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George F Kennan: an American Life

George F Kennan: an American Life
John Lewis Gaddis
Allen Lane, 800pp, £30

“This whole tendency to see ourselves as the centre of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable." This statement was made in an interview published in the New York Review of Books in 1999 by George Kennan, architect of the doctrine of containment of the Soviet Union in the early years of the cold war.

In his final interview, given in September 2002 (he died in March 2005 at the age of 101), Kennan spoke forcefully - and presciently - against the arguments the Bush administration was advancing as it prepared to invade Iraq. The attempts that were being made to link Saddam with al-Qaeda were "pathetically unsupportive and unreliable", while there was "no evidence" that Saddam had succeeded in developing nuclear weapons. The administration "shouldn't speak contemptuously" of the inspection teams that had worked in Iraq, "because they succeed­ed in destroying and removing from Iraq very, very sizeable quantities of dangerous arms".

These interviews with Kennan are worth noting for a number of reasons. In the first place, they puncture the self-serving myths that are peddled by those who took the US and Britain to war with Iraq in 2003. It is not true that everyone believed Saddam was working with al-Qaeda in promoting terrorism, nor that there was any consensus on his possessing weapons of mass destruction at the time of the invasion. In many ways the defining folly of recent times, the invasion was launched without any clear strategy or objectives. One thing is clear, however: the war had very little to do with fighting terrorism. One of the results of the invasion was to enable al-Qaeda to establish itself in Iraq, which it had previously hardly penetrated. In effect, the invasion created the threat to which it was supposed to be responding.

Curiously, these interviews with Kennan hardly feature at all in John Lewis Gaddis's monumental biography. Begun in 1982 when Kennan was a sprightly 78, this will surely be the definitive life of the US's most reflective 20th-century diplomat. The book does an excellent job of recreating Kennan's complex character, his years as US ambassador in Moscow and role in postwar American diplomacy and the decades of disillusionment with US foreign policies that followed. Yet Gaddis recounts Kennan's warning against the Iraq war in a single sentence, while his earlier assault on the idea of the US as the centre of political enlightenment is not discussed at all.

These omissions are doubly curious, since Kennan's late warnings against the dangers of messianism in US foreign policy are fully consistent with Kennan's thinking throughout his life. But these warnings are also sharply at odds with the biographer's views, which include endorsing George W Bush's declaration that he would use American power to "end tyranny in our world" - hubristic claptrap of the sort that Kennan heartily and rightly despised.

Intellectually gifted in the highest degree, highly strung and uncompromisingly honest, Kennan was never going to mince his words when asked what he thought of the Bush administration. Equally, while his warnings did not go unnoticed, there was never any pro­-spect of their being heeded. Describing himself as "clearly un-American", he knew that he could hope to influence US policy only in circumstances of exceptional uncertainty of the kind that existed at the start of the cold war.

Much of the debate that surrounds Kennan as a diplomat (and later as a public intellectual) concerns the exact meaning of the doctrine of containment, which he set out in a famous "long telegram" from Moscow to Washington in early 1946 and developed in an article published anonymously in the journal Foreign Affairs in the summer of 1947. Soviet policy was the product of a long history of despotism and the conspiratorial mentality bred by Lenin and Stalin. To believe that the Soviet Union could be pushed by western pressure in the direction of democracy - as some in Washington did at the time - was wishful thinking. The wisest strategy was to strengthen western institutions and wait for the Soviet state to reform itself or collapse of its own accord.

In Kennan's view, the policy he advocated, which involved curbing Soviet expansion by using diplomatic and economic sanctions, was hijacked by the Truman administration, and later by Ronald Reagan, to justify armed intervention in support of anti-communist forces throughout the world. If containment had been properly applied, Kennan suggested, the cold war need not have happened. In Gaddis's view, endorsed by Henry Kissinger in a recent review, this was inconsistent. Willing the end - the containment of Soviet power - Kennan recoiled from the means.

It is a debate that will never be fully resolved. What is clear is that Kennan's view makes sense only if one thinks the cold war resulted chiefly from western paranoia - a view that is hard to square with the vast resources that were committed to the Soviet military-industrial complex. In believing that the cold war could have been avoided, Kennan - the arch-realist - was being unrealistic.

Kennan was not always a balanced commentator on his time. Some of his criticisms of American society and culture - his hostile attitude to Hispanic immigration and his repeated assaults on American youth culture, for example - can be charitably described as uncomprehending but more accurately as simply prejudiced. Even his friends, Kennan wrote, "did not know the depth of my estrangement, the depth of my repugnance of the things the American public lives by". This estrangement - as much from the 20th century as from the US - led Kennan to some serious misjudgements. Yet it was this alienation from his own time that made Kennan such an invaluable critic of prevailing delusions.

