The roar of the helicopters whisking Ferdinand Marcos out of his palace and the cheers of the crowds celebrating his departure are not the only sounds emanating from Manila. One can also hear the distinct sound of a cherished foreign policy idea collapsing. The great "authoritarian-totalitaria" distinction, at least as understood by its critics, is no more. Like the "Duvaliers and Marcoses it was reputed to be defending, it has been carried off into permanent exile.
The authoritarian-totalitarian distinction began its career as a token of the hardheadedness one should expect from the foreign policy of the incoming Reagan administration. No more Irans. No more Nicaraguas. We would not undermine an authoritarian friend, so long as the SOB was our SOB, as FDR once put it delicately. For critics, the distinction became the symbol of a double standard. The administration boldly proclaimed a Reagan Doctrine of American support for "freedom fighters," meaning guerrillas challenging totalitarian regimes in Nicaragua, Angola, Afghanistan and Cambodia. But if the claim of the Reagan Doctrine was really to advance freedom -- and not just make the Soviets bleed at the fringes of empire -- why just support freedom in Soviet satrapies? One heard again and again: What about Haiti? What about the Philippines?
We have our answer -- the extraordinary administration role in promoting the near bloodless overthrow of tyranny in both countries. In Haiti, the administration withdrew support from Baby Doc Duvalier at precisely the moment to encourage, then reinforce, a popular uprising. In the Philippines, the cumulative effect of American pressure helped produce a near miraculous result: the peaceful transfer of power to a democratic opposition backed by an intact military.
The Reagan foreign policy today might be called responsible pan-interventionism. (Any perceived oxymoron lies in the eye of the beholder: the United States has never been involved in more places in the world than it is today, and yet it is hard to think of a time in, say, the last 25 years when the United States has been less at risk of war.) And under pan-interventionism, the authoritarian-totalitarian distinction, as a prescription for where to intervene, dissolves. Where the distinction does remain in force is on the question of how to intervene.
Simply put, it takes a lot more to dislodge a totalitarian regime than it does an authoritarian one. Since 1917, no totalitarianism has ever reverted to democracy except at the point of a bayonet, usually a bayonet of American manufacture. On the other hand, authoritarian regimes have been falling like flies. And the list of those reverting to democracy is long and impressive. To Spain, Portugal, Greece, Argentina and much of the rest of Latin America, we can tentatively add the Philippines (and perhaps soon Haiti).
The reason is not hard to fathom. Authoritarians, by and large, rule differently from totalitarians. They do not seek to infiltrate every corner of the national society and turn it into a subsidiary of the ruling party. Yet that is the essence of totalitarian rule. (In Nicaragua, for example, the army is not a national army, but officially the army of the ruling Sandinista party.)
It is because authoritarian regimes do not seek to subvert and control every aspect of social life that they stand ultimately to be undermined. The islands of independence they permit to exist can eventually coalesce and form the nucleus of a democratic opposition. That is what happened in the Philippines, where the church, much of the press, the middle and business classes and finally the political opposition were granted political space. And from that space they brought Marcos down without a shot.
Such a nonviolent overthrow is inconceivable in a totalitarian regime. Imagine in Afghanistan an exercise of what Corazon Aquino called "people power," civilians stopping tanks by lying down in front of them. People don't try that in Kabul. Gorbachev's tank drivers, unlike Marcos', are likely not to stop. Reagan Doctrine (anti-totalitarian) rebellions have no choice but to take up arms.
The authoritarian-totalitarian distinction does tell us much about the nature of regimes and about what it takes to make them change. But, as a guide for deciding which regimes the United States will push toward democracy, it has been superseded -- by the Reagan Doctrine, a doctrine whose ideological foundation lies in the idea of freedom.
And that idea, if it is to be serious, must be universal. It applies to SOBs everywhere, even friendly ones in such places as Haiti and the Philippines.