More reflections on George Kennan

There are an enormous number of things being written about in the blogosphere these days that deserve further comment. I had originally planned on using this for my “Catching my eye” feature this morning but I realized it deserved further comment

Marc Schulman of American Future quotes in full George Kennan’s famous “Long Telegram” (later published by Kennan pseudonymously in Foreign Affairs as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct”). Marc also continues to perform the service that he does so well by, in another post, linking to a number of Kennan resources from the Foreign Affairs web site.

In the comments section of the first post Mark Safranski, the Zenpundit, stirred the pot by pointing to an article by Walter Lippman. Lippman was one of the better known and outspoken early opponents of the policy of containment that guided U. S. foreign policy for forty years. Both the Long Telegram and Lippman’s article deserve your consideration for a number of reasons. First, of course, sources like these are essential in gaining some understanding of how and why we evolved the policy towards the Soviet Union that we did. But, as has often been said, we study history to understand the present, and the similitarities and differences between the positions advocated between these two men with the situation in which we find ourselves today in the War on Terror are very interesting.

First and foremost both Kennan and Lippman agreed on a basic principle, as Lippman wrote:

I agree entirely with Mr. X that we must make up our minds that the Soviet power is not amenable to our arguments, but only “to contrary force” that “is felt to be too strong, and thus more rational in the logic and rhetoric of power.”

This is in stark contrast to the situation in which we find ourselves today in which prominent intellectuals e.g. Juan Cole, Paul Krugman, disagree in nearly every particular not only with the details of implementation of the Bush Administration’s current policy but with the underlying beliefs that motivate that policy. I don’t think it would be going too far to suggest that the Administration’s opposition doesn’t believe that the people in the Bush Administration actually believe in those underlying principles themselves. Is is possible to be more opposed than that?

Both Kennan and Lippman conceived of the Soviet threat as ongoing Russian nationalism clothed in Marxist vestments:


After establishment of Bolshevist regime, Marxist dogma, rendered even more truculent and intolerant by Lenin’s interpretation, become a perfect vehicle for sense of insecurity with which Bolsheviks, even more than previous Russian rulers, were afflicted.


Basically this is only the steady advance of uneasy Russian nationalism, a centuries old movement in which conceptions of offense and defense are inextricably confused. But in new guise of international Marxism, with its honeyed promises to a desperate and war-torn outside world, it is more dangerous and insidious than ever before.


The westward expansion of the Russian frontier and of the Russian sphere of influence, though always a Russian aim, was accomplished when, as, and because the Red Army defeated the German army and advanced to the center of Europe. It was the mighty power of the Red Army, not the ideology of Karl Marx, which enabled the Russian government to expand its frontiers. It is the pressure of that army far beyond the new frontiers which makes the will of the Kremlin irresistible within the Russian sphere of influence. It is the threat that the Red Army may advance still farther west–into Italy into western Germany, into Scandinavia–that gives the Kremlin and the native communist parties of western Europe an abnormal and intolerable influence in the affairs of the European continent.

My own perception of the fix in which we find ourselves is that there’s a strong tincture of nationalism involved in the brand of terrorism we face whether Arab nationalism, Kurdish nationalism, or Moro nationalism in the Phillippines. Here’s what Juan Cole wrote recently on a related subject:

In contrast, the Sunni Arab guerrillas in Iraq lack a unifying ideology. They are either Baathists (discredited in most of the country) or Salafis (a hard line Sunni ideology with no appeal to Shiites in the south or to most Kurds in the north), or Arab nationalists. Arab nationalism is rejected by the Kurds and is increasingly seen by Shiites as having a subtle Sunni bias.

What puzzles me about this is that just because they’re not all fighting for the same nation doesn’t mean they’re not nationalists.

However, an explanation for what the United States is doing is frequently dreams of empire. From Thomas Engelhardt:

The most significant fact of our Iraq War and occupation (and war), which can’t be repeated too many times, is that the Bush administration busted into the country without an exit strategy for a simple reason: They never planned to leave — and they still don’t. If you have a better reason for taking a withdrawal position and pressing for it, let me know by at least the beginning of Year Four of the Iraqi Deconstruction Era.

The difference between Kennan and Lippman is that Lippman saw the ideological clash as a sideshow:

All the other pressures of the Soviet Union at the “constantly shifting geographical and political points,” which Mr. X is so concerned about–in the Middle East and in Asia–are, I contend, secondary and subsidiary to the fact that its armed forces are in the heart of Europe. It is to the Red Army in Europe, therefore, and not to ideologies, elections, forms of government, to socialism, to communism, to free enterprise, that a correctly conceived and soundly planned policy should be directed.

Additionally, I may be reading into the text but I see a somewhat more idealistic inclination in Lippman’s writing. Phrases like “tolerable peace” and “debt of honor” don’t speak of Realpolitik to me (but Kennan’s work certainly does).

One concern that I have with both Kennan’s and Lippman’s articles is that I don’t think that either one recognized the generational nature of the conflict in which their country had found itself. The reality of the Cold War is that it endured until all of the leaders on the Soviet side who still possessed some of the old revolutionary and nationalistic zeal had passed from the scene. That’s my concern about the Bush Administration’s policy, too. Do we have a 50 year plan? Or will the situation in the Middle East explode before such a plan can come to fruition?

Let me see if I can tie some of these loose ends together. I see a lot more of Walter Lippman in the policies of George Bush than I do of the policies of George Kennan. Lippman saw the conflict of ideologies as peripheral; Bush sees the “conflict of civilizations” as a sideshow. There’s an odd sort of pragmatic idealism in Lippman’s work that’s quite different from the Realpolitik of Kennan’s. But, while I think that Kennan’s containment policy was essential, necessary, and effective in combating the Soviet threat, I wonder if, once that threat had ended, whether the continuation of the Realpolitik which that policy required had not placed us in the fix we’re in now. Perhaps we’ve come to a time for pragmatic idealism and that’s what I see in Bush’s policies. Will we have the time for the seeds to sprout?

4 comments… add one
  • Excellent essay Dave – very well done. I may offer some comments on the Lippman-Kennan paradigm in a post later today

  • Allan Blackwell Link

    Mild correction: the name was Lippmann.

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