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As historical coincidences go, two very different historic figures died within four days this month: former US Ambassador to the UN Jeane Kirkpatrick, and former Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
The Generalissimo who in 1973 deposed the democratically elected Marxist Salvador Allende was, to put it mildly, no saint; having eventually been responsible for the deaths of some 3,000 innocent people he was not a natural cup of tea for Kirkpatrick, an academic-turned-diplomat who once was briefly a socialist activist.
Still, the two's biographies did meet, as Kirkpatrick crossed party lines to become Ronald Reagan's ally in his war on communism and introduced the concept of "authoritarianism." The term that quickly sank roots in political and academic discourse, distinguished between anti-democrats who nurtured command economies and orbited Moscow, and autocrats who tolerated private enterprise and backed Washington. "Traditional authoritarian governments are less repressive than revolutionary autocracies," she wrote in her 1979 essay "Dictatorships and Double Standards" in Commentary magazine.
Kirkpatrick was referring to people like Pinochet. As the world eulogized him this week, one could not ignore the following he commanded among some Chileans, even after the scope of his cruelty had become known and even after more recent revelations about some $28 million he accumulated in unreported bank accounts. No one recalls Leonid Brezhnev this way. "Without Pinochet we would have become a second Cuba; he saved us from communism," a weeping mourner told reporters in Santiago this week.
Did he? Was Allende out to sell his country to the Kremlin? And suppose he was, wasn't it the right of the Chilean people to democratically back him in this? Did any of this justify turning a blind eye to the mass murders committed in those days by him and other Latin American dictators?
The jury will be out on these questions for many years. Yet one thing, which is usually forgotten, can already be said: Faced with an international system where others saw only communist dictators and capitalist democrats, Kirkpatrick rightly detected a third species. What she made of it is a separate question, not only morally but also politically.
While pens are being broken in attempts to assess the roles played by trends like post-ideology, consumerism and individualism, and by personalities like Reagan, John Paul II or Lech Walesa in bringing down communism, little thought is being paid to Washington's crouching at the time over Latin America, in the spirit of the Kirkpatrick Doctrine. How, if at all, did the semi-legitimizing of "authoritarian" regimes contribute to America's victory in the Cold War?
These weighty questions will have to wait for another redeemer. Right now, the West must draw the contours of the new international system, and cease to see it as one dominated by a "sole superpower" orbited by lesser actors. Rather, ours has become a triangular international system, not unlike the one drawn by Kirkpatrick in her time.
This system comprises the free world led by the US, the EU, Japan, India and Brazil; the authoritarian world led by China and Russia; and the anti-freedom bloc, led by Islamist fundamentalism and the governments that back it. All efforts to change the world must focus on the latter alone, because that power is itself fixated on changing the rest of the world.
IT'S BEEN 17 years since former State Department official Francis Fukuyama wrote in his memorable essay "The end of history?" that economic and political liberalism had defeated their enemies. "The triumph of the West, of the Western idea, is evident first of all in the total exhaustion of viable systematic alternatives to Western liberalism," he wrote in The National Interest issue of summer '89.
It now is clear that both the "Western idea" and Western power are as close to such victory as the moon is to the sun.
In Russia, where journalists and dissidents are assassinated, unruly businessmen are jailed and news organizations are muzzled, the retreat from whatever democracy may have once budded there is as manifest as it is brazen. Meanwhile, a newly assertive Kremlin is throwing its weight around, making it plain that its geopolitical eulogies were premature.
In China, an even more oppressive regime's delivery of a superpower is already on such a scale that calling the US a "sole superpower" is fast becoming absurd. With $1 trillion in foreign currency reserves, Beijing already sees itself as a superpower. Once a recipient of foreign aid, China now transfers an annual $10 billion to poor countries.
It has just hosted a conference of 48 African nations, sent a peacekeeping force to Lebanon, and, according to The New York Times, commissioned a team of historians to explore how superpowers come to be.
Yet these authoritarian challenges to America's leadership of the world are dwarfed in comparison with the Islamist challenge.
China and Russia, while still far from truly free, nonetheless offer so much more freedom than they did only a generation ago. Both powers really want their people to prosper and fulfill themselves, and both are indeed making impressive progress in this regard. They certainly have long abandoned the business of bickering with the free world, let alone obstructing the course of its life.
At the same time, the fundamentalist bloc remains bent on philosophically challenging freedom, and physically attacking the free. Fighting it will require the unique combination of strategic zeal and tactical pragmatism with which Kirkpatrick understood communism had to be fought.
JEANE KIRKPATRICK may not have predicted the rise of the fundamentalist threat to freedom - who did? - but she did have sufficient intuition to oppose Jimmy Carter's purist demands from the Iranian Shah's authoritarian regime.
Had he listened to her - she was still a Democrat at the time - Iran may not have been lost to Khomeini, and the West today might not have been facing a new evil empire, one that embalms live women like dead Pharaohs, one that deploys a thought police and organizes earth-is-flat conventions that wage war on truth and desecrate the slain, one that inspires terror from Bali to Madrid and from Beslan to London, one that is so hungrily out to continue from where Hitler and Goebbels left off.
Looking back at what Kirkpatrick and the rest of the neoconservatives had done in confronting what she and Reagan so aptly named the "evil empire," she said in 1996: "We were concerned about the weakening of Western will."
So are we.