Where have all the George Kennans Gone

George Kennan was the State Department official in part responsible for the Cold War and adopting a position of containment rather than direct military engagement or alliance with post-World War II Communism and the Soviet Union. Generally, I think this was the right call, since the world didn’t blow up and everyone didn’t end up Communist by the end of the Twentieth Century (I don’t think those were foregone conclusions). He died in 2005, at 101. He tended to be pessimistic about the ability of US policy to advance high-minded ideals, stating that the “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.” Prior to interjecting himself (at first pseudonymously) in opposition to Truman’s Soviet policy, he was just an unknown Deputy Chief of Mission, but the public as well as the movers and shakers seemed to think, at least in the late 40s, that his knowing something about Russia and Russians meant that he should be listened to, even if they quickly twisted his logic of “containment” to apply to stumbled-into wars in East and Southeast Asia and an escalating arms race he never intended. The following quote was probably intended to be a rebuke to McCarthyism, but it would seem to have some relevance to the last several weeks:

A foreign policy aimed at the achievement of total security is the one thing I can think of that is entirely capable of bringing this country to a point where it will have no security at all. And a ruthless, reckless insistence on attempting to stamp out everything that could conceivably constitute a reflection of improper foreign influence in our national life, regardless of the actual damage it is doing to the cost of eliminating it, in terms of other American values, is the one thing I can think of that should reduce us all to a point where the very independence we are seeking to defend would be meaningless, for we would be doing things to ourselves as vicious and tyrannical as any that might be brought to us from outside.
This sort of extremism seems to me to hold particular danger for a democracy, because it creates a curious area between what is held to be possible and what is really possible — an area within which government can always be plausibly shown to have been most dangerously delinquent in the performance of its tasks. And this area, where government is always deficient, provides the ideal field of opportunity for every sort of demagoguery and mischief-making. It constitutes a terrible breach in the dike of our national morale, through which forces of doubt and suspicion never cease to find entry. The heart of our problem, here, lies in our assessment of the relative importance of the various dangers among which we move; and until many of our people can be brought to understand that what we have to do is not to secure a total absence of danger but to balance peril against peril and to find the tolerable degree of each, we shall not wholly emerge from these confusions.
-Radcliffe Commencement Address (16 June 1954)

2 thoughts on “Where have all the George Kennans Gone

  1. Kennan was shocked and disappointed by the mindless expansion of NATO. All of the real cold warriors knew that we won and won big when the USSR devolved. The idea of making military commitments to former USSR countries was prima facie absurd.
    For the 30 years prior to 1985-1990, the thought that we could negotiate a settlement that would free the Warsaw Pact countries would have been considered an enormous victory. Beyond their wildest dreams.

    ” Don’t people understand? Our differences in the cold war were with the Soviet Communist regime. And now we are turning our backs on the very people who mounted the greatest bloodless revolution in history to remove that Soviet regime.

    ”And Russia’s democracy is as far advanced, if not farther, as any of these countries we’ve just signed up to defend from Russia,”

    To think that our current obsession with starting a new cold war over Crimea is especially troubling. Crimea is of no strategic importance to the US. To the Russians — its a warm water port and considered critical. But more so, Russia fought two immensely violent wars — the Crimean War as well as extremely bloody battles during WW 2 and is symbolically important. Coincidently, I read https://www.amazon.com/dp/B004QGY3YI/ref=dp-kindle-redirect?_encoding=UTF8&btkr=1 Orlando Figes excellent history. In WW 2, the lost it during the Crimean campaign. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimean_Campaign And won it back in the Crimean Offensive. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crimean_Offensive
    Each of these eclipsed the Battle of Gettysburg in terms of human carnage.

    I am far from a student of geo politics or even geography. But the Black Sea: “connects to the Mediterranean Sea first through the Bosporus Strait, then through the Sea of Marmara and the Dardanelles Strait, then south through the Aegean Sea and the Sea of Crete.” So as far as threatening the world, the Black Sea seems idea from our perspective — Their fleet could be bottled in with a few modest bombs.

    I’m with Kennen. Never has such a bad idea been adopted with such a casual attitude. And, for the record, we still officially want to bring Ukraine into NATO. And Georgia is teed up for further expansion. As far as some bizarre domino like theory — Ukraine was a major customer for Russian gas. So why would they want to physically occupy the country, lose revenue, be forced to subsidize the country, defend against insurgency and everything else? The structure of the status quo in Crimea was a permanent lease deal – which we threatened by trying to shoehorn them into the EU. Which would have inevitably brought NATO. The EU is foundering on Greece, while Ukraine would require at least the same level of subsidy. In other words, Russia would have been fine with the status quo, without the threat of NATO. A land deal/treaty more like the Gadston Purchase then any earth shaking ge opolitical realignment.

    And just to finish off this thought, We are still at it. Aggressively expanding NATO. Per the Warsaw Summit Communiqué Issued by the Heads of State and Government participating in the meeting of the North Atlantic Council in Warsaw 8-9 July 2016, items 111 and following discuss the admission of Georgia and the ‘distinctive partnership’ with Ukraine. Like this idea has a mind of its own and is unstoppable. Falling Dominos.

    George. Where are you when we need a sane adult to simply declare victory and quit.

    Liked by 1 person

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