Remembering George Kennan

Early on in the life of this blog I wrote a couple of posts referencing George Kennan, the American diplomat and scholar who played a seminal role in the evolution of American foreign policy in the years following the close of the Second World War. Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” for example, is generally considered to be the ur-text of containment, even if Kennan later disavowed its application. Kennan’s influence later permeated the State Department under George C. Marshall. After the Truman administration, Kennan would serve from time to time in an advisory capacity but largely as an outsider — a status he keenly felt.

In the second of those posts last summer I noted the following observation from a review of Peter Beinhart’s The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris:

Kennan once set out to write a biography of Chekhov; as Beinart dryly observes, “Bush sent a man to run Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, who had never before been posted to the Arab world. To grasp the intellectual chasm between American foreign policy toward the U.S.S.R. in 1946 and American foreign policy toward Iraq in 2003, one need only try to envision Bremer writing a biography of an Iraqi writer, or, for that matter, being able to name one.”

Perhaps I may be forgiven for a certain nostalgic and perhaps romanticized longing for a foreign policy team that featured George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson along with George Kennan. Acheson, Kennan, and four other contemporaries feature in Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas’ The Wise Men: Six Friends and the World They Made. And Kennan is the subject of a new biography by John Lewis Gaddis, dean of Cold War studies, titled George F. Kennan: An American Life.

It’s doubtful that I’ll get a chance to read Gaddis’ book any time soon, so I am glad for two long reviews that have appeared to give a taste of the whole: Louis Menand’s review in the New Yorker and Henry Kissinger’s in the NY Times. Here is the conclusion of Menand’s review:

“Still, buried within Kennan’s realism there is a moral view: that in relations of power, which is what he thought international relations ultimately are, people can’t be trusted to do the right thing. They will do what the scorpion does to the frog—not because they choose to but because it’s their nature. They can’t help it. This is an easy doctrine to apply to other nations, as it is to apply to other people, since we can always see how professions of benevolence might be masks for self-interest. It’s a harder doctrine to apply to ourselves. And that was, all his life, Kennan’s great, overriding point. We need to be realists because we cannot trust ourselves to be moralists.

This was the danger that the United States faced after Europe had destroyed itself in the Second World War. We had power over other nations to a degree unprecedented in our history, possibly in the world’s history, and it was natural for us to conclude that we deserved it. “Power always thinks it has a great soul,” as another Adams, John, once said. Containment was intended as a continual reminder that we do not know what is best for others. It is a lesson to be ignored only with humility.”

And this from Kissinger’s:

“In a turbulent era, Kennan’s consistent themes were balance and restraint. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he applied these convictions to his side of the debate as well. He testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against the Vietnam War but on the limited ground that there was no strategic need for it. He emphasized that the threat posed by Hanoi was exaggerated and that the alleged unity of the Communist world was a myth. But he also warned elsewhere against ‘violent objection to what exists, unaccompanied by any constructive concept of what, ideally ought to exist in its place.’ He questioned the policy makers’ judgment but not their intent; he understood their dilemmas even as he both criticized and sought to join them.”

It is too easy to idealize historical figures after the more jagged edges of their performance on history’s stage have been smoothed over by the passage of time. But I cannot help but think that Kennan — and Acheson and Marshall — represented a seriousness that at times seems to be wholly absent from the present political scene.

Kennan had his contradictions and, being human, he was not without flaws and blind spots. And yet, we might safely conclude that he was no fool, and that, regrettably, seems to be more than we can say as we survey the population of our present political landscape. We are in the thrall of great frivolity and there is a disheartening lack of seriousness to our political discourse. And little wonder, we seem long ago to have lost the patience for intellectual rigor and nuance. That a diplomat would undertake the biography of a foreign literary figure is likely to strike us as a waste of resources.

The realities of lived, concrete experience demand a certain provisionality and openness, anchored by deep learning, that issues in practical wisdom. This wisdom coupled with moral courage is what the times demand. And, if I may be pardoned a moment of unseemly cynicism, it is precisely this package of virtues that our political discourse seems to forbid by the logic of the media ecosystem in which it plays out. In this environment our political options have calcified into grotesque parodies of themselves and it is at times hard to be hopeful.

In his 1994 memoir, Kennan wrote,

“… 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 …”

The principle that “peoples tend, over the long run, to get the kind of government they deserve” may not always be a fair historical assessment, but if there is even a grain of truth to it, as I suspect there is, then this does not bode well for us.