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Diplomacy and the Politics of Amelioration: the Thought of George Kennan

ISSUE:  Spring 1991

George F. Kennan has pursued a varied career as diplomat, policy-maker, and historian. In 1926 he joined the Foreign Service and was assigned to various posts, including Moscow, Berlin, and Prague, and won the admiration of ambassadors under whom he served, notably William Bullitt and W. Averell Harriman. Through Harriman he came to exercise an influence on the Truman administration’s perception of the Soviet Union. In particular his “Long Telegram” of 1946 helped alert the U.S. government to problems then posed by Soviet power. Kennan has twice held ambassadorships: in 1952 to the Soviet Union, and in the early 1960’s to Yugoslavia.

During the first phase of the Cold War, as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff (1947—1949), Kennan helped devise the strategy of containment against the Soviet Union and played a crucial role in shaping the Marshall Plan.

As an historian of Russia and of European international relations, Kennan has enjoyed acclaim. Twice awarded the Pulitzer Prize, he is today in his eighties a scholar whose research and masterful prose continue to set high standards.

Since the mid-1950’s, he has also won the attention of many people as a commentator on contemporary international affairs. In this capacity, he has touched on numerous issues, including the hazards of U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Soviet-U.S. disengagement from Europe, and the dangers of an unbridled arms race.

Despite his intellectual and other accomplishments, Kennan has never attempted to create a theory of international relations or of American foreign policy. Indeed, he has not produced any corpus of philosophical writings; rather, he is a diplomat-turned-historian, who has eschewed most theorizing as too constricting or irrelevant to the affairs of state. Still, it is worthwhile for anyone interested in one of America’s leading public figures to try to reconstruct and assess Kennan’s theory, or what we can at least label as his philosophical precepts. First, it is simply the case that during his career he has evolved a set of underlying assumptions that in their totality suggest a theory of international politics—notwithstanding his impatience with academic social science and his skepticism about formal philosophy. Moreover, by trying to re-create Kennan’s “theory,” we can draw broader conclusions about his overall contribution to U.S. foreign policy. Too scholarly to be a bland functionary, Kennan’s advice as a governmental official was suffused with historical interpretations and ethical judgments. Too worldly to be only donnish or abstract, Kennan’s notions about international policy are devoid of the scientism and abstruseness that have spoiled much of international relations theory in recent decades. His own contributions to theory are not without flaw, but on the whole they are instructive about the nature of world politics—even after the Cold War—and helpful as a guide to U.S. action abroad.

Kennan’s ideas about politics and external affairs have the effect—despite his stated preference for other, especially European, intellectual milieus—of placing him in a recognizable American tradition. His comments about politics reverberate with echoes of American strains stretching from John Winthrop to Reinhold Niebuhr and Walter Lippmann and including Roger Williams, Alexander Hamilton, John Quincy Adams, and some of the more notable mugwumps.

As in Winthrop’s instruction to the New England Calvinists that, to build a “Citty vpon a Hill,” they must labor and suffer together as one body, so Kennan has enjoined his countrymen to greater discipline, collective effort, and purposefulness. In keeping with Roger Williams, who bore witness to the failure of Massachusetts as a model of Christian community and a willing victim of the “common Trinity” (profit, preferment, pleasure), Kennan has condemned America’s straying from the gold of Puritan ascetic idealism and pursuing the dross of modern comforts. Like Hamilton, Kennan is by instinct a Federalist and has attributed many modern evils to the alleged excesses of democracy. Indeed, if any one person out of the American tradition can be singled out for his affinity with Kennan, it must be Hamilton. They have both recommended national salvation in the form of increased governmental centralization to prevent the “raucous egalitarian republic” (Kennan’s words) from spinning apart. Together they would insist on the executive branch as the sole legitimate center of gravity in handling all exceptional matters—foreign policy, as well as war. Although sharing with Thomas Jefferson a distrust of urban commercial culture and a predilection to wax eloquent on the virtues of nature and rural life, Kennan has been inclined to dismiss as “Jeffersonian heresy” any proposal that would advance the influence of public opinion beyond presently established institutional arrangements.

Kennan has regularly affirmed with John Quincy Adams that the United States must set a modest international agenda for itself and resist the temptation of intervening on behalf of various putatively humane causes abroad, as recklessness in this regard leads to ruinous wars and the corruption of political life at home. In company with the mugwumps, Kennan has not been drawn to any party of partisans operating in American politics and has yearned for the day when the United States might cultivate a deeper tone and seriousness in its civic life. Similar to Walter Lippmann, Kennan has exhibited the paradox of many modern pedagogues in combining a disdain for the popular mind and pessimism about its potential for growth with a residual Enlightenment optimism about education. Hence Lippmann’s and Kennan’s voluminous writings tended to tutor the public about political affairs. Finally, as to Reinhold Niebuhr, whom Kennan has credited with exercising a greater intellectual influence on him than anyone else, the two of them—while differing in important ways, especially in their assessments of democracy—have held out for an intellectual elite that would take upon itself the political and spiritual improvement of their nation. Whereas Niebuhr looked to what he termed a “prophetic minority,” Kennan has called for a “protest minority” that would promote a level of aesthetics and ethics more attuned to life’s verities than that produced by an overindustrialized, overarmed, overpolluting American society.

