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Kennan Dead

I've been so busy making sloppy blog errors, reading about Charles' sloppy house-burning erros, and trying to figure out why Terry Schiavo has suddenly become the Most Important Thing Ever that I haven't yet gotten around to noting the death of George Kennan.

I don't have a great deal of insight to add beyond what you'll find in the obituaries, but I will say that what makes Kennan's work so impressive to me has always been its focus on the truly long-term. In Kennan's day, there was a debate between the ideas of "containment" and "rollback." But to Kennan, containment was always a kind of rollback, in the sense that the USSR would eventually collapse if only it was first contained. And he was right. But it took a while. At any rate, I feel like that sort of decades-long attention span is seriously lacking in the contemporary world even though I and my contemporaries will probably still be around decades from now.

UPDATE: See also Dan Drezner's thoughts (especially this insight, "It is a grand irony of international relations theory that although the realist theory of international relations seemed to fit the strategy of containment, Kennan derived this doctrine from a domestic level analysis of the Soviet Union."), and Brad Plumer on Kennan as stylist.

March 18, 2005 | Permalink

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Tracked on Mar 18, 2005 3:48:11 PM

Comments

What we need now is someone of Kennan's stature and vision to tell us how to approach the struggle with Islamic terrorists. But all we have are mental midgets.

Posted by: Bob H | Mar 18, 2005 1:50:48 PM

Now is a time to note the intelligence, insight, and compassion of George Kennan, and contrast it the the small minded hubris of the current gang in the White House, who, far from creating policy of enduring value, change policies and rationales like used tissues.

It was Kennan, not the feckless Reagan, who brought down the Soviet Union.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 18, 2005 1:57:48 PM

In later years, Kennan claimed that containment had been misconstrued as a primarily military strategy when he meant it to be a political one. How the political component alone was supposed to work against a country that was, as Andrei Sakharov put it, "armed to the teeth" I don't know. Kennan's loss of heart precisely mirrored the decline of Cold War liberalism in the 60's and 70's (and the commensurate decline of the Democratic Party).

But rereading his famous 1947 Foreign Affairs artlcle, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct", I was struck by how spot-on right the old boy had gotten it. It is for this signal service to the then-slumbering country that he deserves to be remembered. "Whence shall come another?"

Posted by: Diogenes | Mar 18, 2005 2:27:38 PM

For no mystical, Messianic movement -- and
particularly not that of the Kremlin -- can face frustration
indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another
to the logic of that state of affairs.

And

The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of
the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To
avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best
traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 18, 2005 2:44:12 PM

Contrast the above quotes from Kennan with the palsied fearmongering pushed by Bushites.

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 18, 2005 2:45:51 PM

And exactly how is torture, the Patriot Act, and other manifestations of fear, living up to our best traditions?

Posted by: epistemology | Mar 18, 2005 2:47:27 PM

Notice that the Cold War, as conceived by Kennan, was premised on the assumption that the Soviet Union was a weak power compared to the United States. Yet American politicians--notably John Kennedy-- spoke of Russians as if they were ten feet tall.

Posted by: realist | Mar 18, 2005 2:57:09 PM

Kennan's memoirs are one of the great 20th century political testaments. Reserved, but beautifully written and great intelligence on every page.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Mar 18, 2005 4:39:38 PM

Kennan's memoirs are one of the great 20th century political testaments. Reserved, but beautifully written and great intelligence on every page.

Posted by: SqueakyRat | Mar 18, 2005 4:39:38 PM

I think his passing represents a physical and symbolic end of an era.

An era in which elites were afforded the opportunity to express their views in relative isolation from public opinion. Or rather to be accurate, an era where they still had to contend with the manichean insticts of mass democracies, but nevertheless were afforded a degree of independence I am not quite sure they can afford today.

Kennan was a prime example of the tension between elite and mass politics. While he wrote his seminal telegram as a relatively obscure diplomat, he witnessed it taking a life of his own with his country going from one extreme to the other thanks to its unintended effects; from a friendly disposition to the allied Soviet Union to full-fledged, communist witch hunts; a swing that occured thanks to the simplification and moralization of his rather nuanced and amoral argument.

