The Government They Deserve

George Kennan died in 2005 at the age of 101.  During his long and productive life Kennan witnessed, often first hand, the emergence of the United States as a global superpower.  An expert in Soviet affairs, he deeply influenced the crafting of American foreign policy during the Cold War.  His famous Long Telegram and “The Sources of Soviet  Conduct” (signed “X”) in Foreign Affairs were foundational texts for the American policy of containment, although Kennan came to regret some of the ways in which the policy was implemented.  After his distinguished career in the Foreign Service, Kennan retired into a long academic career at Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study.

The following is an excerpt from his 1994 book, Around the Cragged Hill:  A Personal and Political Philosophy:

I know of no reason to suppose that “democracy” along Western European or American lines is necessarily, or even probably, the ultimate fate of all humanity.  To have real self-government, a people must understand what that means, want it, and be willing to sacrifice for it.

Certainly, many of these “nondemocratic” systems are inherently unstable.  But so what?  We are not their keepers.  We never will be.  They need not greatly concern us, except where the lack of self-government is linked, as in the recent [1990] case of Iraq, with the maintenance of unduly strong armed forces and with a power-hungry and essentially aggressive leadership, and where the combination of these two factors comes to constitute a threat to the peace of the region.  Otherwise, let us, acting on the principle that peoples tend, over the long run, to get the kind of government they deserve, leave the peoples of these “nondemocratic” countries to be governed or misgoverned as habit and tradition may dictate, asking of their governing cliques only that they observe, in their bilateral relations with us and with the remainder of the world community, the minimum standards of civilized diplomatic intercourse.  (64-65)

A reminder that Wilsonian interventionism has not been the 0nly stream of American foreign policy, and a warning of sorts as well when we consider the conditions of “real self-government” as Kennan puts it.

In 1989, The Atlantic Monthly published selections from Kennan’s diary under the title “The Last  Wise Man.”

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