There is no adequate single label under which could be grouped those Americans with whom Kennan might be usefully compared. Still, the line of thought that combines these 17th-century New Englanders and later mandarins is decidedly conservative in the conventional European, if not mainstream American, sense. At its most politically influential, this tradition—really a merging of Calvin and Burke— thrived in the 1790’s under the guidance of Hamilton, but since his era it has become increasingly diluted until in late 20th-century America it has nearly disappeared. As there is no European-style social democratic party or conscience in the United States, neither is there a genuinely conservative one along British Tory or continental lines. Rather, as Kennan has ruefully noted, there is in a doctrinal sense only one sect of consensus—the two so-called parties being “ideologically indistinguishable, their pronouncements form[ing] one integral body of banality and platitude.” In such a political setting, a conservative of Kennan’s taste is fated for political isolation and continuous frustration; thus his repeated remarks that he is not a citizen of this epoch.

Despite Kennan’s feelings of political marginality, he has had reason to feel, intermittently at least, at home in post-1945 America. As one who has been closely identified with the realist tradition in international relations, Kennan has been part of that school of thought that has dominated political science circles—through the person of Hans Morgenthau and his disciples—and has played a role in practical affairs, exemplified by the career of Henry Kissinger.

Within the framework of both those who have practiced and interpreted American foreign policy, the realist school represents a centrist position. On the one hand, it is at odds with a host of apologists for America’s alleged international exceptionalism. Historians such as Dexter Perkins and practitioners like Woodrow Wilson have maintained that the U.S. is unique among nations because it has pursued policies of humane inventiveness (e.g., the United Nations) and liberality (e.g., the Marshall Plan and aid to poor countries), and affirms in its diplomacy the virtues of democracy and fairness. In Wilson’s words, the U.S. is “the most unselfish nation in history.” On the other hand, the realist school has had to grapple with an economic interpretation of foreign policy represented by William Appleman Williams and Gabriel Kolko, among others, who claim that the mainspring of America’s international behavior is the multiple requirements of domestic capital. According to these scholars, in the service of capital the U.S. government has followed an increasingly aggressive imperial policy that mocks professed American idealism and over the decades has forced Washington, on more occasions than a democratic polity can afford, to align itself with reaction and repression around the globe. To the realist, the United States has been neither triumphant as a light to the nations and morally uplifting in its foreign policy, nor unusually venal. The actual lineage of the realist tradition in the United States originates in Alexander Hamilton, who in surveying the cause of international disputes and wars concluded: “To presume a want of motives for such contests would be to forget that men are ambitious, vindictive and rapacious.” And, alas, Americans are no exception, but they, like the rest of humanity divided into states, must scrap for survival and take measures necessary to safeguard security and prosperity. In the 20th-century, Niebuhr, Morgenthau, and Kissinger have in their distinctive ways each shared with Kennan this orientation toward foreign politics that emphasizes a pessimistic notion of human nature, is deeply suspicious of Utopian schemes, and relies on prudence and respect for the shifting dictates of the balance of power.

As with any broad category of thinkers, there is among the American realists a wide spectrum stretching from orthodoxy to liberal to admixtures with other traditions; and it would be rash to minimize the differences, say, between Morgenthau, the political scientist, with his conception of power and struggle, and Niebuhr, the Christian theologian. So, too, Kennan can be distinguished from Kissinger, Morgenthau, and Niebuhr. Far more than any of them, he is a conservative in the late 18th-century meaning of that word and sees in modern nationalism and mass democracy the sources of the 2Oth-century’s political instability and disastrous wars. What is most striking about Kennan’s version of realism is that it blends principles of power politics with elements of conservatism (sometimes romantic) with an ethic of duty based on orthodox moral and religious precepts.


The core of Kennan’s realism is rooted in a view of human nature and life that stresses tragedy and fallenness. Of the latter and in reference to the individual self, Kennan has never lost sight of the ephemeralness of human experience, the chance phenomenon of injustice, the liabilities of the physical body, the loneliness of bereavement, and—taken from Freud—the endless conflict that arises in civilization between the emotional needs and physical instincts of the individual and society’s requirements of order and restraint. These phenomena are built into every human life and impart to it, in Kennan’s phrase, an “ineradicable tragic dimension that nothing can change.” Nor has Kennan doubted the partiality of human knowledge or the essential corruption embedded in human personality. Having witnessed at close quarters the ill effects produced in individuals by poverty, war, and purges, he has come to gloomy conclusions about people’s capacity for weakness and cruelty.

