March 18, 2005

In Memoriam

God speed George Kennan. They don't make them like this anymore, alas. He will be sorely missed by students of diplomacy and, really, anyone who admires strong intellect, basic decency, sober analysis. We can at least be consoled to still have his excellent memoirs with us. Particularly fascinating were his accounts of his first diplomatic tour (circa 1934) in a still so young Soviet Union. These were deeply exciting and revolutionary times indeed, and Kennan helped make them come alive for us many years later in his clean, thoughtful prose. Despite the Princeton pedigree and elite foreign service career--Kennan was always something of an awkward, shy outsider hailing from points Milwaukee and Midwest rather than Northeast Harbor or Beacon Hill. Perhaps this lent to his genius in analyzing, from the outside peering in, the political trends exacting wrenching change in far-away polities. And also helps explain why he left government more than half a century ago upon his return from his shortlived Ambassadorship to Moscow (Stalin had him declared persona non grata). Not for Kennan were the shabby intrigues and naked grandstanding often necessitated to rise to the top of the Washington game. He instead repaired to Princeton (except for a follow-on Ambassadorship to Belgrade in the early 60's that he accepted at Kennedy's bidding) where he kept a subdued voice in the policy debates from his academic perch.

Too hagiographic all this? Let me then offer a criticism in the interest of balance. I felt that Kennan's warning during the 90's debate about extending NATO membership to Eastern European countries overstated how negative the Russian reaction would be. He seemed sometimes to be stuck in a bit of a timewarp, as if Czech adhesion to NATO, say, would set off Stalinist-like agitations and roiling nationalist backlashes through Mother Russia. Not quite, it seems. But such quibbles are minor ones indeed. Kennan was an American giant in the American Century just passed, and he will be rightly mourned by those who cherish the memory of those individuals--charged with the effective stewardship of our national interest--who kept that trust by serving nobly and wisely.

P.S. Dan tees up a much better obit than my late night sentimentalist ramble. Be sure to go check it out.

Posted by Gregory at March 18, 2005 06:13 AM | TrackBack (17)

Kennan's book on Bismarck's diplomacy is probably his finest work. Especially relevant today, as John Lewis Gaddis pointed out not long ago when he noted that Bush, like Bismarck, has torn up an existing interstate system but, in contrast to Bismarck, has yet to create anything durable in its stead.

Posted by: thibaud at March 18, 2005 01:08 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

My impression is that the retrospectives on George Kennan tend to emphasize the wrong things, namely the things he came to be known for publicly.

We all read the X article in our first undergrad foreign policy course, and treat "containment" as if it were Kennan's middle name. Yet if his influence is undeniable it may be that we have exaggerated it. Kennan certainly made an impact on people new to the problem of Russia and Soviet Communism, but the people who made the key policy decisions in the postwar years -- Marshall, Dulles, and especially Acheson -- had their own strong views about the proper direction of American policy in this area, which sometimes coincided with Kennan's and sometimes did not. I've never been clear on how different Truman administration containment policy would have been if the Long Telegram had never been written.

At the same time Kennan's practical contributions to the European Recovery Plan, occupation policy in Japan and policy toward Tito's Yugoslavia have probably not been praised enough. Given specific assignments, Kennan produced outstanding results more often than not; left to theorize on his own he mostly produced impressionistic essays of little practical use.

And he was no fighter. Kennan was happy to work for someone like Marshall, a man of supreme self-confidence and (at the time) unrivaled prestige who delegated important work without hesitation and provided cover against critics in Congress and the executive agencies. He was less happy under Acheson, who also had great self-confidence but unlike Marshall had firm and detailed ideas about most foreign policy issues, and was right about major issues at least as often as Kennan was. He had no desire to fight his way back into the favor of any future administration in the interest of giving practical effect to his theories. This is not a plus entry on Kennan's balance sheet; even the best ideas do not sell themselves, and Presidents hire advisers to do practical work, not sages.

