Jeane Kirkpatrick and the Roots of Principled Realism

October 9, 2018

Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from a policy roundtable from our sister publication, the Texas National Security ReviewBe sure to check out past roundtables.

Champion nations design the world by building world systems that work for them. There are four pillars that support these world systems: a global economic system, a global framework of thought, a global military system, and a global system of rules.
Col. Liu Mingfu

In his 2010 work, The China Dream: Great Power Thinking and Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era, Col. Liu Mingfu laid out a plan for China to replace the United States as the “champion nation” in the 21st century. Victorious in World War II, the United States served as the architect for the last major revision of the international system, shaping each pillar — economic, thought, military, and rules — to best suit the security and prosperity of America and its allies. Presented with a bipolar world at the time, the United States shaped the four pillars within that context. When a unipolar world emerged at the end of the Cold War, the United States again adapted the pillars accordingly.

Within different contexts, the United States has possessed the requisite power — soft, hard, and smart — to design the international system it desired and to attract or pressure other powers to participate within that system. Today, most agree that the context facing the United States is that of a multipolar world. The National Intelligence Council’s (NIC) Global Trends: Paradox of Progress reports that “Between States, the post-Cold War unipolar moment has passed and the post-1945 rules based international order may be fading too.” In addition, the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy, while never using the word “multipolar,” describes “a competitive world” and identifies China and Russia as “revisionist powers” that “challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity.”

Assuming the United States wishes to continue to serve as a “champion nation,” how should its leaders reengineer each of the key pillars — economic, thought, military, and rules — so that American interests are well-served in the multipolar world that is unfolding in the 21st century? One answer to that question is found in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy which provides strategic prescriptions meant to help the United States grapple with the increasingly multipolar world. This essay will focus on the parallels that exist between the ideas articulated under the banner of “principled realism” in the 2017 National Security Strategy and several of the core foreign policy concepts laid out by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick to guide the Reagan administration’s foreign policy in the more bipolar 1980s.

Realism Redux

At the conclusion of the Cold War, Henry Kissinger wrote Diplomacy with the expressed purpose of helping contemporary statesmen make wise decisions during the transition to the multipolar world he saw arising. Kissinger presumed that the United States would attempt to decisively shape the international system in accordance with its own values. He said America could not “change the way it has perceived its role throughout its history, nor should it want to.” As a warning, Kissinger cautioned that “[n]ever before has a new world order had to be assembled from so many different perceptions, or on so global of a scale,” and that, “[f]or America, reconciling differing values and different historical experiences among countries of comparable significance will be a novel experience and a major departure from either the isolation of the last century or the de facto hegemony of the Cold War.”

Kissinger’s optimistic view in the mid-1990s, that leaders could make decisions to impose global order, differs from those in the NIC Global Trends report and from the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy. The NIC report forewarns, “It will be tempting to impose order on this apparent chaos but that ultimately would be too costly in the short term and fail in the long run.” The authors of the National Security Strategy, rather than assume an overly chaotic world, as the NIC does, instead describe a “competitive world” and advise that the United States promotes a balance of power favorable to the nation, its allies, and its partners. And, in answer to Kissinger’s concerns about “reconciling differing values and different historical experiences,” the National Security Strategy makes two suggestions: first, tailor the U.S. approach by region, and second, limit the role America plays in the formation of a global system of thought.

Regarding the former, the security strategy notes,

The United States must tailor our approaches to different regions of the world to protect U.S. national interests. We require integrated regional strategies that appreciate the nature and magnitude of threats, the intensity of competitions, and the promise of available opportunities, all in the context of local political, economic, social, and historic realities. [emphasis added]

Regarding the latter, the strategy document explains, “An America First National Security Strategy… is a strategy of principled realism that is guided by outcomes, not ideology.” Although the tag line “America First,” in capital letters, is striking and not typical of U.S. pronouncements, the authors of the 2017 National Security Strategy are not the first realists to provide foreign policy prescriptions for the United States.

