March 23, 2005

More Kennan Remembrances

Richard Holbrooke (Hat Tip: RCP)

In 1996 Kennan went to Columbia University to hear a speech by Pamela Harriman, Averell's widow and, at that time, ambassador to France. A distinguished group, including Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state and one of Kennan's greatest admirers, gathered for dinner afterward in the home of Columbia's president. After dessert we asked Kennan to speak, giving him no advance warning. The 92-year-old legend rose slowly, and in a weak, high-pitched voice, delivered a flawlessly constructed and fairly brutal attack on one of the pillars of the Clinton administration policies Talbott and I were most closely associated with, the expansion of NATO to include Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Kennan's warning that enlarging NATO would destabilize Europe -- "an enormous and historic strategic error" -- carried the dinner audience with its eloquence and sense of history. Events, of course, proved Bill Clinton right, and Kennan -- and the bulk of the liberal intellectual community -- wrong. But in a sense, Kennan that evening was fulfilling his true role in American foreign policy: not the brilliant architect of containment but an eloquent skeptic, forcing people in power to make sure their easy justifications stood up before his polite but ferocious criticism. In today's Washington, with its emphasis on orthodox thinking, such a person could never rise inside the government, and even in 1947 it was almost an accident. This is a great loss, because, as the life of George F. Kennan shows, individual, original thinking by one lonely person can sometimes illuminate and guide us better than all the high-level panels and commissions and interagency meetings.

We disagreed on many issues: his belief in the need for a "council of elders" -- really a plea for the power of elites -- to contain the excesses of democracy; his 19th-century attitude toward Africa; his view that the promotion of human rights and democracy was a terrible, morally arrogant mistake; and his advocacy of a deal with Moscow over American troops in Europe. He had accurately predicted, at the end of the Cold War, the outbreak of ethnic violence in Yugoslavia, but he did not understand the need for American involvement in the problem, let alone the use of military force to end the Balkan wars. "Why should we try to stop ancient ethnic hatreds?" he asked me one day in the dark-paneled library of his house in Princeton. He shook his head as I tried to explain. He had been ambassador to Yugoslavia, and I wanted him to understand -- to agree with me -- as a sort of stamp of approval from one generation to another in the Balkans. But, though, as always, he was polite and gracious -- and he loved the intellectual combat -- he was firm in his disagreement. He was our greatest diplomat, and I admired him for his intellectual courage, but there was no bridging the gap.

"Why should we try to stop ancient ethnic hatreds?" Because to not do so is to deny the very possibility of human progress in our times. This Kennan quote reminds me of the words of one of the smartest girls in my high school class that I ran into in the mid 90s in the Bay Area. Upon hearing that I was off to the former Yugoslavia to do humanitarian work, she said "I'll never understand why people insist on sticking their feet in other countries problems." Was she worldly-wise in the extreme, forcing me to reckon with sad realities via her cutting comment? Or were her words more evocative of a basic weakness of spirit and genorosity (not to mention a good deal of provincialism)? I have concluded more the latter. Surely only the most unreconstructed Burkeans can be so unmoved at the prospects of humanity triumphing over a bleaker past?

P.S. Re: Kennan, btw, I think Holbrooke may be a bit too rough on him here for reasons I hope to get to soon when time allows.

Posted by Gregory at March 23, 2005 05:57 AM | TrackBack (10)

I see the awe in which most people are treating him, and as a result I'm expecting ignite some testy responses for saying this. However, I'll say it anyway because I'm genuinely interested:

It is true he laid out containment, appeared a gracious gentlemen in argument and agreement...but relatively soon after his famous "X" article, Kenan began drifting. By the 1970s, let alone the 1990s, he was making what most would consider awfully bad judgments.

I understand the respect granted to a distinguished former diplomat, but I'm not that impressed by his legendary reputation.

Perhaps someone can tell me why to hold him any higher than any other diplomat? That isn't a rhetorical question.

Posted by: JackC at March 23, 2005 11:59 PM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Yeah, I see, the destabilizing influence in NATO was not letting the new guys in but is letting France and Belgium stay.

Posted by: Ramrod at March 24, 2005 03:30 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink


If you thought Holbrooke was tough, check out Herman:

I believe JL Gaddis has already written a bio that he was waiting to publish until after Kennan passed. Should be good reading.


Kennan is unlike any other diplomat for two essays: his 1946 "long telegram" and his 1947 "X" article. With these two pieces he clearly laid out US strategy at the start of the Cold War. No other mid-level diplomat has ever had that kind of influence. (And most likely never will again.)

Plus, his first memoir is supposed to be quite good but, alas, I have never gotten around to it.

Posted by: ej at March 24, 2005 03:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

Isn't it refreshing to note that whenever Holbrooke opens his mouth--be it an obituary or an impromptu speech--it's invariably about how right he is?

What an endearing quality.

Now, where is that progress report on the new Russia, Bosnia, Kosovo and the historic Oslo Accords?

Posted by: New Sisyphus at March 24, 2005 03:56 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

I think the reasoning behind Kennan's obsession with "stability" makes sense within Cold War context. Kennan most of all wanted a "middle way" between abject surrender and nuclear war. For this he should indeed be celebrated.

Now, though, we are faced not with total global nuclear war with the Soviets, but a bunch of nasty bandits with the possibility of getting nukes. All the things that Kennan saw as good things, elitism, stability, bargaining with the enemy to limit conflict, just don't work in an era when riots in Kinshasa or Abidijian can lead quickly to a nuke going off in say, Houston, with nothing to do with the Soviet Union or great power rivalry.

Kennan, being the product of his times, just couldn't see that. Perhaps Greg's classmate couldn't either, she may have been a Cold War legacy too, not recognizing the ending of that time and the beginning of ours.

Posted by: Jim Rockford at March 24, 2005 04:31 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink

new sisyphus:


Posted by: greg at March 24, 2005 05:40 AM | Permalink to this comment Permalink
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