I give Kennan a pass on some of the views he held in later life: his Russia-centrism, his underestimation of the appeal of American ideas beyond our borders, his alarmism bordering on hysteria about American defense programs in the early 1980s. Not one man in a million adapts to changing times without clinging anachronistically to habits of thought ingrained in his youth and prime, and in Kennan's defense some of the attitudes Kennan drew attention for expressing -- on race, for example -- were remote from his policy work and scholarship.

That scholarship was considerable, and was for Kennan a worthy second career. Much of it built on a signal achievement of his first -- filling in the blank spaces of American understanding of Russia and its conduct of foreign relations. Kennan wrote history, and appears to us now as a figure out of history: a man who given responsibility always treated it seriously, the last survivor of an age when this characteristic was dominant in the foreign policy of the American government.

Posted by: Zathras at March 19, 2005 06:07 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Agreed, Zathras - except that the man did live long enough to see the practical difference of costs involved in a large shooting war, versus a long Cold War. And he should have had the integrity to say as much - because his 80's fellow-travellers are certainly trying to make that his legacy, or was I the only one to catch that smug bastard lamenting his death and "legacy" on MPR yesterday?

Posted by: Tommy G at March 19, 2005 06:50 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Well put, Zathras. Kennan was disastrously wrong on NATO expansion, for instance. Shows how important it is to have first-hand knowledge of the country one's analyzing.

I'd quibble with one point you make: some of Kennan's views on non-foreign policy issues are indeed significant, as they indicate an American whose poetic, essentially continental European sensibility was estranged from that of his own country. Read Kennan's bizarre comments about the horror of college girls wearing bluejeans (IIRC this was from his memoirs printed in 1967), or his expressions of tender anguish at the threat to civilisation that the youth movement represented.

Basically the man was another Forster without the latter's admirable commitment to democracy and the common man: a repressed homosexual poet manque, as uncomfortable in his striped pants (again, read his memoirs about his failed first courtship) as he was dealing with Washington's power games. One can see these as the mark of a superior soul, I suppose, but intellect without political infighting skills has its limitations. A little more worldliness, for example, might have spared Kennan his embarrassingly wrong and naive views on post-Soviet Russia's response to NATO expansion.

Posted by: thibaud at March 20, 2005 05:35 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I agree Kennan was wrong on NATO expansion, but not disastrously. This is an obvious enough point, if you'll forgive me for saying so, since NATO expansion happened despite his objections, and since the fundamental question facing NATO -- what is it for? -- was little altered by the addition of new members.

Was Kennan estranged from his own country? In important ways he probably was. This may be an occupational hazard for people who represent the United States in isolated posts for long periods of time, as Kennan did in his twenties and thirties, or are alienated in some less obvious way, as a boy from a Milwaukee family of limited resources was at Princeton and to some extent thereafter. My personal comfort level with the idea that the truth about people can be achieved through psychological analysis is not high, however, and as I indicated above it is more usual than not for men as they age to cling to habits of thought known from their youth and prime even as the world changes around them.

Posted by: Zathras at March 20, 2005 10:38 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Fair points, Zathras. As to my concern for what you call "psychological analysis," it stems from my belief that Kennan's social views exemplify a more sophisticated the sort of stupid WASP snobbery that has done IMHO a great deal of damage to both the quality of CIA/State recruits and to our ability to build up expertise and assets outside of Europe.

Perhaps this is only a personal gripe at the J Leverett Saltonstall idiots who for decades clogged up Foggy Bottom and Langley, but I believe it's hugely relevant today, when we have a surplus of Joe Wilson/Michael Scheuer idiots and a severe shortage of Pashtun- and mandarin-speaking case officers and analysts.

If as much as one-third of Wall Street and Silicon Valley comprise brilliant young asian- and indian-americans, why hasn't our foreign policy establishment seen the light? Perhaps my information's out of date. I hope so.

Drezner says, "Of Kennan's views of non-WASPs, the less said the better." Not so. The WASP prejudices and social values espoused by Kennan have done, I think, not insignificant harm to our nation's foreign policy elite's ability to work effectively in the developing world.

Posted by: thibaud at March 21, 2005 03:48 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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