Parallel Visions of America’s Role in the World

In 1980, as Ronald Reagan campaigned for the presidency, Americans were introduced to the realism of Kirkpatrick. A life-long Democrat and a professor at Georgetown University, Kirkpatrick came to Reagan’s attention through her essay, “Dictatorships and Double Standards,” published in Commentary. She subsequently served as a foreign policy advisor to Reagan during the campaign and on the president-elect’s transition team, and was one of the very first officials that he selected for his Cabinet. Her position as the U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations and her service on the National Security Council ensured Kirkpatrick a place at the table whenever American foreign policy was considered, from January 1981 to April 1985.

The full scope of Kirkpatrick’s thinking, taken from her essays and speeches, is reflective of the “principled realism” described in the 2017 National Security Strategy. First, Kirkpatrick constructed a case against the theories that underlay the American policy of détente, which had long served as the basis of American East-West policy toward the Soviet Union. She also objected to the theories that motivated the American move toward taking a global approach to international affairs, which served as the basis of American policies in the Third World. Finally, she possessed resolute faith in the American principles of liberal democracy.

Doing Away with Détente

Kirkpatrick believed that “détente,” which had been followed by the nation’s leaders from the late 1960s until the election in 1980, was not working and needed to be discarded. As evidence, she pointed to the expansion of Soviet power both via its proxies in Latin America and Africa throughout the 1970s, and via direct use of Soviet forces in Afghanistan in 1979. Kirkpatrick explained that détente rested upon several popular theories that had proven to be untrue.

The first incorrect theory held that “the proliferation of economic and cultural ties and rewards would function as incentives to restrain Soviet expansion” and that “deliberately building networks of relations between the West and the Soviet bloc would lead to the liberalization of the Soviet Union.” The second theory of “weaker is stronger” suggested that “U.S. military superiority constitutes a provocation, which stimulates countermeasures and overreaction.” Lastly, a third theory of “the stimulus-response, frustration-aggression” surmised that, “The Soviet Union behaved aggressively because it was frustrated by a sense of insecurity deriving from its relative weakness…[T]he solution to aggressive behavior…lay in creating a feeling of security by eliminating the impotence.” Kirkpatrick believed that these three theories had gained so much traction because they aligned with rationalism and with “popular conceptions of human psychology and behavior.”

Thus, the 2017 National Security Strategy’s attempt to temper U.S. expectations that China will liberalize is not without precedent. The document notes, “For decades, U.S. policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others.” Such thinking aligns well with the conclusions Kirkpatrick reached regarding the Soviet Union.

Reagan campaigned on a foreign policy strategy entitled “Peace Through Strength.” In 1981, the administration’s answer to the Soviet challenge was to restore the American economy and rebuild the military. Kirkpatrick explains: “The fact that giant increases in defense spending have been undertaken by a president bent on economy should make the message all the clearer” that the United States was determined “to defend its legitimate interests.” The 2017 National Security Strategy follows a similar course, with two of its four pillars entitled “Promote American Prosperity” and “Preserve Peace Through Strength.”

Curbing the Global Approach

In addition to her critiques of the premises that underpinned détente, Kirkpatrick also spoke out against America’s pursuit of a “global approach” in the late 1970s. In her essay, “U.S. Security and Latin America,” she provided a detailed critique of the global approach’s ideology, which rested on what she called “a new optimistic theory of historical development” composed of “declining ideological competition, declining nationalism, increased global interdependence, and rising Third World expectations.” In response to those trends, the global approach promoted the U.S. abandonment of the regionally focused Monroe Doctrine, trusting that hemispheric continuity was no longer needed for American security. The United States should assume a “disinterested internationalist spirit” because, “What was good for the world was good for the United States,” and, “Power was to be used to advance moral goals, not strategic or economic ones.”

Kirkpatrick found this redefinition of national interest troubling and called for the United States to “abandon the globalist approach which denies the realities of culture, character, geography, economics, and history in favor of a vague, abstract universalism.” Such refrains appear again in the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy recommendation that the “United States must tailor [its] approaches to different regions of the world to protect U.S. national interests.” Identifying sovereignty rather than universalism as the key component to order and stability, the strategy document explains, “Peace, security, and prosperity depend on strong, sovereign nations that respect their citizens at home and cooperate to advance peace abroad.”

