The Authentic Revolution

Jeane Kirkpatrick
Former Ambassador to the United Nations

Jeane J. Kirkpatrick served for more than four years as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations and was a member of the presidential cabinet. Resigning her post in 1985, she returned to Georgetown University as Leavey Professor and to the American Enterprise Institute as Senior Fellow. In 1985 President Reagan awarded her the Medal of Freedom. Her most recent book is The Withering Away of the Totalitarian State…and Other Surprises.

"The one revolutionary society in today's world is our society," Jeane Kirkpatrick told the dinner group in her acceptance address. At the close she urged that "people who understand the central role of ideas in the preservation of freedom [must] join in solidarity." The following is the full response by the Honorable Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, U.S. Representative to the United Nations.


We are here tonight to celebrate the American experience, its glorious legitimacy and success. The drama, excitement, and revolutionary quality of that experience are only barely sensed even by those of us who are carriers of it today.

There is, I think, only one revolutionary society in the contemporary world, and that is our society. It is so revolutionary that it’s not clear that any of us can finally bear the daring thrust to the realization of age-old values that our American revolution contains and celebrates.

Those values are the definitive values of Judeo-Christian civilization. They have inspired every authentically Judeo-Christian society in history. Those values declare, above all, the irreducible worth and uniqueness of every individual.

They assert that each individual ought, in a proper society, to have an opportunity to explore and develop himself—if not in an atmosphere of utopian equality, then at least in an atmosphere supportive enough that the person and the whole society can grow strong and rich, diverse and interesting, from the intermingling of all those individualities.

Above all, this revolutionary society means change. It means that entrenched prejudices and wrong ideas in our particular marketplace of ideas keep getting pushed out to make room for better ideas and more successful experiments. But the one thing that does not change is its foundation of belief in the irreducible value of the individual.

The character of any society depends on what its people honor most. To paraphrase St. Augustine, what men and women love is ultimately what motivates, guides, and structures the life of the individual, the institutions, the government, the nation, the whole. Distinguished political philosophers through the ages have understood this basic principle of societies: what men love, what they seek, what they believe is worth devoting their lives to, depends finally on the education they receive. Nothing is so important to a society. Plato, Aristotle, and most other thoughtful students of society have understood this—all, perhaps, except Karl Marx, who called it all “superstructure.”

The reason that nothing is so important to the life of a society as education is that everything else—the supporting webs of values, beliefs, and goals—all derives from education. There are many other important endeavors in the society; production is important, as is governing; but the most important endeavor of all is education.

In times past, anyone who was serious about education understood it as a process that began in the family and continued through the schools. The whole educational experience, from the family through the schools, constituted a seamless web, from which each person could derive a sense of identity and purpose, a sense of the goals we are to seek, the means that are acceptable for seeking those goals, the skills which one could bring to bear.

Those Dark Years

But, as we have learned, sometimes things go wrong in a society. People become confused, the skills become clumsy, the goals become vague, and even the identity falls into doubt. When that happens, a society begins to decline. Societies can suffer identity crises, very much like confused youth on their way to maturity. There is no straight road for youth on their way to maturity in these complex modern times, and no straight road for societies on their way to survival. Our own experience in recent years is testimony to that—dismal, disturbing, enormously bothersome testimony to that.

Our society, beginning some time in the 1960s, underwent a kind of identity crisis. Ironically, at the very time when Barry Goldwater was being described as a reactionary, a voice of the eighteenth century, he was in fact identifying precisely those issues that would dominate American political life in all the elections which have followed. He was pointing the way to the culture crisis that has afflicted America from the mid-’60s forward, and which seemed for a while to plunge us into a dark time from which nobody knew for certain that we would even recover, a time in which we were not certain who we were. We were not certain what we believed. We were not certain where we were going. And above all, we were not certain why.

I believe, as deeply as I have believed any social fact in my life, that the election of Ronald Reagan constituted a turning point in this identity crisis into which the United States had been plunged. Beginning with the elections of 1980, that period of great national self-doubt and self-denigration gave way a bit at a time to a returning confidence in the legitimacy and success of our society, our institutions, and ourselves.

