Commentary Magazine

The Kirkpatrick Mission, by Allan Gerson

Trial and Triumph

The Kirkpatrick Mission: Diplomacy Without Apology. America at the United Nations, 1981-1985.
by Allan Gerson.
The free press. 317 pp. $22.95.

Although many now consider the United Nations a crucial instrument for the fashioning of a post-Communist world order, it was not so long ago that American diplomats regarded service at the UN as an assignment in hell. It was bad enough that the United States was routinely denounced as a bastion of racism, colonialism, and imperialism; that Israel was excoriated, often in racialist vocabulary, by the representatives of mass murderers; that the Soviet Union’s misdeeds were practically immune from sanction; that the issue of democracy was effectively shunted aside in favor of one new world order or another to legitimize state control of the media, economic affairs, culture, and on and on in a seemingly endless list.

Bad as all this was, what was equally frustrating was the arrant hypocrisy which pervaded UN affairs, particularly during the period of American global decline from roughly 1968 to 1980. In his account of Jeane Kirkpatrick’s tenure as U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Allan Gerson recounts several instances of delegates loudly assailing America on one day and on the next day privately explaining that they really had not meant what they said. Thus a member of the Egyptian delegation told an amazed Gerson (himself a member of Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s staff) that America should not take at face value his country’s pointed criticisms of the 1983 invasion of Grenada:

Of course we didn’t mean [what we said]. We know the United States did what it had to do. We are glad of it. After all, the United States is a great power. We know you can’t afford another Nicaragua down there, not after the bombing of the U.S. Marine barracks in Beirut. How would it look if you, a great power, were now to run away again after being asked for help by the neighboring countries?

Where previous U.S. diplomats had grudgingly accepted the UN’s cynical code of conduct (and in the case of Jimmy Carter’s Ambassador, Andrew Young, actually encouraged some of that body’s most deplorable tendencies), Mrs. Kirkpatrick from the outset charted a course of resistance. A respected academic with longstanding ties to the Humphrey-Jackson wing of the Democratic party, she had come to the notice of then-candidate Ronald Reagan through her November 1979 essay in COMMENTARY, “Dictatorships and Double Standards.” Her insistence there that totalitarian regimes posed a much greater danger to American interests than did the more traditional dictatorships was in fact to provide an intellectual premise for the Reagan administration’s foreign policy.

Gerson’s account helps explain why the Kirkpatrick appointment, at the time a source of high controversy, ultimately proved one of Reagan’s smartest moves. There was, to begin with, Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s personal qualities: an impressive and wide-ranging intellect, a penchant for truth-telling in political debate, and a moral revulsion at the contempt for democracy and hostility toward America which set the tone for UN debates at the beginning of her tenure. Widely reviled as a dangerous cold-war ideologue, Mrs. Kirkpatrick approached the issues on the UN agenda with a combination of strong conviction, scholarly thoroughness, and, when necessary, a surprising talent for polemics. She also had the benefit of a hand-picked, first-rate staff, young men like Carl Gershman (now president of the National Endowment for Democracy) and Kenneth Adelman (who went on to head the Arms Control and Disarmament Agency and is now a syndicated columnist).

The obstacles facing Mrs. Kirkpatrick were not exclusively attributable to the Soviets or to third-world radicals; some had their origins in American politics. She ranked, after all, among a small group of former Democrats (Richard Perle and Elliott Abrams also figured prominently on this list) who had joined the Reagan administration because of its declared willingness to counter Soviet global aggression and because of the Democrats’ confusion over America’s world role. All these officials were treated with particular vindictiveness by the liberal foreign-policy establishment, perhaps less because of their having changed parties than because of their enthusiasm and effectiveness in promoting the anti-Communist goals which Reagan had emphasized during his presidential campaign. Where Mrs. Kirkpatrick was concerned, the result was a relentless campaign in the press in which she was variously labeled an amateur, a dangerous hard-liner, and someone who tried to advance her own agenda over policies laid down by the State Department. Her imminent departure from the UN post was widely predicted and eagerly anticipated.