Remaining Faithful to the Liberal Democratic Tradition

Finally, Kirkpatrick and the authors of the National Security Strategy share an allegiance to the principles of the American liberal democratic tradition. Both link legitimacy of government to consent, believe men and women possess fundamental individual liberties, and warn that, while American principles are good for the world, foreign policy should not be conceived of as a crusade nor should history be thought of as unfolding in a preordained fashion.

While it was unusual for Kirkpatrick to praise the Carter administration, in her essay, “On the Invocation of Universal Values,” she noted her appreciation for Carter’s emphasis on human rights as a reminder for America and the rest of the world that the “nation’s identity and purposes are deeply involved with the assertion of universal human rights.” Kirkpatrick was fond of explaining that “there are universal moral rights that men as men (and women as women) are entitled to and that these ought to be respected by governments.” In agreement, the National Security Strategy states:

We will continue to champion American values and offer encouragement to those struggling for human dignity in their societies. There can be no moral equivalency between nations that uphold the rule of law, empower women, and respect individual rights and those that brutalize and suppress their people.

Kirkpatrick saw Reagan’s 1980 election as a sign of “a returned confidence concerning the relevance of our [America’s] basic principles to the contemporary world.” Nevertheless, her writings suggest that she would agree with the authors of the 2017 strategy document that, “The American way of life cannot be imposed upon others, nor is it the inevitable culmination of progress.” For instance, in her “Dictatorships and Double Standards” essay, she explained that the “assumption that one can easily locate and impose democratic alternatives to incumbent autocracies” had been detrimental to American security interests. Kirkpatrick wrote:

No ideas hold greater sway in the mind of educated Americans than the belief that it is possible to democratize governments, anytime, anywhere, under any circumstances… Many of the wisest political scientists of this and previous centuries agree that democratic institutions are especially difficult to establish and maintain — because they depend on complex social, cultural, and economic conditions.

In her essay, “On the Invocation of Universal Values,” she also asked, “Why was the President [Carter] ‘confident that democracies’ examples will be compelling,’ when history so clearly establishes that democratic governments are both rare and difficult to establish?” This familiar sentiment is captured in the National Security Strategy: “And we prize our national heritage, for the rare and fragile institutions of republican government can only endure if they are sustained by a culture that cherishes those institutions.”

According to Kirkpatrick, the principles of the liberal tradition were foundational to Reagan and key leaders of his administration. She explained, “The president and many of his principal advisers see themselves as purveyors and defenders of the classical liberal tradition in politics, economics, and society.” Such a dutiful adherence to these principles compelled her to remind audiences that individuals, not forces, shape history. She advised against imagining “events [as] manifestations of deep historical forces,” which could not be controlled, or to presume that “the best any government can do is to serve as a ‘midwife’ to history, helping events to move where they are already headed.” The Trump administration’s strategy document provides similar counsel: “There is no arc of history that ensures that America’s free political and economic system will automatically prevail.”


When the Cold War ended, the United States followed Kissinger’s urgings and sought ways to decisively shape the international system in accordance with American values. In contrast, Kirkpatrick in the 1990s urged the United States to prepare for a multipolar world by disbanding NATO, pulling most of its forces from Europe, and slashing the defense budget. She believed America lacked the money, will, and wisdom for global dominance and that conversion of the world to America’s political ideology was beyond America’s capacity. For Kirkpatrick, to be a champion nation, the United States must preserve its freedom and well-being, support the spread and vitality of democratic governments consistent with the nation’s resources, and prevent the violent expansionist control of major states. Faced with a competitive international system, the 2017 National Security Strategy and its “principled realism” parallels Kirkpatrick’s foreign policy pronouncements in the 1980s and her recommendations for a champion nation in a multipolar world.


Col. Gail E. S. Yoshitani is the Professor and Deputy Department Head of the Department of History at the United States Military Academy, West Point, New York. She holds a Ph.D. in Military History from Duke University. Her publications include Reagan on War: A Reappraisal of the Weinberger Doctrine, 1980-1984 and The West Point History of Warfare, vol 4. (Warfare since 1945), co-edited with Clifford J. Rogers. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of USMA, the Department of the Army, DOD, or the U.S. Government.