Friday, March 18, 2005

George Kennan: 1904-2005

George Kennan, the intellectual dynamo who first articulated the doctrine of containment that guided American foreign policy all throughout the terror and tensions of the Cold War until its triumphant ending. His obituaries in the Washington Post and New York Times describe the somewhat dissappointing arc of his life and thought.

The force of Mr. Kennan's ideas brought him to power in Washington in the brief months after World War II ended and before the cold war began. In February 1946, as the second-ranking diplomat in the American Embassy in Moscow, he dispatched his famous "Long Telegram" to Washington, perhaps the best-known cable in American diplomatic history. It explained to policy makers baffled by Stalin that while Soviet power was "impervious to the logic of reason," it was "highly sensitive to the logic of force."Widely circulated in Washington, the Long Telegram made Mr. Kennan famous. It evolved into an even better-known work, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," which Mr. Kennan published under the anonymous byline "X" in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, the journal of the Council on Foreign Relations. "Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigorous application of counterforce," he wrote. That force, Kennan believed, should take the form of diplomacy and covert action, not war.

Mr. Kennan's best-known legacy was this postwar policy of containment, "a strategy that held up awfully well," said Mr. Gaddis.
And in echoes of today's debates, as a policy-maker, he was pessimistic of the potential for change in the Communist bloc and opposed on many occaisions the use soft power measures to roll back the occupation of Easter Europe.

A touchstone of his worldview was the conviction that the United States cannot reshape other countries in its own image and that, with a few exceptions, its efforts to police the world are neither in its interests nor within the scope of its resources.

"This whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable," he said in an interview with the New York Review of Books in 1999.

"I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights. I submit that governments should deal with other governments as such, and should avoid unnecessary involvement, particularly personal involvement, with their leaders.
Again, Gaddis is quoted in the Times:
"...he missed the ideological appeal of democratic culture in the rest of the world," Mr. Gaddis said, as the slow rot of Soviet Communism undermined the cold war's architectures.
He also publicly deplored his role in the setting up of the CIA's covert political operations capability, spoke against Vietnam and campaigned for nuclear disarmament. Eventually, he came to deplore and to some extent disown his legacy, disputing the resolute application of military power to corral the Soviets:
In February 1994, in a speech to the Council on Foreign Relations at a celebration of his 90th birthday, Mr. Kennan harked back to the "X" article. The time to have negotiated with Moscow, he said, was right after the evident success of the Marshall Plan and the Berlin Airlift, "when the lesson I wanted to see us convey to Moscow had been successfully conveyed."

But the United States and its allies insisted on "unconditional surrender" by the Soviets. The result, he said, was 40 years of Cold War at a cost of vast and unnecessary military expenditure, a useless and dangerous nuclear arsenal and 40 years of communist misgovernment in Eastern Europe.
Also, through no fault of his own, he inspired the worst opening line I've ever encountered in any book, from George Dempsey's From the Embassy, which I read and wrote about last year here and here, , "I joined the American diplomatic service because I was seduced by George F. Kennan." Whatever Kennan's faults, they didn't include a being the Bill Clinton of the diplomatic service.