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Jeane Kirkpatrick on Universal Moral Rights

In the discussion about the role democracy and human rights should play in American foreign policy, Jeane Kirkpatrick is sometimes invoked on the side of the “realist” school, based in part on her climate-changing COMMENTARY essay “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” But there is another essay Kirkpatrick wrote in 1977, in response to Jimmy Carter’s major human-rights-policy address given at the University of Notre Dame, which should be read as well.

Jeane believed President Carter’s speech was a particularly poor one. But in “On the Invocation of Universal Values,” Kirkpatrick says that Carter’s re-emphasis of human rights reassured Americans and others that U.S. policy was “guided by a vision of the public good.” An important effect of the human-rights campaign was “to affirm a moral principle which needs continuing reaffirmation: 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.” And she went on to say that “Since democracies have an especially great need for moral consensus, continuing appeals to conscience are both restorative and stabilizing.” She then praised Carter for having “recalled America (and others) to historic moral imperatives and for having placed individual rights back on the international agenda.”

Now, Kirkpatrick would later become a fierce critic of the Carter administration for its disastrous record. And anyone who knew Jeane will testify that she was no romantic when it came to American foreign policy. She warned about the challenges of moving “beyond the invocation of universal values and general principles to the knotty business of applying them in this notoriously imperfect, intractable world.”

Like all who serve in government, she knew that implementing policy is more difficult than articulating the principles that ought to guide policy. Still, like the man she served so well, Ronald Reagan, Kirkpatrick believed in universal moral rights and believed America, because of its founding ideals, had to give voice and concrete support to them.

Her convictions were right then, and they are right now.



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