TCS Daily


The Lost Legacy of George F. Kennan

By Carroll Andrew - March 28, 2005 12:00 AM

America's most revered foreign policy strategist of the twentieth century -- perhaps of any century -- passed away this month. America and the world lost George F. Kennan: former Ambassador to the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia, author of numerous articles and books on history, philosophy, and foreign policy, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, but most famous for creating the strategy of "containment". For over four decades, various forms of containment (often involving details of implementation not pleasing to Kennan) guided America to victory over the Soviet Union in the Cold War.

Ironically, the success of containment has led to a dilution of its meaning. Containment is frequently dumbed down by political leaders who need an elegant name to describe passive strategies of waiting for foreign policy problems to evaporate of their own accord. But containment, as formulated by Kennan, was never a passive strategy. From its earliest beginnings, Kennan explicitly presented containment as an alternative to merely "holding the line and hoping for the best". Kennan's description of an active strategy for dealing with the Soviet threat was straightforward and elegant. If America confronted the Russians with "unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world", it could "promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the breakup or mellowing of Soviet power".

The prescription stood so well on its own, succeeding generations often forgot the rich analysis of detail that supported it. Containment was not a generic strategy for dealing with any threat to America; containment was designed specifically for the Soviet Union. Kennan believed the Soviets to be highly averse to direct confrontation. Marxist ideology taught the Soviets to regard setbacks as short-term anomalies, ultimately irrelevant to the inevitable march of history guiding their communist triumph. Their willingness to retreat was further "fortified by the lessons of Russian history: of centuries of obscure battles between nomadic forces over the stretches of a vast unfortified plain". This combination of factors allowed the Soviets to retreat from confrontation without shame, resulting in a government that could be dissuaded from expansion by the "adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points".

But the inevitability of communist triumph was a myth, a myth the Soviets could not sustain if they were forever retreating; "no mystical, Messianic movement -- and particularly not that of the Kremlin -- can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs". Kennan was confident of the form that the adjustment would take. The Soviet system was based on rigid control of society by the government, control that depended on the government's ability to maintain an illusion of omnipotence at home. Once contained, impotence rather than omnipotence would become increasingly obvious to Soviet citizens. As the illusion of omnipotence faded, the Soviets would be forced to direct ever increasing amounts of energy inward to maintain control of their society, denying them the resources needed for a campaign of expansion.

America, on the other hand, was a free, liberal society. Liberal societies are not required to spend their energies controlling their own populations, leaving them free to concentrate on problems foreign and domestic. Kennan believed that the vigorous day-to-day life of a free society was a key source of national strength; "every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqu├ęs".

This emphasis on hard-to-quantify domestic factors like self-confidence, morale, and community spirit as sources of national power might surprise those who have learned that George F. Kennan was America's foremost "realist". That is because the current connotation of realism -- the pursuit of stability as an end to itself -- hides too much of what Kennan consistently believed and expressed. Kennan described of Soviet-American relations as "a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations", a description that would make contemporary realists and liberal internationalists uncomfortable. Kennan's beliefs are better understood as what the historian Walter Russell Mead terms as "Jeffersonian". Jeffersonians believe that the American experiment is fragile and that the work of statecraft is to do what is necessary to protect that which is uniquely good about America from a hostile world.

Though they believe in the importance of dealing with the world as it is, Jeffersonian realists (of which Kennan may be the greatest example) see a possibility -- not a guarantee, but a possibility -- of hope for the future. They believe that, by force of example, America can win converts, building its strength at the expense of adversaries who lack our noble and attractive ideals. The role of exemplar, however, is not simply a state of being. It requires that a society engage in a continuing effort to "create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problem of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time".

Kennan's belief in the importance of a quality like "spiritual vitality" -- an admittedly vague measure of domestic strength -- to the conduct of foreign policy reflects a central concern of Jeffersonian thought. Whatever it is that makes America special is not easily described, much less understood. It is a unique product of American history and culture. Should we lose it, there is no book of instructions for restoring it. Therefore, the highest duty of the American government is to jealously protect it.

If Kennan was vague about exactly what made America special, he was very concrete about one thing that did not. Kennan did not believe that America's exceptionalism resided within its democratic form of government. This is often interpreted as part of Kennan's realism, but was really an extreme form of limited-government conservatism. Kennan believed that governments -- democratic governments included -- were "simply not the channel through which man's noblest impulses are to be realized". He doubted that governments could do the job of what we now call "nation-building" well, because governmental forms could not be transplanted across cultures with predictable or desirable results.

Kennan also rejected the idea of an inevitable march of history that pre-ordained whether the American experiment or something else would eventually prevail. The decisions of individuals -- especially leaders -- did matter. "Tactless and threatening gestures" from the government on one side could place the government on the other side in a position "where it cannot afford to yield even though this might be dictated by its sense of realism". This idea was a basic source of Kennan's dissatisfaction with the multiple generations of American leaders who implemented containment, including Ronald Reagan. Kennan felt that the effect of the overemphasis on the military side of containment was "to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s" because American military buildups strengthened the position of hard-liners within the Soviet government.

Yet even the disagreements about the meaning of containment, by no means trivial, illustrated the strength of Kennan's legacy. By virtue of his extraordinary powers of observation and expression, Kennan took the best of seemingly disparate views of foreign policy -- especially the relation of foreign policy to America's domestic life -- and weaved them into a coherent whole. He took what could have been a religious war about the basic aims of foreign policy, found a strategic viewpoint that the different sides could largely agree on, and ultimately reduced the conflicts to disputes over tactics.

Since the Cold War ended, no one has combined American ideals with the realities of statecraft as effectively as George Kennan did. Today, liberal internationalists argue that American ideals are subordinate to bureaucracy and process. Advocates of America promoting its ideals by force of example too readily call for America to reduce itself to a passive, isolated example. Advocates of more direct promotion of American ideals increase the strains on their policies by paying insufficient attention to the mundane but predictable inertia of diplomacy. Kennan believed that American success in foreign policy would be largely determined by "the ability of the United States to measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation". When Americans cannot find common ground, cannot create "among the peoples of the world the impression of a country that knows what it wants", they fail to live up to an indispensable part of their best traditions -- the tradition of George F. Kennan that holds that it is possible to mix the liberal soul with a realistic view of the world.

The author is a TCS contributor.

Bibliographic notes: Most direct Kennan quotes in this article are from the July 1947 Foreign Affairs article titled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" which Kennan published under the pseudonym of "X". Exceptions are: "every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems..." from the 1946 "Long Telegram", available in the Foreign Relations of the United States series (1946, vol VI); "simply not the channel..." from Kennan's 1993 book Around the Cragged Hill; "to delay rather than hasten the great change..." from an October 28, 1992 op-ed appearing in the New York Times. Walter Russell Mead describes the concept of "Jeffersonian" in chapter 6 of his book Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World.

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