In recent days I have been re-reading Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, for perhaps the tenth time. There is a marvelous line about the so-called Ministry of Truth, in which history is continuously falsified. Its slogan is, “Who controls the present, controls the past. Who controls the past, controls the future.” One of the most dramatic things which happened to us in the United States was that we in the present lost control of our past. Our history was rewritten, our triumphs were redefined as a national shame, and our shame was projected to a failed future. And in the process, much was lost.

So before anything else good could have happened to our society, it was necessary that we have a return of confidence in the basic decency of Americans. We had to regain the conviction that our experience was indeed relevant to modern times; that we were not outdated artifacts of history about to be overtaken by some dialectic moving toward a collectivist future in which all of us who believed in the individual would simply be swallowed up and disappear.

We Knew Better

This returning confidence in the basic legitimacy and success of our society is especially important because it coincides with a time of unprecedented danger for our civilization. I believe it is no exaggeration to say that we live in a period which will define the civilization of the West and the world for the next several centuries. We Americans like to dream of a world without force. Yet we know better in our private thoughts, in our business and our domestic politics; we know that force matters.

We know that it matters that the United States had never been so weak, and the Soviet Union so strong, as when the “new coalition of forces” had been established during those terrible years just before the elections of 1980.

We know that a total challenge has been mounted against liberal democratic Western society, as well as against all the small non-Western societies in the world who desire to be independent and have their sovereignty respected.

Many of us understood that the counsel of despair that suggested we should resign ourselves to “historical inevitability”—forswear our own potential and the use of our own strength in the world—was just that, a counsel of despair. Again and again voices called sophisticated by our universities (some of them) and by our media (too many of them) told us that accepting defeat, accepting the mockery of American influence in the world, the shrinkage of our values in the world, without even any sort of struggle, would be a sign of growing American maturity in our complex world. We knew better. We knew it was a symptom of pathology.

I do not know by what conjunction of personal biography and American history it happened, but the fact remains that the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 was a victory for all of those who rejected the idea of inevitable American decline, inevitable democratic decline. Who will forget that extraordinary inauguration day, which was endowed with unique significance by the simultaneous release of our hostages, closing the most humiliating episode in our national history?

That day signaled a new beginning, a clear decision by a majority of ordinary Americans to take control of their society once again and recommit it to freedom in both domestic and foreign affairs. And we can now say that this determination to retake control of our destiny, to refuse to bow to somebody else’s definition of our inevitable decline, has been accompanied with simply extraordinary success.

Describing one day in a Cabinet meeting the decline of inflation to below 4 percent, the rapid, unanticipated decline of unemployment, and the rising rate of economic growth, the President said, “Nobody calls it Reaganomics any more.” The success of our effort at the restoration of traditional American patterns and practices has exceeded all expectations. It was not only the liberal media which were surprised by the economic turnaround; almost everybody was surprised. The fact is it doesn’t take very much freedom to unleash the creative, tremendous potential of our gloriously diverse society and its gloriously creative people. Those people still believe.

It is interesting to stop and think about what is sometimes called the “harsh, unseemly rhetoric” of the President and some of us associated with him. That rhetoric, to a degree that is rarely understood, both reflects and stimulates basic convictions of the majority of people in our society.

Return of the American Dream

There is, for example, a growing consensus today about the success of American society, the virtues of our institutions and our way of life, and also about the identity of our adversary and the stakes in the contest. Some 66 percent of American voters today approve the American quality of life. Some 62 percent believe our best times are still ahead of us.

On the other side, today only 9 percent of Americans, much the lowest point since 1956, have a favorable opinion of the Soviet Union. This negative opinion is associated with a widespread understanding that the Soviets are causing most of the turmoil and trouble in the world today. Ninety-three percent of Americans believe it would be better to fight if necessary than to accept Russian domination, though almost all of us are convinced that firm, strong leadership will make it unnecessary ever to make that choice.

