Remembering George F. Kennan

Book out George F Kennan, An American Life, by John Gadis,
Professor/teacher at Yale

Gadis was on Charlie Rose’s show last night, and I found this interview very informative. Here are some excerpts from Wikipedia as well as link to a review
of Gadis’s book.

“Political realism formed the basis of Kennan’s work as a diplomat and diplomatic historian and remains relevant to the debate over American foreign policy, which since the 19th century has been characterized by a shift from the Founding Fathers’ realist school to the idealistic or Wilsonian school of international relations. In the realist tradition, security is based on the principle of a balance of power and the reliance on morality as the sole determining factor in statecraft is considered impractical. According to the Wilsonian approach the spread of democracy abroad as a foreign policy is key and morals are universally valid. During the Presidency of Bill Clinton American diplomacy reflected the Wilsonian school to such a degree that those in favor of the realist approach likened President Clinton’s policies to social work. According to Kennan, whose concept of American diplomacy was based on the realist approach, such moralism without regard to the realities of power and the national interest is self-defeating and will lead to the erosion of American power.

In his historical writings and memoirs, Kennan laments in great detail the failings of democratic foreign policymakers and those of the United States in particular. According to Kennan, when American policymakers suddenly confronted the Cold War, they had inherited little more than rationale and rhetoric “utopian in expectations, legalistic in concept, moralistic in [the] demand it seemed to place on others, and self-righteous in the degree of high-mindedness and rectitude… to ourselves”.[72] The source of the problem is the force of public opinion, a force that is inevitably unstable, unserious, subjective, emotional, and simplistic. Kennan has insisted that the U.S. public can only be united behind a foreign policy goal on the “primitive level of slogans and jingoistic ideological inspiration”.
Containment in 1967, when he published the first volume of his memoirs, involved something other than the use of military “counterforce”. He was never pleased that the policy he influenced was associated with the arms build-up of the Cold War. In his memoirs, Kennan argued that containment did not demand a militarized U.S. foreign policy. “Counterforce” implied the political and economic defense of Western Europe against the disruptive effect of the war on European society. Exhausted by war, the Soviet Union posed no serious military threat to the United States or its allies at the beginning of the Cold War but rather an ideological and political rival.

In the 1960s, Kennan criticized U.S. involvement in Vietnam, arguing that the United States had little vital interest in the region. In Kennan’s view, the Soviet Union, Britain, Germany, Japan and North America remained the arenas of vital U.S. interests. In the 1970s and 1980s, he emerged as a leading critic of the renewed arms race as détente was scrapped. In 1989 President George H. W. Bush awarded Kennan the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Yet, he remained a realist critic of recent U.S. presidents, urging the U.S. government to “withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights”. “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.” These ideas were particularly applicable to U.S. relations with China and Russia. Kennan opposed the Clinton administration’s war in Kosovo and its expansion of NATO (the establishment of which he had also opposed half a century earlier), expressing fears that both policies would worsen relations with Russia. He described NATO enlargement as a “strategic blunder of potentially epic proportions”.

Kennan remained vigorous and alert in the last years of his life, although arthritis had him using a wheelchair. In his later years, Kennan concluded that “the general effect of Cold War extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook the Soviet Union”. At 98 he warned of the unforeseen consequences of waging war against Iraq. He warned that launching an attack on Iraq would amount to waging a second war that “bears no relation to the first war against terrorism” and declared efforts by the Bush administration to link al Qaeda with Saddam Hussein “pathetically unsupportive and unreliable”. Kennan went on to warn: Anyone who has ever studied the history of American diplomacy, especially military diplomacy, knows that you might start in a war with certain things on your mind as a purpose of what you are doing, but in the end, you found yourself fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before… In other words, war has a momentum of its own and it carries you away from all thoughtful intentions when you get into it. Today, if we went into Iraq, like the president would like us to do, you know where you begin. You never know where you are going to end.

In February 2004 scholars, diplomats and Princeton alumni gathered at the university’s campus to celebrate Kennan’s 100th birthday. Among those in attendance were Secretary of State Colin Powell, international relations theorist John Mearsheimer, journalist Chris Hedges, former ambassador and career Foreign Service Officer Jack F. Matlock, Jr. and Kennan’s biographer, John Lewis Gaddis.

Kennan was critical of America’s attempt to extend its influence abroad through the use of institutions. From his perspective, attempting to extrapolate our domestic politics to other nations through international regimes was a dangerous proposition. Kennan states, “In the first place, the idea of the subordination of a large number of states to an international juridicial regime, limiting their possibilities for aggression and injury to other states, implies that these are all states like our own, reasonably content with their international borders and status, at least to the extent that they would be willing to refrain from pressing for change without international agreement.” Rather than tying our hands to other states by investing our power in institutions, he advocated keeping power on the state level and focusing on maintaining the balance of power abroad to protects America’s domestic security interests.”

I thought this important enough to post. Were we wrong as Kennan stated, to go into Iraq. Many think we were. I watched this biographer John Gadis on Charlie Rose’s show last night and I must admit I was very interested. It’s odd too, for I don’t feel very confident now with those giving this current President advice, or with Hillary Clinton as Sec. of State. I felt safe when Dick Cheney was Vice President, for he is intelligent and sharp. But, now? There is too much arrogance in this White House and it’s staff as well as our counsel on foreign policy. They do not take well to criticism.  show last night, and was very interested.  The remnants of the cold war seem to be rekindling.

*Excerpts from Wikipedia on George F. Kennan

From left, President Truman, Robert M. Lovett, George F. Kennan and Charles E. Bohlen at the White House in 1947.


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