By Chet Yarbrough
George F. Kennan: An American Life
By John Lewis Gaddis
Narrated by Malcolm Hilgartner
John Lewis Gaddis (Author, Professor of Military and Naval History at Yale.)
When Churchill gave his famous “iron curtain” speech in March 1946, George Kennan already understood the iron curtain’s implication and consequence. Kennan is known as “the father of containment” during the Cold War of 1947-1989.
The relevance of Kennan’s containment policy resonates with today’s American relationship with China. However, its relevance is one of contrast; not similarity. Today, there is no iron curtain that separates China from the rest of the world. The iron curtain has become a cloak. It is a cloak that obscures intent.
The age of the corona virus and China’s decision to delay world notification may or may not have changed America’s response. China’s cloaking of information will haunt the world’s corona virus survivors. Though there is no iron curtain today, secrecy and failure to disclose information fully replaces its physical barrier, and real world effect.
After the war, Kennan insisted on being relieved of duty in Russia and returned home to Wisconsin because President Truman was ignoring Kennan’s recommendations on a “sphere of influence” approach to the U.S.S.R.
As a deputy head of the Moscow ambassadorship, Kennan sent the famous “long telegram” to the then Secretary of State, James Byrnes, explaining how the Soviet Union should be handled after the end of WWII. The “long memorandum” makes Kennan famous because it capsulizes what became U.S./Russian foreign policy for the next 30 years.
Kennan recognizes Stalinist Russia’s pursuit of world domination as a Marxian belief of inevitability. With an eastern Russian’ ethos that endorsed persistence and patience (a quality we see in China today) Russia reveals its strength and weakness.
Kennan recognizes the threat of Russian domination in the 50 s and 60 s. However, he believes it can be managed with patient and persistent opposition by America. Within the limitations of military and economic might, the United States could directly intervene in Russian encroachment when feasible.
When direct confrontation was not feasible, overt cooperation could be undermined based on Machiavellian’ assessment of Russian expansion. In other words, Russian expansion could be contained and managed by a prudent use of force and guile by the United States. This approach worked with Russia. It is less likely to work with China.
China focuses on international domination through economic growth and influence.
Modern Russia has a similar ambition, but its domination is based on the threat of force and military intervention. Both countries expand their influence but Russia is constrained by a much weaker economy, and the limits of military threat and intervention.
China has little economic constraint on growth of the economy or military because of its growing prosperity, and broadening international influence.
China’s military strength is largely based on deterrent capability; backed by economic growth. Russia’s military growth is based on economic constraint, and the political limits of intervention and force.
Kennan argued Stalinist Russia’s ideology would fail because it is flawed. Kennan believed the gap between truth and lies would limit the U.S.S.R.’s reach and longevity.
Kennan believed that the role of the United States was to contain Russia until it collapsed from the weight of its’ mistaken ideological belief in the unerring truth of collectivism.
There is a strain of collectivist belief in Xi’s Chinese communism but it is tempered by economic freedoms that have improved millions of Chinese lives.
In spite of Xi’s emphasis on communist party rule, the genie of economic freedom has made China more pragmatic and less ideological.
Xi has abandoned his restraint in use of force in Hong Kong demonstrations. One doubts the abandonment of restraint is unending because it is influenced by Chinese communism’s change; a change that began with Deng Xiaoping’s policy of expanding personal economic freedom.
The Stalinist ideology that the collective is more important than the individual evolves in Russia but its evolution retains belief in force (sometimes murder) and intervention as reliable tools for world domination. That belief is Putin’s Achilles heal.
In later years, Kennan’s containment argument for the U.S.S.R. is found to be correct but even he suggests the cost was too high. He believed Russia’s decline could have been accelerated. The flaw in today’s Russia is not in exclusive belief in the collective but in use of force as a first, rather than last, resort.
Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, and intervention in Syria negatively influence world opinion.
In contrast, Xi’s “Road and Belt” initiative positively influences world opinion. (This is not to say all countries are enamored by Chinese largess because it increases their debt, but in many cases China is the financier of last resort.)
A duel, positive effect of Xi’s “Road and Belt” initiative is to create a wider market for Chinese goods. China chooses positive behavioral reinforcement while Russia chooses negative reinforcement (military action, limited energy resource distribution, cyber attacks on voting preferences in other countries) to achieve world influence.
Xi may be more ideologically driven than Putin but he is constrained by Deng’s cracked door which opens the economy to private Chinese entrepreneurs.
Things change and remain the same. George Kennan’s containment policy is reified in 2021, but now it is spoken of in regard to China and the policies of Chairman Xi. A concern one may have–this is not the 20th century. Technology has changed the world. International connectedness, economic interdependence, and environmental degradation require less containment and more cooperation.
Xi’s “Road and Belt” initiative expands China’s influence in the world while Putin’s actions diminish Russia’s influence.
Kennan, born in Wisconsin, went to Princeton after attending Wisconsin’s St. John’s Military Academy. After receiving his undergraduate degree, rather than going to law school, he joined the newly formed U.S. diplomatic “Foreign Service” and became a vice consul in Geneva, Switzerland. However, on a chance visit back home, Kennan met William C. Bullitt, the U.S. ambassador to Moscow, and was asked to accompany him to the U.S. Embassy in Russia in 1933.
Because of Kennan’s extraordinary foreign language ability, he became a fluent Russian language expert on Soviet affairs. He was a student of pre and post-revolutionary Russian’ culture; he used that knowledge to forge an American foreign policy to deal with Russian expansion after WWII; i.e., his prescient grasp of Stalin’s mind, and the Russian culture, allowed the United States to contain the Russian empire within Eastern Europe by limiting American overt action and covert action through confrontation, black-ops, and diplomacy.
To Trump, international relations should be conducted on a give and take basis; leaving only winners and losers.
America’s President has no Kennan in mind. Trump looks at international relations as a transaction. Trumps thinks diplomacy is like a business. Government is not a business and governance always suffers when dollars and cents are the only criteria for measurement of success.
President Trump’s nomination of Jon Huntsman Jr. as ambassador to Russia is a case in point. Huntsman spoke Mandarin Chinese which made him a highly credible candidate for a stint as Ambassador to China during the Obama administration. Trump appoints Huntsman to Russia because he is a wealthy Republican business man. One doubts the appointment had anything to do with Huntsman’ understanding of Russia or its language.
Though containment was not entirely successful, Kennan’s assessment of its spread to Yugoslavia and China were recognized as independent power structures. Yugoslavia and China believed in the value of the collective but evolved into less doctrinaire belief in “the many being more important than the one”. Yugoslavia dissolved into different states with different economic principles, and China changed its economic philosophy by acknowledging the importance of one among many.
George Kennan’s biography reinforces a belief that understanding another culture requires emergence in that culture. Ambassadors that are not fluent in a culture’s language and fail to spend years in that culture’s environment cannot understand what policies America should adopt to protect itself and promote world peace and freedom. One wishes all American Presidents would recognize that need in Ambassadors representing the United States.
Kennan’s biography reveals the importance of self-interest in foreign policy and how a Machiavellian manipulation of events is essential for a reliable margin of success. Of course, some American Presidents have taken self-interest and Machiavellian manipulation to an extreme.
Trump is not the first American President to cross the line of truth and morality but he seems one of the most prolific.
Kennan is revealed as a human being in this biography, not perfectly right or entirely wrong; subject to mistakes, personal biases, and prejudice; but grounded by life in a real, not purely theoretical, world. Kennan lived through many great events in world history, from WWII to Vietnam. His active professional life gave the United States what it needed most; i.e., perspective and practical diplomatic advice.