Containing George Kennan

History: The flawed example of the late American diplomat

George Kennan
George Kennan / AP
October 29, 2014

Last week, Sen. Rand Paul (R., Ky.) received the Distinguished Service Award from the Center for the National Interest. In his remarks, Paul laid out the basic principles of what he described as a "conservative realism of strength and action." He also cited the admonition of diplomat George Kennan that the United States must distinguish its vital interests from its peripheral ones.

Paul first expounded at length on Kennan’s virtues in an address entitled "Containment and Radical Islam," delivered at the Heritage Foundation in February 2013. That speech included the following line: "I think all of us have the duty to ask, ‘Where are the Kennans of our generation?’"

A look at Kennan’s record, however, reveals him to be a flawed foreign policy model. Associated with the hardline policy of containment, Kennan was nevertheless a critic of democracy and a noninterventionist who said that American power was the source, not the solution, to global disorder, and that America had much to apologize for.

Kennan catapulted himself from obscurity to overnight fame with the publication of his 1947 essay, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct." At a time when Americans still clung to the hope that the United States and the Soviet Union could forge an enduring partnership for peace, Kennan explained why true peace was impossible.

Still, Kennan believed that war could be avoided. He proposed a "third way" that he called containment, which he defined as "the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy."

The notion of containment as an alternative to both war and peace came to define American strategy during the Cold War. Yet the question of "counterforce," and when it applied, provoked many controversies. Much of the difficulty was in applying Kennan’s proposals to the Third World. Having spent his diplomatic career in Russia and Europe, Kennan had little familiarity with the global south. He considered its troubles to be a burden. It could only drag America down.

A decade after his retirement from the Foreign Service, Kennan became an early and outspoken critic of the war in Vietnam. He argued that the United States could safely write off the loss of Vietnam, which would be of little value to the Communist world. "There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives," Kennan told Congress. He would eventually extend this clinical approach to all Third World conflicts.

During a visit to South Africa, for example, Kennan gained first-hand experience of Third World oppression. He had long been skeptical of blacks’ readiness to participate as equals in American life. As a young man, he argued that blacks, like women, did not deserve the right to vote. In 1965, Kennan explained in a private letter that the turmoil provoked by the civil rights movement left him sympathetic to apartheid. That changed when Kennan saw for himself the "heart-rending" cruelty imposed on blacks in South Africa. Yet, after his departure, Kennan privately concluded that the U.S. government should not become an advocate for racial equality in South Africa.

This private position soon became public. He wrote in 1971 that outsiders should reconcile themselves to passivity because "the main determinants of change will be and must be, as in any other great country, internal. Over the long run no outside force can ever make great, lasting and beneficial changes in another country's life."

For Kennan, this was an axiom of world politics to which he adhered with increasing rigidity. He advised foreign opponents of apartheid to moderate the "the tenor and spirit" of their criticism, lest external hostility lead South African whites to seek comfort in even greater racism. Kennan did not seem concerned with how South African blacks might respond to a lack of foreign concern for their plight. 

Kennan began to employ the tropes of moral relativism to justify his anti-interventionist doctrine. In a 1985 essay on "Morality and Foreign Policy," he casually asserted that the components of our national interest "have no moral quality."

"It is a sad feature of the human predicament, in personal as in public life, that whenever one has the agreeable sensation of being impressively moral, one probably is not," Kennan said. He dismissed the pressure to pursue an ethical foreign policy as the work of "influential minority elements among us that have some special interest" at heart and believed the American commitment to Israel was a strategic liability.

Kennan’s non-interventionism led him to the conclusion that America ought to focus its efforts internally, not abroad. Well before the Berlin Wall came down, he concluded that there was no longer a need to contain the Soviet Union, but only the arms race. Furthermore, he said, "there is much in our own life, here in this country, that needs early containment. It could, in fact, be said that the first thing we Americans need to learn to contain is, in some ways, ourselves: our own environmental destructiveness, our tendency to live beyond our means and to borrow ourselves into disaster." For Kennan, the Reagan era was not "Morning in America", but a time when "the annual spending of hundreds of billions of dollars on ‘defense’ has developed into a national addiction."

His dislike of America represented a larger misanthropy. In a diary entry written in 1987, under the heading, "What, if I had my way, would be done in place of what is being done," Kennan wrote: "Men having spawned more than two children will be compulsively sterilized. Planned parenthood and voluntary sterilization will be in every way encouraged." Such opinions were little changed from those expressed in an entry from 1932: "Nothing good can come out of modern civilization, in the broad sense. We have only a group of more or less inferior races, incapable of coping adequately with the environment which technical progress has created."

The term "realist" fails to capture much of what was distinctive about George Kennan. Indeed, much of his foreign policy is similar to that of another George: McGovern. The slogan of the 1972 Democratic presidential nominee, "Come Home America," captures well the thinking of Kennan and his disciples. It remains to be seen whether the Republican Party is ready to adopt this slogan as well.

Published under: Rand Paul