Friday, March 18, 2005

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George Kennan, R.I.P. (1904-2005)

George Kennan, the first director of policy planning for the State Department, is dead at the age of 101. The New York Times obit by Tim Weiner and Barbara Crossette has more detail and background, but the Washington Post obit by J.Y. Smith has a paragraph that best captures Kennan's love-hate relationship with the U.S. foreign policy establishment:

Despite his influence, Mr. Kennan was never really comfortable in government or with the give-and-take process by which policy is made. He always regarded himself as an outsider. It grated on him when his advice was not heeded, more so because it often turned out that he had been more right than wrong. He had little patience with critics.

Kennan will forever be known as the author of the Long Telegram in 1946, the most famous State Department cable in history. Kennan later converted the telegram into a 1947 Foreign Affairs essay entitled, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," which brought forth the doctrine of containment.

It is a grand irony of international relations theory that although the realist theory of international relations seemed to predict a strategy of containment, Kennan derived this doctrine from a domestic level analysis of the Soviet Union. Realism as it is currently understood derives most of it's causal power from the systemic level -- i.e., the world is anarchic and the distribuion of power among states powerfully affects the behavior of individual governments. However, Kennan argued that to understand Soviet behavior, one hand to understand the ever-present domestic legitimacy crisis of the Soviet government:

The circumstances of the immediate post-revolution period -- the existence in Russia of civil war and foreign intervention, together with the obvious fact that the Communists represented only a tiny minority of the Russian people -- made the establishment of dictatorial power a necessity. The experiment with war Communism" and the abrupt attempt to eliminate private production and trade had unfortunate economic consequences and caused further bitterness against the new revolutionary regime. While the temporary relaxation of the effort to communize Russia, represented by the New Economic Policy, alleviated some of this economic distress and thereby served its purpose, it also made it evident that the "capitalistic sector of society" was still prepared to profit at once from any relaxation of governmental pressure, and would, if permitted to continue to exist, always constitute a powerful opposing element to the Soviet regime and a serious rival for influence in the country....

Now the outstanding circumstance concerning the Soviet regime is that down to the present day this process of political consolidation has never been completed and the men in the Kremlin have continued to be predominantly absorbed with the struggle to secure and make absolute the power which they seized in November 1917. They have endeavored to secure it primarily against forces at home, within Soviet society itself. But they have also endeavored to secure it against the outside world. For ideology, as we have seen, taught them that the outside world was hostile and that it was their duty eventually to overthrow the political forces beyond their borders. Then powerful hands of Russian history and tradition reached up to sustain them in this feeling. Finally, their own aggressive intransigence with respect to the outside world began to find its own reaction; and they were soon forced, to use another Gibbonesque phrase, "to chastise the contumacy" which they themselves had provoked. It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right.

Now it lies in the nature of the mental world of the Soviet leaders, as well as in the character of their ideology, that no opposition to them can be officially recognized as having any merit or justification whatsoever. Such opposition can flow, in theory, only from the hostile and incorrigible forces of dying capitalism. As long as remnants of capitalism were officially recognized as existing in Russia, it was possible to place on them, as an internal element, part of the blame for the maintenance of a dictatorial form of society. But as these remnants were liquidated, little by little, this justification fell away, and when it was indicated officially that they had been finally destroyed, it disappeared altogether. And this fact created one of the most basic of the compulsions which came to act upon the Soviet regime: since capitalism no longer existed in Russia and since it could not be admitted that there could be serious or widespread opposition to the Kremlin springing spontaneously from the liberated masses under its authority, it became necessary to justify the retention of the dictatorship by stressing the menace of capitalism abroad.

The initial domestic insecurity of the Soviet elite made them see external societies that thrived on alternative sets of political, economic, and social principles as an existential threat -- a fact that's worth remembering when contemplating what radical Islamsts want.

In terms of U.S. foreign policy, however, the most cited paragraphs in "The Sources of Soviet Conduct" are these:

It is clear that the United States cannot expect in the foreseeable future to enjoy political intimacy with the Soviet regime. It must continue to regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena. It must continue to expect that Soviet policies will reflect no abstract love of peace and stability, no real faith in the possibility of a permanent happy coexistence of the Socialist and capitalist worlds, but rather a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and, weakening of all rival influence and rival power.