Like Niebuhr, Kennan holds that man’s self-will and vanity limit all human enterprises without exception—no matter how selflessly phrased or altruistically conceived they appear to their authors. The fact is that human vision and judgment are circumscribed from the outset by the overwhelming power of self-love. And it takes perverse forms in political life, often in ways more subtle than just the familiar shapes of self-glory and self-vindication. Kennan wrote in 1969 with the experience of himself and former colleagues in mind: “The mere experience of participation in government is an unsettling thing. . . . It arouses and stimulates a whole series of human qualities that have nothing to do with Christian purposes: ambition . . .greed, envy, competitiveness, the love of public attention, the appetite for flattery. These motivations enter at a thousand points into the final product of any political effort.” In view of this consideration and the imperfections of human life, Kennan has repeatedly advised that governments should be self-consciously skeptical about their most ambitious projects. In other words, no scientific breakthrough (such as SDI) or clever philosophical-political formula (such as Marxism) will ensure security or happiness in life.

For Kennan, as for all traditional conservatives, civilization is fragile, and it cannot withstand violent shocks as caused by modern war or swift change. Adroit diplomacy must preempt large-scale international violence; social and technological changes must come gradually. Like Burke, Kennan has warned that abruptness and a supervelocity of change will unravel the vital fabric of society and of people’s lives and cause more harm than anyone intended. All Utopian projects—the history of Russian Marxism being, for Kennan, a powerful example—provide persuasive evidence that not only are people unable to create paradise on earth, but their energetic efforts to do so invariably cause boundless mischief. (Similarly in Kennan’s mind, the achievements of American technology and the conveniences it has produced cannot compensate for the difficulties it has inflicted on the environment or on human understanding about man’s relationship with the natural order.) He connects the failure of political Utopias not only to the fact that they are impossible of achievement, but to the blindness of their sponsors to recognize that methods—witness the Bolsheviks’ war communism or Stalin’s later brutalities—will determine the practical outcome. Worthy results cannot follow from unworthy means; the means determine, and often become, the end. The politically responsible person for Kennan, as for Morgenthau, therefore recognizes that all choice exists along a spectrum of evil; one must distinguish gradations and choose the least imperfect policy from various unhappy possibilities.

Ever since the early 1950’s, Kennan has also taught that utopianism in international life will lead to confusion and usually disaster. As with most realists, his portrayal of international relations is basically Thomas Hobbes’s state of nature writ large: a conflict of all against all. In such a severe situation, in which the conventions of diplomacy and a weak system of law and organization do not substitute for the absence of a universal political authority, Americans cannot expect that a regime of justice and peace will be allowed by sovereign, competitive states to prevail. And, alas, the record of U.S. participation in attempts to outlaw war (the Kellog-Briand Pact), to establish an embryonic world government, or to rescue foreigners from themselves (Vietnam) is a discouraging one. Kennan has expressed the hope that one day his compatriots will, as a mark of their political maturity, come to accept the inherent limits of foreign policy:

We are not going to change the nature of man, nor to solve the dilemmas of political society. We are not going to find means to overcome the great irrational, emotional currents that sweep through nations and entire world areas. . . . We are not going to be understood, as a nation. In many instances, we are not going to understand.

All that Americans should do, apart from trying to make their country a satisfying place in which to live, is to follow the tenets of moderation in foreign policy.

Kennan’s application of these principles has led him to object to the fighting of total wars and the aim of unconditional surrender, to protest the demonization of U.S. adversaries and the idealization of its associates, and to urge the primacy of diplomacy over force. And his interpretation of these principles accounts for his campaign against American political-moral evangelism. Since 1951, when Father Edmund Walsh took Kennan to task for his statement that the United States ought not make itself into a slave of international law and morality, some critics have charged him with believing that there is no place for concepts of right and wrong in judging the actions of independent states—except in making Machiavellian determinations about expediency. Walsh warned that such an ethic was appropriate for the jungle and inadvertently led to the exoneration of totalitarian aggression, and inhumanity. Was Stalin not subject to the moral laws of the human race? In recent years, critics have faulted Kennan for not more forcefully condemning South African apartheid or Soviet persecution of Jews and dissidents. His response, really a discourse conducted for more than three-and-a-half decades about the role of morality in foreign affairs, has been coherent and reflects a Niebuhrian anxiety about the willfulness of national pride.

