Jeane Kirkpatrick, in her brief tenure at the United Nations, has proved to be a provocative diplomat. She is also - to her credit - a provocative thinker whose views deserve thoughtful public discussion.
This collection of essays, written over a period of two decades, touches on some of the ideas that have made her such a controversial figure. Best known among them is ''Dictatorships and Double Standards,'' the article in Commentary magazine which first brought her to the attention of Ronald Reagan. The essay launches the author's main theme: that utopianism and moralism are bad ideas that make for bad policies, foreign or domestic.
Thus, Mrs. Kirkpatrick criticizes President Carter's ''lack of realism'' in abhoring autocrats on the right while supposedly appeasing dictators on the left. She believes traditional authoritarian governments are ''less repressive than revolutionary autocracies,'' that there is more chance to liberalize and democratize such countries as Brazil and Argentina than Cuba and North Korea. And while US policy should encourage such a process, the aim should be ''gradual change'' not ''perfect democracy overnight.''
Contrary to popular perception, Mrs. Kirkpatrick is not against human rights. She in fact applauds President Carter for putting them ''back on the international agenda.'' She quarrels, rather, with the application of his policy - refusing, for instance, to come to the aid of the Shah of Iran. Yet she does not address what some readers will invariably ask: Wouldn't the Shah have turned out less the total autocrat and averted a tide of popular opposition to him if US policy had not catered to his every military whim? Or wouldn't things look better in Nicaragua if the United States had not supported the Somoza dynasty so wholeheartedly and had indeed tried to bring about ''gradual change''?
Nonetheless, the author does properly chastise those who have a tendency to castigate noncommunist dictatorships while disregarding the tyranny of communist systems. The essays analyzing the nature of totalitarian, especially Marxist, societies are incisive and could usefully be required reading in classrooms. As she observes, Marxist theory - including the notion of class struggle - has been thoroughly discredited by historical experience, while communist practice today is totally divorced from Marxist theory, however much Marxist terminology is used.
Moving to the domestic arena, the author takes up the impact of bad - and good - ideas on the nation's political life. She blames the weakening of the party system on such factors as too hasty (and utopian) reforms after Watergate; the proliferation of primaries; the ascendancy of market-research and communication specialists as the new party professionals; the rise at conventions of a ''new class'' of educated, higher-income delegates who are isolated from ordinary voters.
Those concerned about the instability of American government today (no President has served two full terms in the last 20 years) should be interested in Mrs. Kirkpatrick's warnings against adopting further reforms without thinking through the consequences. She argues, for instance, that giving up the electoral college or establishing a national primary (in pursuit of direct democracy) would result in a diminished concern for minorities, weaken state parties, and further personalize presidential politics.
In contrast to the utopianism of latter-day reformers, Mrs. Kirkpatrick lauds the ''right'' approaches of the nation's Founding Fathers. She argues that, in taking account of the weaknesses of human nature, they provided a Constitution that has kept negative impulses in check. Through a system of representation and separation of powers, they balanced seemingly incompatible principles - ''equality andm liberty, majority rule andm minority rights, strong andm limited government, responsiveness andm stability.''
While fascinated by her analysis, this reviewer was left uneasy with it. For purposes of her argument, Mrs. Kirkpatrick focuses largely on one strain of thinking in America's early history - the federalist strain. Yet the fact is that central to all the Founding Fathers did was the impact of the Enlightenment , which was based on the idea of the perfectibility of man. Doubtless, the author is right when she says that we ignore the ''intractability of human behavior'' at great risk. But it is hard to believe, looking at mankind's development over the centuries, that faith in and a striving for man's perfectiblity have not been a powerful engine of progress.
Simplistic utopianism may have its dangers. But where would the world be without its visionaries and idealists who raise the standard and help push men beyond their limits? Too much ''realism'' also has its pitfalls.