national interest, it isn’t.