In keeping with Niebuhr, Morgenthau, and other realists, Kennan has been eager to maintain the distinction between the moral obligations of the individual person living in organized society and that of states existing in an anarchical system. Individuals in civil society can rightly be held to fairly rigorous standards of personal ethical conduct, which in the case of martyrs, or saints, might even entail self-sacrifice. A government, however, operating in the foreign field, is charged with protecting its subjects’ lives and property and beyond that is not properly concerned with anything else. Still, as Kennan once tried to assure James Shotwell (a proponent of the League of Nations), an ethic of responsibility should be no more confused with an effort to promote cynicism in foreign policy than an ethic of ultimate ends. Kennan also told Shotwell that he had long despised the hypocrisy and exploitation of moral sentiment by diverse American leaders to gain domestic political advantage or to curry favor with one ethnic group or another. Besides, as he once wrote for another audience: “Morality is such a thing which, like dignity of character generally, loses its meaning and ceases to exist the moment one claims it or refers to it one’s self.” True as this observation is about the individual, it is even more so in Kennan’s view in the case of nations: a people’s self-perception is primitive, usually complacent and overdrawn, and the demon of collective self is almost impossible to subdue. Finally, as Kennan has often observed, the moral issue in any given international conflict is not always plain to see—even for a community based on shared values— and ascriptions of blame or praise are frequently meaningless. He would have us consider, for example, the Palestinian-Israeli dispute, in which neither side is wholly pure nor evil. This being so, the United States should seek solutions in a dispassionate manner and with the aim of containing the worst types of violence. In other words, nothing like a perfect solution is likely to exist for any international situation, and Americans hamper their cause and that of others by incessantly invoking allegedly universalistic principles.

Too often, then, the American propensity to moralize has appeared to Kennan as a substitute for real decency and intelligence in diplomacy; only constant reference to its national interest can guide the U.S. as it tries to steer through the maze of conflicts between itself and others and between third parties.

In contrast to Morgenthau, the national interest for Kennan does not possess anything so grand as its own “moral dignity”; neither can it be defined concisely “in terms of power.” Rather, he is relaxed about precise definitions of national interest. (Eugene Rostow was thus inspired to remark that his mind does not move along mathematical lines but is like that of an impressionist painter.) To Kennan, the U.S. government, like that of every country, must use foreign policy to foster conditions conducive to national security and prosperity. Americans might enjoy talking about a high-sounding national purpose that manifests itself in policy, but this is a delusion. Like people everywhere, they are mainly involved in the struggle for economic well-being and living without undue hindrance from the outside. These purposes are not reprehensible in themselves, but neither do they constitute an elevated morality. They are fundamentally neutral from a moral standpoint and represent a necessity handed down by an historical process that has culminated in an international system still dominated by rival states. Kennan has agreed that Americans do and should let their moral values play a dominant role in domestic matters, and it would be folly for the United States to adopt internal policies that degrade national tradition. Regarding other nations, however, Americans should judge not lest they themselves be judged. In 1957, he wrote:

I do not profess to know—I prefer, in fact, to ignore—what is moral and virtuous for the sovereign state of Libya or Viet Nam. And while I should always be interested, as a matter of practical politics, to learn their views on the actions and diplomatic methods of my own country, I should be reluctant to accept instruction from the inhabitants of these states on what is right or what is wrong in the conduct of foreign policy. I should resent, in fact, the suggestion that their traditional concepts ought to be relevant to our problems.

So, too, the United States should exercise comparable restraint and admit that it has not been appointed guardian of the globe’s virtue: let Americans practice their version of morality at home and by their adherence to it impress the world with their seriousness of purpose. At the same time, Americans must be made to understand that nothing is more dangerous than moral feeling divorced from responsibility. Kennan has recorded: “In the eyes of many Americans it is enough for us to indicate the changes that ought, as we see it, to be made. We assume, of course, that the consequences will be benign and happy ones. But this is not always assured.” The offending government and peoples must live with the consequences, not those Americans who enjoy measuring the moral deficiencies of others against the presumed moral superiority of their own qualities.

The fact that Kennan has not discerned any singular excellence in the U.S. political system reinforces his objection to American moral universalism. It is obvious to him that a country that is wasteful of its natural resources, is spiritually and physically weakened by bad living habits, and confuses the incidental longevity of its Constitution and institutions with wisdom has little, except by negative example, to teach others. And yet, at exactly this point, Kennan the American diplomat would interpose: regardless of the injuries it inflicts upon itself, regardless of its political defects, the United States can without apology expect that other states will, on the basis of reciprocity, respect American interests abroad. According to Kennan, whatever failings they embody, Americans are not a warlike or aggressive people, and there is no reason that other countries cannot gracefully accommodate the U.S, on the basis of mutually tolerable arrangement. To obtain these ends, the United States must unsparingly encourage its professional diplomacy.

Kennan has likened the conduct of a state’s diplomacy to that of good manners in personal life. In each case, the principal obligation is to one’s self. As dignity of behavior has its origins in the needs of the person who practices it—rather than in “external compulsion”—so do such qualities as integrity and courtesy in international life stem from the inner dynamics of a country. Not only do these qualities enable a state to coexist with others; more important, they allow a nation to live with itself. The United States, for example, must preserve and nourish a certain image on which is dependent self-respect and ultimately continuation of successful national life. Therefore, Kennan has reminded audiences over the years, the U.S. has been well served in practicing honesty, decency, and helpfulness in small things. On the other hand, pettiness and a gross insensitivity to others have hindered the advancement of American foreign interests. As for the vocation of diplomacy, it demands in Kennan’s opinion persistence and composure. To be effective, the diplomat and negotiator must also renounce self-righteousness and realize that, as the best solution is unobtainable, one must concentrate on the acceptable. This implies that mechanical devices of multilateral treaties and international law are inferior in ensuring peace to diplomatically inclined governments. Certainly, Kennan’s preference has always been for the flexibility and freedom to act unimpeded from mass domestic constituencies that characterized 18th-century European diplomacy. Although he has acknowledged that such techniques and art as previously practiced cannot be readily resurrected, he has urged his government not to move too rapidly away from them.

