Friday, March 18, 2005

George Kennan, 1904-2005

George Kennan, one of the architects of “containment” policy during the Cold War, passed away yesterday in Princeton at the age of 101. See the Washinton Post story and the NY Times story. Kennan’s writing was erudite, stylish, prolific, and influential; his “Long Telegram” written as a foreign service officer shaped the views of government policymakers on the Soviet Union and his “X Article” in Foreign Affairs in 1947 did the same for public opinion more generally.

Kennan was one of the parents of modern realism. His critique of “legalistic/moralistic” foreign policy-making is famous. Anyone interested in his views of foreign policy more generally should read American Diplomacy, one of the great short works of realist thinking (and another of the International Law “Must Reads” ).

Influential or not, Kennan’s views were not always easy to swallow. As the Washington Post reports:

Believing as he did in a limitless human capacity for error, Mr. Kennan was an unabashed elitist who distrusted democratic processes. Walter Isaacson and Evan Thomas reported in their book "The Wise Men" that he suggested in an unpublished work that women, blacks and immigrants be disenfranchised. He deplored the automobile, computers, commercialism, environmental degradation and other manifestations of modern life. He loathed popular American culture. In his memoirs, he described himself as a "guest of one's time and not a member of its household."

Beyond his criticism of international law, one wonders what Kennan would have made of current American foreign policy. The Washington Post continues:

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."

You could fill a couple of book cases with books by or about George Kennan. For biography, I suggest Walter Isaacson’s and Evan Thomas’ The Wise Men, a joint biography of Kennan, Dean Acheson, John McCloy, Averell Harriman, Robert Bohlen, and Robert Lovett. It is an outstanding history of the Cold War as well as an insightful biography of these men.

More generally, on American strategic thought during that era and on how Kennan’s views diverged from containment policy in practice, see John Lewis Gaddis’ Strategies of Containment. See also Gaddis’ essay, “Reconsidering Containment."

A brilliant and complex man whose skepticism led to both useful and useless (or worse) theories and prescriptions, Kennan was marked by, and left his mark on, the twentieth century.


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