Balanced against this are the facts that Russia, as opposed to the western world in general, is still by far the weaker party, that Soviet policy is highly flexible, and that Soviet society may well contain deficiencies which will eventually weaken its own total potential. This would of itself warrant the United States entering with reasonable confidence upon a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.

Kennan is proof that the author often loses control of his words the moment they are printed. The Times obit quotes Kennan in his memoirs as saying that the language on containment, "was at best ambiguous and lent itself to misinterpretation." Indeed, the most fully developed articulation of the containment doctrine, Paul Nitze's NSC-68, differed in significant ways from Kennan's own views. Kennan barely supported the Korean War and opposed the Vietnam War.

Even when his writing was clear, Kennan's foreign policy vision was not always 20/20. He opposed NATO expansion in the nineties, convinced it would have disastrous consequences. When he was in power, he bitterly railed against congressional influence over foreign affairs, and then changed his tune later in life. Kennan never gave a flying fig about the developing world, believing that it never would develop. Kennan's narrow world vision consisted only of the five centers of industrial activity -- the US, USSR, Germany, Great Britain, and Japan. By the early nineties, when he wrote Around the Cragged Hill, he clearly believed the U.S. to be doomed to decline and devoid of "intelligent and discriminating administration." And the less said about Kennan's view of non-WASPs, the better.

Nevertheless, Kennan achieved something all too rare in the world of ideas -- he came up with a very big idea at a crucial moment in history that was simultaneously influential and correct. His doctrine of containment proved to be a useful and ultimately successful framework to guide U.S. foreign policy during the bipolar era. Varioius administrations committed various blunders in the name of containment, but a lot more good than harm was done to honor Kennan's idea. Fifteen years after the Cold War ended, we are still searching for the big idea to replace Kennan.

In honor of Kennan, his alma mater started up The Princeton Project on National Security -- "a nonpartisan effort to strengthen and update the intellectual underpinnings of U.S. national security strategy." Seven working groups have been formed to advance the project (I'm on one of them) -- probably close to a hundred top-flight thinkers.

Combined, if we're very, very, very lucky, we might come up with something half as smart as Kennan.

UPDATE: David Adesnik has a long post on Kennan's aversion to democracy promotion. However, with all due respect, I disagree with Adesnik's characterization of Kennan as a realist. Realists simply do not care about the regime type of any country. Kennan was worse than that -- his antipathy to democracy was pretty much universal. He deplored its effects on U.S. foreign policy, and as Adesnik points out he believed that most countries of the world "weren't ready for democracy." More so than the realists, Kennan thought that domestic politics mattered -- but his natural conservatism led him to dismiss the notion that regime transitions were either possible or desirable in the developing world.

ANOTHER UPDATE: Be sure to check out this special Foreign Affairs web page devoted to Kennan -- by my count, he wrote more than fifteen essays for that journal.

posted by Dan on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM


A fine obit, Dan. Thanks.

posted by: praktike on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

"Combined, if we're very, very, very lucky, we might come up with something half as smart as Kennan."

doubtful--way too many people, with way too large and diverse an agenda. Lots of good folk, obviously, but practically nothing good ever gets done by a committee. (with some recent exceptions of course, like the 9/11 Commission Report, the NIC's latest 2020 projection, and the UN's Arab Human Development Reports. but the point still stands...)


posted by: lamont cranston on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]


Thanks for the links. And good luck with The Princeton Project. Hope it will be a fitting legacy for a great man.


posted by: Rofe on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

Wow. First, I had no idea Kennan was still alive (101? another wow).

Second, Dan is right to emphasize the irony in emphasizing Kennan's association with realism (and I would stress even more than Dan the ambivalence and complexity of "containment").

A nice quote from one of the best analyses of realism (Guzzini's "Realism in IR"):

"Kennan wanted to build up a multipolar system for greater sharing and more flexibility. The problem was that containment had to work until such a situation could be realized. Wherever dominos fell, the US perceived itself alone in countering them. As the Berlin Crisis and Korean War were soon to demonstrate, Kennan's approach to containment could not easily discriminate between vital and less vital interests. For practical purposes, defending against the worst case scenario in any given situation entailed involvement in every given situation."