Two important implications of Kennan’s views on diplomacy are that the United States is not obliged to restrain violence between third parties or to practice charity on a large scale (for example, in trying to “develop” the Third World). Though it might sometimes be in the U.S. interest to perform one or both of these tasks, neither should be automatic. Just as the United States cannot serve as the international conscience, so, too, it should reject the impulse to police the world. Except in those instances that infringe upon the security or economic interests of the United States and its major allies, the undertakings or predicaments of great masses of people abroad should not be a cause to American diplomacy for moral or military excitement. The serious task of foreign policy is to strike compromises with other states that will allow them all to continue as national entities and to develop, however they can, their particular talents.

To ensure their international success, Americans must not only deploy a skillful diplomacy, they must also attend to the power of example and the conditions of social health in their own polity. On this subject, Kennan has been adamant for decades. Sensitive to the point of personal anguish about his country’s real (and imagined) shortcomings, Kennan has pummeled it for lacking a sense of history, high culture, and refinement. The automobile has invaded and disrupted neighborhoods; rootlessness has destroyed any sense of community. These problems, combined with the country’s low intellectual level of politics, have meant for Kennan, at times, that America is lacking in texture, that it is boring. While he has discovered solace in a sort of personal antiquarianism, sailing, and other private pursuits, he has recommended a “dramatic stiffening of public authority” for the United States. On the eve of the 200th anniversary of the Constitution, he suggested that it should be examined by a body of distinguished people to determine its suitability as a basis for government in the late 20th-century. As he has admitted on other occasions, his desire for a more disciplinary regime cannot be realized until a new philosophy (Kennan is vague here) has gained popular approval. In any case, however idiosyncratic he sometimes is on the subject, Kennan clearly belongs to that American tradition that defines national greatness in terms of domestic behavior and cohesion, In 1985, at the National War College, he told an audience that the primary task of the United States for the foreseeable future was one of self-containment: it must master its fantastically high budgetary and trade deficits, cure its addiction to exorbitant defense spending, and cease further violations against the environment. If the United States continues to live beyond its means and ignores its formidable domestic problems, it should not hope to play a constructive future role in world affairs.


As the above suggests, Kennan partakes deeply of the realist canon. Like Morgenthau, he has campaigned against the crusading spirit of American foreign policy, has insisted on some version of the national interest as primary, and has affirmed the superiority of diplomacy over rigid military thinking on the one hand and naive internationalism on the other. With Niebuhr, Kennan has warned against national self-righteousness and has shared with him and Kissinger the conviction that the United States has been handicapped in its understanding of politics because, unlike the Europeans and their searing experience, the ebullient Americans are nescient of life’s darker side. And like the British realist E.H. Carr, Kennan has asserted that the success of the West—and by extension America’s own standing—ultimately depends on the resolution of issues related to internal resilience and on coping with the dilemmas of mass civilization.

At the same time, Kennan’s thinking about foreign policy and the United States has been permeated with qualities that seem more distinctively his own or are, minimally, less germane to political realism as conventionally understood. For one thing, his version of conservatism—quite apart from its Burkean pessimism about human progress—has been anchored in an incurably romantic attachment to the past. In this respect, his realism suffers as it is oddly balanced by a kind of conservative utopianism in which the past possessed all manner of superior habits and institutions. By this standard of judgment, the United States reached its apogee in the age before televisions, automobiles, and giant industrial conglomerations. In Kennan’s imagination the “America of the barefoot boy and the whitewashed board fence, the America of the Webster cartoon . . .was a wonderful old America.” In a similar nostalgic vein, he has expressed regret for the passing away of a quainter Department of State as it existed around 1900, when it was furnished with black leather rocking chairs and exuded quiet dignity, and was peopled by cosmopolitan gentlemen. As for Europe, he has expressed a marked preference for the world of pre-1789.