Among the most significant aspects of these changing American attitudes is the evidence of returning confidence in our system among young Americans. Recent surveys of high school students, for example, have revealed that some 66 percent of high school seniors agree that finally, all things considered, our system is the best in the world. That’s up 10 percent since 1975. Some 62 percent of high school seniors believe we can solve any problem that can be solved by technological means if only we set our minds to it. That’s up 10 percent as well.

And almost everybody in our society, over 85 percent, is convinced that they and people like them can live successful lives if only they work at it. This is the return of the American dream—nothing more, nothing less, and it is one of the dominant facts of our times.

Sometimes good news takes a while being disseminated, and often the places that are slowest to get the message are places like New York and Washington, where liberal establishment elites hang on to the fashionable cliches—the kind of fashionable cliches that very nearly ripped our society apart in the 1960s and ’70s. That was the period when debate in our society turned mean, and the mean polemical spirit—entirely foreign to the spirit of democratic discussion—scarred our conduct of foreign affairs.

Fashionable Cliches, Hard Truths

Remember the nasty riots that were called “disturbances?” Remember the Vietcong flags? Remember, anybody who read the New York Review of Books as I did, the diagram of how to make a do-it-yourself Molotov cocktail on the cover? The most violent manifestations of that era are mercifully behind us. But the bitterness of those deep, horrible divisions remains, and it still distorts our national life. It is terribly important that we put the bitterness behind us, that we move on from the influence of those destructive, even nihilistic attitudes and actions of that period which Paul Johnson, the British social critic, has called “a time when we tried to commit suicide.”

We must move on to more serious business, more relevant to our genuine American identity and purpose. In his book on how democracies end, the distinguished French commentator Jean-Francois Revel observed that, in the West, people are embarrassed to call the struggle between democracy and totalitarianism by its own name. He said that people in the West prefer instead to speak of the competition between East and West, or the struggle between the superpowers—as if the United States and the U.S.S.R. were politically or morally equivalent. People say to me in the UN, “It is you superpowers who are dividing the world. You superpowers should get together.”

In Australia not long ago, a friendly minister of a friendly government told me that “if only you and the Soviet Union could resolve your differences, then the world would be more secure.”

I said to that minister, “I don’t think you’ve put it quite accurately.” That sort of comment produces a pause around a diplomatic table. Nobody knew what I was going to say next, partly because I’m famous for being just a little unpredictable around such tables. I said, “The fact is the United States has no particular quarrel with the Soviet Union—no quarrel any different than Australia’s or New Zealand’s quarrel with the Soviet Union, or Britain’s, France’s, or Italy’s, or that of any democratic nation in the world. I do not think it is very useful to think of it as the United States’ quarrel with the Soviet Union. It is more useful to think of it as some rather profound disagreements between those of us in the democracies who believe in self-government based on consent, and those who believe in dictatorship imposed by violence.”

That’s a very unfashionable way of putting the problem, let me tell you. And yet somehow we all know—not just those of us in this room but ordinary Americans in all those unfashionable places and even a few fashionable places—that, fundamentally, the issue is not just between the two superpowers, each with parallel goals, each seeking to impose its will on a passive world. The people know better.

In New York, at the United Nations, a good many of my colleagues tried to suggest that the liberation of Grenada was the moral equivalent of the invasion of Afghanistan. How will we ever be able to condemn the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, they said, if you Americans have used force in Grenada? I asked them where were all the grateful Afghans lining the streets of Kabul shouting “God bless Andropov”?

Frankly, before I got to the UN, I had no idea how really badly off democracy was in the world. Until then, I did not fully understand the decline of the democracies. I did not understand how many of the representatives and leaders of the democracies take for granted the fact that we have lost and will go on losing, and simply resign themselves to working out how best we should adapt ourselves to that problem.

Beginning to Win a Few

Let me give you just a sense of the odds in the United Nations. In the 38th General Assembly, which recently ended, some 331 resolutions were adopted. One hundred eighty-three of those were adopted without a vote. Now a resolution adopted on the basis of consensus does not mean it’s a good resolution. It simply means that it contains nothing sufficiently objectionable to any one of the 158 member nations to make them want to block that resolution. That figure 183 out of 331 proves, I think, that we in the United States Mission are not unwilling to join with our fellows there in consensus whenever we can find a formulation that is not damaging to our national interest.