Kennan didn't seek to influence public opinion directly; in fact he had a problem doing so. He mainly argued for what he thought it was right (which as the obits show, often times he wasn't) and tried to win policy debates on the merits of his argument and not its comporting with popular ideas of the time.

Kennan's disposition comes in sharp contrast with today's foreign policy elites who seek to influence public opinion directly, often times with sophistry and propaganda. For example, perhaps the brightest mind of this generation (or at least the most hyped) is an editor in a mass circulation magazine; Newsweek.

But if Zakaria represents the shift of foreign policy opinion from the isolated ivory tower to a role of a public intellectual, the neocons represent the transformation of elites as grumpy defenders of the status quo to mass communicators; the neocons have managed to built a whole policy/PR network that communicates it's ideas both at the elite and public opinion level, often with the necessary dumbing down of their ideas.

The difference is small but crucial. Let's view this through Habermas dichotomy between communicative and strategic action. The former represents the honest and disinterested expression of ideas as to which course is better, the latter the propagation of ideas as a means to advance a policy goal.

Kennan worked only at the communicative level. He wrote his policy ideas in an honest manner; they were then taken by policy actors like Truman and Acheson and presented in a strategic fashion to the public. There was a distinction in the roles. I think that this distinction has been lost on modern politics and as it has been exemplified by the neoconservatives. You simply cannot make the distinction between the communicative and strategic aspect of their ideas when you read people Kristoll or Perle.

I don't know if we can apply this rule to anyone who has written on foreign policy matters in the recent past, but to an extent, this is the reason that 2 years later, we still don't know the exact rationale that led to the war on Iraq. We may have a good idea on the kind of reasons that prompted people to advocate the war and we can hypothesize and speculate - many times projecting our views- on whether it was democracy promotion, the threat of WMD or an unconscious identification with Israeli interests, but truth be told, we really don't know.

Perhaps this is too small of a difference to be important. To say that propaganda or the manichean instincts didn't exist in the past is to a certaine extent a romantization of the past.

However, I find something pretty compelling about an individual who was driven by his conscience and honesty, rather than the need to get his way with any means possible. Kennan's personal disposition and the elite culture that bred it was another tempering check to the excesses of democracy.

That's just another layer missing today.

Posted by: Nick Kaufman | Mar 19, 2005 3:56:44 AM

I'm not sure how you can say that containment defeated the Soviets when Reagan started to change the policy to rollback in the 1980s.

According to some sources I've read, it wasn't Soviet military spending that was hurting them(it never actually increased during the Reagan years), it was having to deal with all of the rebel groups in their client states that Reagan was supporting. That was getting damn expensive.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Mar 19, 2005 8:01:50 AM

...having to deal with all of the rebel groups in their client states that Reagan was supporting.

How exactly was Reagan supporting those 'rebel' groups and what groups were there other than 'Solidarity' in Poland?

Posted by: abb1 | Mar 19, 2005 9:17:39 AM

Contras, mujahadeen, UNITA....

It wasn't the Cubans who were paying for all those troops in Angola and Ethiopia. Although I'm not sure if we were supporting the Eritreans and Tigres or not.

Reagan was the first President that did not see a new state fall under the Soviet orbit. They didn't have time to gain new regimes. They were too busy defending their gains during the previous decade. Under containment, they could leisurely pick their targets, knowing the US woudln't try to undermine their client regimes, but was purely playing defense. When Reagan went on the offensive, the whole calculus changed.

Posted by: Adam Herman | Mar 20, 2005 2:18:00 AM

Lordy, what a load of roadapples!

I will say that what makes Kennan's work so impressive to me has always been its focus on the truly long-term.

As opposed to the Bush Doctrine of muscular democracy promotion in the superficially least promising places? Which you, and all the other admirers of long-term strategy have been variously deriding as a lie or a pipedream since the get go?

What we need now is someone of Kennan's stature and vision to tell us how to approach the struggle with Islamic terrorists.

Mr. Bush has done so on numerous occasions. But of course you wouldn't know anything about that.

2 years later, we still don't know the exact rationale that led to the war on Iraq.

If you don't know it's because you've had your fingers in your ears and been screaming LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA LA at the top of your lungs since 9/11.

Posted by: Dick Eagleson | Mar 20, 2005 12:10:21 PM

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