A further complication was the prevailing attitudes of the career officials at the State Department and even within the UN mission. Many of these officials looked on Mrs. Kirkpatrick and her team as inexperienced outsiders who failed to grasp certain realities; these realities included a posture of acceptance toward the Palestine Liberation Organization. This became all too obvious early on in Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s stint during a controversy over the deportation of Abu Eain, a Palestinian accused by Israel of having set off a bomb which killed two children and wounded 36 others. Abu Eain had slipped out of Israel, found his way to Chicago, been apprehended by U.S. authorities, and had emerged as something of an international cause célèbre as his extradition case wound its way through the court system.

When Abu Eain was eventually sent to Israel, a majority was pieced together at the UN to endorse a resolution attacking the American legal system and justifying “all available means” in the fight against “colonialism” and “alien” rule—in other words, rationalizing terrorism. Incredibly enough, many in the State Department had actually opposed Israel’s extradition request, fearing an outbreak of terrorist acts against American targets and further complications in the Middle East “peace process.” As for Mrs. Kirkpatrick, however, the Abu Eain incident reinforced her determination to make clear her unwillingness to conduct business as usual.

Thus when a number of nations deemed friendly by our government signed a communiqué issued by the Nonaligned Movement and sharply attacking the United States, the Ambassador wrote pointed notes asking for an explanation. Surprisingly, a number of governments did respond, apologizing for the contents of the manifesto but rationalizing their signatures on the grounds that previous U.S. administrations had never bothered to read such communiqués, much less protest their contents.



Mrs. Kirkpatrick also differed with the State Department over how to explain to the world the reasons for the U.S. invasion of Grenada. This issue was of considerable practical importance since it was her job to defend the Grenada action at the UN against the predictable resolutions of condemnation. Mrs. Kirkpatrick preferred an honest approach, stressing the fears provoked by Grenada’s radical leaders throughout the Caribbean region and the plain fact that the United States was opposed to the establishment of another Cuba in the hemisphere. The State Department, however, insisted that the UN delegates focus exclusively on the question of self-defense, that is, fears for the safety of the American medical students trapped in Grenada during the bloodletting which followed the toppling of Maurice Bishop. The State Department, of course, prevailed, with the result that America looked doubly foolish: the explanations of self-defense fooled no one, and our limited approach swayed no votes at the UN.

As Gerson notes, the disagreement over the most effective way to interpret Grenada carried implications beyond that particular crisis. The differences between Mrs. Kirkpatrick and the professional diplomatic corps were at heart dictated by conflicting attitudes toward the Reagan Doctrine, the notion that the United States had the right to support anti-Communist insurgencies throughout the third world in order to liberate societies from Communist domination and contain or even roll back Soviet influence. Many in the State Department, Gerson reports, regarded the Reagan Doctrine as an embarrassment, the moral equivalent of Soviet assistance to Fidel Castro and the Sandinistas. This was precisely the kind of mirror-imaging that Mrs. Kirkpatrick found insufferable. She not only supported the Reagan Doctrine—indeed, one of her great contributions was her belief in the morality of America’s judicious use of force—she helped define it through her writings on the totalitarian challenge.



Dismissed by critics as an amateur, Mrs. Kirkpatrick actually carved a record of substantial diplomatic achievement at the UN, measured by a turnaround in America’s fortunes there during her four-year tenure. Gerson provides interesting details about the key events of that tenure, and his accounts of the conflicts between Mrs. Kirkpatrick and other American officials are especially important to any understanding of the problems confronting the entire Reagan foreign-policy experience. It is a pity that his book does not adequately convey the intensity and drama of the various battles which marked Mrs. Kirkpatrick’s years at the UN—one would have preferred more of her own voice (some of her speeches, and those of her deputies, were models of intelligent anti-totalitarian rhetoric) and less detail about international law, which happens to be the author’s special field. But on the whole, The Kirkpatrick Mission is a worthy account of an important and even inspirational chapter in recent American foreign policy.

About the Author

Arch Puddington is director of research at Freedom House and the author, most recently, of Lane Kirkland: Champion of American Labor.

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