The consequences of this romantic idealization of the past are attractive in Kennan himself. It is related to his appreciation for ceremony, his personal courtliness, and his love and practice of a high literary style. This last trait, incidentally, worried Dean Acheson as he feared he might become beguiled by Kennan’s use of language into adopting ill-considered policies. On the more serious side, Kennan’s dreamy view of the past has caused him to exaggerate the defects of the modern world and to trivialize some of the past’s more unpleasant aspects. His indulgent view of European imperialism in Asia and Africa, for example, has helped blunt his sensibility to Third World grievances and has caused him to adopt a defensive tone about them. Kennan’s reservations about Western collaboration with and assistance to Third World states are imbued with more than a standard realist’s concern about national interest and technical feasibility. Moreover, Kennan’s preference for a mythical golden age of diplomacy when an aristocratic few sorted through international conflicts of power has misled him to the point where he finds almost nothing of value in modern summitry and not much more in international law and multilateral negotiations. Now this is not to say that Kennan has been wrong in attacking the “stubborn illusion” of much American statesmanship that has regarded legal arrangements alone as adequate to absorb the strains and changes in strength of various countries. Indeed, à la Kennan, there is no substitute for sustained diplomacy and statesmanship in the nuclear age. But, as he admitted in 1950 when the U.S. government debated whether to build the hydrogen bomb and as he has recognized throughout the 1980’s, unless clear-eyed diplomacy receives some additional boost in the form of new concepts and creativity, then the perils of the nuclear age will linger indefinitely. Multilateral meetings, surely, are cumbersome and prone to propagandistic abuse, but it is also certain, as never before in history, that some problems— including those important to Kennan: nuclear proliferation, global pollution, population explosion—cannot be managed on bilateral or ad hoc bases.

Kennan’s fancy that the pre-1789 world enjoyed a social coherence and basic reasonableness, notably absent in contemporary life, has inclined him to embrace a dubious anti-democratic viewpoint in politics and diplomacy. Staunchly opposed to egalitarianism in political and other walks of life, he has never doubted that sophisticated foreign policy can only be conducted by trained, dedicated individuals not forced to consult constantly with an emotional Congress and uninformed public. As illustrated by his 1942 plans for a foreign service academy, he has even thought it possible to produce a quality of statesmanship from which venality, indiscipline, and other forms of human frailty have been bred out. Kennan’s problem here, however, again derives from his version of conservative utopianism as it fails to deal adequately with the potential abuse of power or failure of leadership by political and diplomatic officers not subject to public accountability. Even the “best” people, irrespective of their background and capacity, are subject to misjudgments, temptations, and all the other failings of mortal men and women—as Kennan the Calvinist and student of Niebuhr should more readily have acknowledged. In other words, given the absence of angels and philosopher-kings in government, and given the contingent character of all human purposes—including the formulation and execution of foreign policy—democratic constraints have a useful role to play in diplomacy. From a purely theoretical standpoint, per Plato’s Republic, this is not a perfect situation. But, in view of the actual condition of human material, it is not so bad as the worst case: policy by autocrats. Finally, contrary to Kennan’s presumption, the broad citizenry in a representative democracy is not necessarily more intemperate or unreasonable than its government. From his perspective, it must have struck Kennan as ironic when a December 1981 Gallup poll indicated that 75 percent of American adults supported his proposal for a one-half reduction of Soviet and U.S. nuclear weapons, while the government and its battery of experts on diplomacy and armaments either ignored or denounced the idea.

While Kennan’s conservative disposition and interpretation of history are the source of his complaint against some expressions of modernity, they have also served positive ends: in particular, they have helped sustain his eloquent pleas, both in government and since, for diplomacy and the avoidance of large-scale violence. Central to Kennan’s thinking, especially in recent decades, has been the concept of custodianship. Constant in expressing appreciation for natural beauty, the sturdiness of Christian faith, and the aesthetic and intellectual achievements of great civilizations, Kennan has derived from these a sense of the obligation to be discharged by the present generation: to pass the planet on to succeeding generations in a condition no poorer or less able to support life than that in which they received it. This duty also stretches backward in time and entails a responsibility to history and its progression through the ages of man and nature. In the words of Kennan the Christian moralist in 1959:

We of this generation are only the custodians, not the owners, of the earth on which we live. There were others who lived here before, and we hope there will be others who are going to live here afterward. . ., We have an obligation to both of them, to past generations and to future ones, no less than our obligations to ourselves. I fail to see that we are in any way justified in making, for the safety or convenience of our own generation, alterations in our natural environment which may importantly change the conditions of life for those who come afterward. The moral laws which we acknowledge predicated the existence of a certain sort of world—a certain sort of natural environment—in which the human predicament had its setting. This presumably reflected God’s purpose. We didn’t create it; we do not have the right to destroy it. . . . When we permit this environment to be altered quite basically by things we do today, and altered in ways the effects of which we cannot even predict, we are taking upon ourselves a responsibility for which I find no authority in Christian faith.

From these considerations have sprung Kennan’s refrains against further testing and stockpiling of nuclear weapons and his insistence on serious diplomacy as a means of averting catastrophic wars. He has also urged Americans to tailor their foreign policy so that it does not run against the complex processes of international life: the forces of nationalism, rapid social change, and technological progress cannot be decisively affected by American will or power. Rather, for Kennan, the United States must approach international issues with patience and cultivate a world environment that will contain or prevent large-scale warfare. This sensibility in turn requires Americans to understand that one’s adversaries do not have a monopoly on evil but have a role to play within a scheme of history and purpose that surpasses human knowledge.