But if we go on and look at the contested resolutions, the issues that were not decided by consensus, and we see who voted with us and who didn’t vote with us, what we find is that the average agreement with the United States was 19 percent. The average level of agreement with the Soviet Union was 70 percent.

This kind of record, skewed in favor of the Soviets, is found in all groups in the United Nations except the group containing our very closest allies. In the so-called non-aligned movement, they voted 14 percent with us, 77 percent with the Soviet Union. The African bloc, the majority of whose members are heavily dependent on U.S. assistance for their very survival, voted 14 percent with us; 78 percent with the Soviet Union. The Latin American bloc voted 16 percent with us and 71 percent with the Soviet Union.

But we at the United Nations representing the United States today are not reconciled to losing. We do not believe in the inevitability of the American decline. We reject it as a concept, and we work day in and day out to change those results. And because we don’t think that historical inevitability or good manners requires us to lose, we are in fact beginning to win a few.

We won, for example, on the efforts to exclude Israel from the General Assembly and from the other principal member organizations of the United Nations. Although that effort looked like almost a foregone success, we organized, we fought it in the capitals of 158 member nations, we made clear that it was unacceptable to us, and we won on the vote.

We won on the effort of Cuba to humiliate the United States by declaring Puerto Rico a colony and us to be colonial exploiters. Not in 13 years had the United States won a vote on the floor of the General Assembly until we turned back the Cuban challenge on Puerto Rico. That triumph is not very well understood outside the United Nations to this day, but it is well understood inside the United Nations as a landmark.

Also, in a very real sense, we won an important victory in the Security Council on the destruction of the Korean airliner. A lot of our media would like to suggest that it doesn’t ever pay to stand up and try hard. But they are wrong, and here is why:

It takes nine votes in the Security Council, among its 15 members, to force a veto. The Soviet Union has had such political strength in the Security Council that it had not been forced to veto a resolution since its invasion of Afghanistan five years before. We worked hard, we got the nine votes, we forced the Soviet veto. Again, the meaning of this may not have been understood outside the UN, but it was very well understood inside the UN.

And finally, of course, if I may say so, we won in our decision to withdraw from UNESCO, demonstrating to all the world, as quietly and politely but firmly as we can, that there are limits to our patience, limits to our indulgence, limits to our willingness to finance our own destruction.

A Small Price to Pay

Creating a new coalition of forces inside the United Nations has required breaking some taboos. It has required refusing to bow to Soviet propaganda and intimidation. It means defending ourselves against the relentless verbal attacks of the Soviet Union who day after day accuse us of every crime in the books, and claim for their own miserable, failed tyranny every advantage. Above all, it requires talking about the success of freedom—in economics and in politics.

Changing the coalition of forces requires pointing to the facts demonstrated by every economic success story in the history of our times about the relationships between economic freedom and economic development. Once again I would emphasize it doesn’t take very much freedom to unleash the creative, innovative, productive powers of persons. But a certain modicum of freedom is the absolute requirement for economic success as for political success.

Changing the coalition of forces in the world and in the United Nations requires systematically breaking the unwritten Orwellian rules of double-think and newspeak. It requires daring to use our freedom while we still have it—to describe the world as clearly as we can, to defend as effectively as we can the freedom that enables us to seek and to express truth.

Daring to confront the calumnies of those who pretend that we are at best no different than our adversaries, daring to answer those who would intimidate us into silence, is surely a very small price to pay for the restoration of American influence.

This is the challenge, though—this daring, systematically, day after day, to stand on the record and confront the calumnies. This is the challenge that confronts us: not just the President, not just the administration, not just us at U.S.U.N., but absolutely every one of us in this country who enjoys freedom and who desires to preserve it.

In this effort to preserve and extend our freedom, the role of colleges and universities is central and strategic. It is a very great pleasure to be here this evening with people who understand the central role of ideas in the preservation of freedom, and a very great pleasure to join you in solidarity in this effort. Thank you, and good night.