The "War on Terror", as many have noted, seems to evolving into this type of scenario, for better (or worse).

posted by: Mike on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

The most insightful piece of your post is the issue of existential threat vis a vis radical Islam. I would extend it to the Israeli-Palestinian issue as well for future discussion. Remember here radical Islam had not reared its nihilist head until the Oslo accords were undermined by Arafat in the late 1990's.

posted by: Robert M on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

Respectful though I am of Kennan's insight and powers observation, I think we ought to remember that a large part of his influence flowed from the fact that he devoted himself to a subject -- the Soviet Union -- few other Americans knew very much about at the time. He was smart, but at least as important he was first.

posted by: Zathras on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

Thanks for the comments, Dan. Kennan was a remarkable figure not least for his amazing longevity. It's extraordinary that someone who played a major role in the 1940's was with us till the other day and still sharp enough to comment intelligently on the what was happening around him; I remember reading an interview with Kennan a few years back opposing the Iraq war.

At the same time I wonder if the example of Kennan's telegram hasn't distorted the aspirations of intellectuals and scholars. There is something magical about what Kennan achieved in writing a single essay that shaped policy for decades and helped change the course of history. It's understandable that intellectuals dream of discovering their own magic bullet for a new era.

But there is no reason to believe that there is a single big idea or even a group of big ideas that ought to shape foreign policy in the future. The US doesn't face a pre-eminent threat like the Soviet Union in the mid-40's but instead a variety of challenges and threats of a widely different character.

You have the classical geopolitical challenge from rising powers like China, India and possibly the EU, the threat of Islamic fundamentalist terror, nuclear proliferation, global warming, infectious diseases and much else. No one really knows which of these threats will be the most important over the next generation.

At best you might get a big idea which deals with a single challenge like China but even that is a stretch given that China is a much less clear-cut adversary compared to the Soviet Union.

IMO what US foreign policy needs most is not a single organizing framework but better information and analysis about the different,concrete challenges it faces.

posted by: Strategist on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

Kennan's approach to containment could not easily discriminate between vital and less vital interests.

I happened to read (I think) Gaddis's "Strategies of Containment" recently, and (IIRC) he argued almost exactly the opposite - Kennan was pretty good about discriminating; the problem was that others weren't. Not my field, tho', so maybe I misunderstood.

posted by: SomeCallMeTim on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

Interesting article...But as I was reading the
part about the Soviet leaders world view which
they thought justified their actions I kept seeing flashes of
Bush and his administration peeking though in a
ghostly fashion...

posted by: James on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

Now Gaddis can finally write Kennan's biography. I recall that many years ago Gaddis had made an agreement with Kennan to be his biographer after his death, with everyone expecting that would have been somewhat earlier than at age 101.

posted by: Patrick on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

As a sidebar we might note Walter Lippmann's response to his opinion (an inaccurate one Kennan argued) of the containment doctrine. Viz, that the policy of containment did not distinguish between, as noted above, vital and "less vital" interests. Our committments would exceed our resources, Lippmann argued, leading to what was called the "Lippmann Gap."

I've always found the liberal/left's modern embrace of Kennan amusing (the late Mary McGrory adored Kennan's criticisms of the Reagan Administration). As Dan notes, Kennan was, well, probably a racialist (as distinguished from a racist). He would likely view the current attempts to democratize the Middle East as foolishness because "everyone knows" the Arab people can't understand democracy. He was a nativist and an ethnocentrist. In many ways he was like Henry Adams: a 19th century man in a 20th century world.

May he rest in peace.


posted by: SteveMG on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

SteveMG's comparison with Henry Adams seems to be on the mark. I think Adam's described himself as a child of the 18th century, but the point remains. I know he wrote he had an 18th century education. At the end of the Education he wondered if he and his friends could return on their centenary - 1938! - and see if they "would find a world that sensitive and timid natures could regard without a shudder". Kennan survived his centenary and, surely, his sensitive and timid nature shuddered.

A committee success - The King James Bible.

posted by: Bob Nelson on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

Daniel, I think that Kennan himself tried to make the distinction between containment in his writing and containment as actually practiced wider than it actually was. I'm not sure what happened to him...perhaps he pulled a McNamara and wanted to atone for the blood he saw on his hands. But I think nearly all of the actions taken by the US during the Cold War to pursue containment were based accurately on his description of the weakness of the Soviet system.

posted by: George Purcell on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

"Remember here radical Islam had not reared its nihilist head until the Oslo accords were undermined by Arafat in the late 1990's."

What the heck makes you think that?

posted by: Cutler on 03.18.05 at 12:56 AM [permalink]

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