In its essence, Kennan’s intellectual career represents the submerged European conservative tradition in American political thought. Its strengths and weaknesses are equally his. This strain of thinking has never really commended itself to the jaunty American outlook, based on optimism, materialistic success, and the legend of the rugged individual who triumphs over all odds. And certainly the familiar themes of Kennan’s and earlier conservatism are not in keeping with the irrepressible temper of 20th-century (pre-Vietnam) Americans, be they conventional liberals or Republicans.

To begin with, Kennan’s religiosity, his occasional tart remarks about “sickly secularism,” and his unabashed conviction that all reliable ethics reside in religious beliefs run counter to the prevailing liberal consensus, which rests on a wide tolerance of competing viewpoints and ways of living. And to hard-liners, Kennan must be a source of incomprehension when he says that evil is not an external problem located in America’s adversaries—be that global communism, the Soviet Union, or Iraq. Against this simple-mindedness, he has brought to bear the insight of those 17th-century New England divines who were not deceived about the pervasiveness of evil; its stain attaches to American and non-American alike. Speaking of anticommunism in 1964, Kennan declared:

I must reject it. . . and not just as a matter of critical logic, but rather out of a sense of Christian duty, because it implies a certain externalization of evil—a tendency to look for evil only outside ourselves—which is wholly incompatible with Christian teaching. Evil is an omnipresent substance of human life: around us and within us as well as without us . . . When we struggle against it we must always regard that struggle as in part an overcoming of self. We cannot, for this reason, identify ourselves self-righteously with all that is good and clothe whatever opposes us in the colors of unmitigated evil.

Kennan also recognized in assuming the roles of a diplomat and policy-maker that he had of necessity (as Max Weber taught) to contract with “diabolical forces.” This realization could account for his willingness to live only on the “fringes of power.” Except for such inhibitions, Kennan might have pursued personal power beyond the rank of counselor of state or ambassador. Elements within the Democratic Party were once prepared to support his running for Congress or the Senate, but he declined. Greater taciturnity and a willingness to go along with the prevailing line might have won him a more secure position within Acheson’s State Department, or saved his career under Dulles’s regime, and won him a position more significant than envoy to Belgrade during Kennedy’s administration. But he was ambivalent about governmental work and often on the verge of official resignation from it. The administration of executive power even within so limited a setting as an embassy or the Policy Planning Staff did not come naturally to Kennan, and he was an ineffective bureaucratic operator. Did the prospect of exercising greater power in a larger arena so unsettle him that he chose not to seek it? From a purely philosophical standpoint, he never shared fully Niebuhr’s hope that justice could be implicated in the manipulation of American power abroad.

Yet any case to be made about Kennan’s reluctance to accept increased political responsibilities must take into account his earlier ambitions and vanity. As a young diplomat posted in Moscow, he could be snobbish toward fellow foreign service officers who lacked his understanding of Russian history, language, and politics. As an instructor at the National War College, he was proud that his lectures were often attended by cabinet officers, generals, and senators. And he was careful at that delicate time in his career (1946—47), when he was acquiring reputation and position, not to let his interpretations alienate the affections of people who could advance his career. This concern was evident when he trimmed his memorandum—later the “X article”— for Navy Secretary James Forrestal. Similarly, when George Elsey sent to Kennan in 1946 a draft of the Clifford-Elsey report, which went further in recommending military measures against the Soviets than he thought advisable, he muted his stronger objection and offered only minor suggestions for improvement. He might also have pushed harder in 1944—48 to let Lippmann know that the two men were in substantial agreement about Soviet aims and U.S. policy despite misimpressions caused by the “X article.” But then, would such clarification by the director of policy planning have complicated his relations with Forrestal and further irritated George Marshall, at the time already miffed by what he considered Kennan’s indiscretion in Foreign Affairs? None of this speculation is meant to suggest that Kennan was a dissembler, but like most people he was trying to get by without giving undue offense to individuals who could be professionally helpful. Still, the ambivalence remained strong in Kennan. While he wanted to be appreciated in the late 1940’s by the government as a resident intellectual and to be deferred to in matters of interpretation, he hesitated or became annoyed when powerful people invoked his concepts (e.g., containment), but put them into practice in ways that made him uneasy.

Irrespective of the complications that surrounded Kennan’s attitude about exercising power and responsibility, his career possibilities in government were doubtless restricted by his aversion to both practical politics and America’s mass democracy. While PPS director, he was too impatient and otherwise engaged to bother much with rallying support— either in the government apparatus or the larger public—for policies that he thought were obviously worthwhile. Very likely, had he come to occupy a major position, say, secretary of state, he would have failed even more than Acheson to retain public support for foreign policy. Later, as a private citizen, had he been able to overlook the more exotic aspects of the anti-Vietnam protestors, he could have helped improve their diplomatic-political education. And their popular movement might have served him well as a vehicle to spread his thoughtful objections against the war to the broader nation. Only recently and in a qualified way has Kennan permitted his name to be associated with a mass movement—that against nuclear testing and arms buildup.

It is really as a diagnostician of American and international problems and as a prescriber of remedies, rather than as an implementer, that Kennan must finally be evaluated. And here, on balance, the record is strong. However near he might have come to it, Kennan in the end has not completely despaired of the United States. As a consequence, he once entertained hopes for a third political party (oriented toward environmental issues); he has tried teaching his compatriots to distinguish between the appearance of morality and its real substance in foreign policy; and he has reminded them that ultimate international success for a wealthy, diverse, continental-sized state will be decided in the domestic sphere. This last point is especially important for Americans at large, whose understanding of national power and prestige tends to be depressingly narrow. Military might, after all, is only one feature of a country’s strength; by emphasizing it and neglecting other aspects of power, the United States threatens to damage its overall security and world standing. Kennan might not phrase it this way, but it is consistent with his viewpoint that continued neglect of social programs will eventually leave the United States less well nourished, less well tutored, and more divided than it can afford; as a power in the conventional sense and as exemplar of enlightened wealth and orderly liberty America could fade. As for the weaknesses in his assessment of the United States, the chief one has been his inability to grant that representative democracy and its institutions have virtues that should recommend them to a conservative mind. Admittedly, U.S. political institutions are not especially efficient and are often not run by high-minded people. But they are more responsive and appropriate as a corrective to a national leadership’s misjudgment or moral waywardness than any realistic application of Kennan’s elite principle.

Respecting foreign policy, Kennan’s brand of conservatism holds little that can be helpful in the management of relations between the Third World and the West. The existing structural problems of the international economic order are lost on him, as is a strong sense of the need to alleviate harsh conditions in the Third World to promote stability in a global system that, for good or ill, is interdependent. Yet Kennan’s other contributions to understanding foreign policy have been astute. In the past, he has wisely counseled that to be effective the United States must recognize the limits of its power, acknowledge a hierarchy of interests abroad, and pursue moderate balance of power policies in Europe and the Far East. As for the promotion of human rights, Kennan has recognized that the U.S. government is more often effective when it uses discreet means than when it publicly bludgeons another regime. Yet Kennan has always retained a belief in ultimate justice. Contemplating a Second World War memorial, he once wrote: “May all those who sent these men to their death, on whatever side, someday be compelled to account for their action to the God who caused these victims to come into this world, at one time, as sweet innocent children, needful of love, and normally surrounded by it, only to leave it, unfulfilled, in circumstances of such pain, bewilderment, and misery.”

Kennan’s most significant lesson for Americans is to be patient with history and historical processes. This is crucial advice for a nation that has assigned positive value to historical forgetfulness. While it might make sense—for purposes of forming a society from people of diverse cultural and racial backgrounds—that Americans not dwell on their respective heritages, their eagerness to assimilate has come at psychological cost to the American collectivity as well as to the individual. One of these costs is to place a low premium on history. Kennan has insisted that international problems can be understood only when viewed in their historical context and that successful diplomacy requires taking the long view of both problems and solutions. Certainly, his emphasis on patience and on allowing the forces of reform adequate time to begin operating in Soviet internal and foreign policies seems vindicated as Gorbachev’s innovations represent that mellowing Soviet paranoia and police power for which Kennan (in the 1947 “X article”) hoped.

To study Kennan is far more than an examination of American foreign affairs; it is to study diplomacy as an art and international relations in a universal context. He himself would agree that the character of world politics is incompatible with “progressivist theory” and that international history is foremost a story of fleeting success. In certain measure, Kennan would also accept the truth of Thucydides’ Athenian at Melos that in international affairs, “they that have odds of power exact as much as they can, and the weak yield to such conditions as they can get.” And yet, while Kennan has warned against extravagant forms of internationalism that promise more than they can deliver, he has not given up on a world in which diplomacy and national self-restraint still exist. The following statement of Kennan’s is really a testament of faith in diplomacy and the politics of amelioration:

The best humanity can hope for. . . is an even and undramatic muddling along on its mysterious and unknowable paths, avoiding all that is abrupt, avoiding the great orgies of violence that acquire their own momentum and get out of hand—continuing, to be sure, to live by competition between political entities, but being sophisticated and wise about the relationships of power; recognizing and discounting superiority of strength . . .rather than putting it suicidally to the test of the sword—imagining the great battles rather than fighting them; seeing to it that armies, if they must be employed at all, are exercised “by temperate and indecisive contests”; remembering at all times that civilization has become a fragile thing that must be kept right-side up and will not stand too much jolting and abuse. In this sort of world, there is no margin for that form of self-indulgence which is called moral indignation, unless it be indignation with ourselves for failing to be what we know we could and should have been.

At the core of Kennan’s conception of diplomacy is a preoccupation with the continuity and intrinsic value of human cultures and history. As the West’s supreme object must be the preservation of its civilization, and as the overriding challenge to all world leaders is to avoid nuclear war, this understanding of Kennan’s shall have to prevail.


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