Today, as throughout much of Kennan's long life, polite opinion would like to believe that war and tyranny are the work of wicked elites: most human beings want nothing more than peace and freedom. Actually, tyrants have often been loved by many of those they tyrannised while some of the most pointless and destructive wars have been - at least at the beginning - widely popular.

Refusing to accept these facts is dangerous, because it leads to the idea that evil can be removed from the world, if only "we" - the good and the righteous - are prepared to apply sufficient force. This is what Tony Blair believed (very sincerely, I fear) when he took Britain to war in Iraq: remove the tyrant and all will be well. A deep reader of history, Kennan knew that this is nonsense. For all his misjudgements, the high-strung diplomat grasped an essential truth: war is sometimes necessary but it cannot rid the world of evil. An unforgiving critic of high-minded illusion, Kennan reminds us of realities that it is dangerous to forget. That is why he continues to be controversial and so much worth studying.

John Gray is the New Statesman's lead book reviewer. His book "The Immortalization Commission" is published in paperback on 26 January by Penguin (£9.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 23 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Has the Arab Spring been hijacked?

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Bohemian rhapsody: Jeanette Winterson’s “cover version” of The Winter’s Tale

 Jeanette Winterson's The Gap of Time is full of metaphorical riches.

Shakespeare – that magpie plunderer of other people’s plots and characters – would undoubtedly have approved. The Hogarth Shakespeare project invites prominent contemporary writers to rework his plays in novelistic form and this is Jeanette Winterson’s reimagining of The Winter’s Tale. Like the original, it shuttles disturbingly between worlds, cultures and emotional registers. It has never been an easy play, for all its apparent focus on reconciliation, and Winterson handles the gear-changes with skill, moving between the offices of Sicilia, a London-based asset-stripping company, and New Bohemia, a New Orleans-like American urban landscape (with interludes in both a virtual and a real Paris).

Her Leontes is a hedge-fund speculator, Polixenes a visionary designer of screen games (the presence of this world echoes the unsettling semi-magic of Shakespeare’s plot). They have a brief and uncomfortable history as teenage lovers at school and Polixenes – Xeno – has also slept with MiMi (Hermione), the French-American singer who eventually marries Leo.

The story unfolds very much as in the play (though Winterson cannot quite reproduce the effect of Shakespeare’s best-known deadpan stage direction), with Leo using advanced surveillance technology to spy on Xeno and MiMi, and Perdita being spirited away across the Atlantic to the US, where her guardian, Tony, is mugged and killed and she is left in the “baby hatch” of a local hospital – to be found by Shep and his son and brought up in their affectionate, chaotic African-American household. Perdita falls in love with Zel, the estranged son of Xeno, discovers her parentage, returns to London and meets Leo; Leo’s PA, Pauline, has kept in contact across the years with MiMi, a recluse in Paris, and persuades her to return secretly to give a surprise performance at the Roundhouse, when Leo is in the audience, and – well, as in the play, the ending is both definitive and enormously unsettling. “So we leave them now, in the theatre, with the music. I was sitting at the back, waiting to see what would happen.”

That last touch, bringing the author into the narrative in the same apparently arbitrary way we find in a text such as Dostoevsky’s Demons – as a “real” but imperfect witness – gently underlines the personal importance of the play to this particular author. Winterson is explicit about the resonance of this drama for an adopted child and one of the finest passages in the book is a two-page meditation on losing and finding: a process she speculates began with the primordial moment of the moon’s separation from the earth, a lost partner, “pale, lonely, watchful, present, unsocial, inspired. Earth’s autistic twin.”

It is the deep foundation of all the stories of lost paradises and voyages away from home. As the moon controls the tides, balances the earth’s motion by its gravitational pull, so the sense of what is lost pervades every serious, every heart-involving moment of our lives. It is a beautifully worked conceit, a fertile metaphor. The story of a child lost and found is a way of sounding the depths of human imagination, as if all our longing and emotional pain were a consequence of some buried sense of being separated from a home that we can’t ever ­remember. If tragedy is the attempt to tell the story of loss without collapse, all story­telling has some dimension of the tragic, reaching for what is for ever separated by the “gap of time”.

Winterson’s text is full of metaphorical riches. She writes with acute visual sensibility (from the first pages, with their description of a hailstorm in a city street) and this is one of the book’s best things. There are also plenty of incidental felicities: Xeno is designing a game in which time can be arrested, put on hold, accelerated, and so on, and the narrative exhibits something of this shuttling and mixing – most effectively in the 130-page pause between the moment when Milo (Shakespeare’s Mamilius, Leo’s and MiMi’s son) slips away from his father at an airport and the fatal accident that follows. In the play, Mamilius’s death is a disturbing silence behind the rest of the drama, never alluded to, never healed or reconciled; here, Milo’s absence in this long “gap of time” sustains a pedal of unease that has rather the same effect and the revelation of his death, picking up the narrative exactly where it had broken off, is both unsurprising and shocking.

Recurrent motifs are handled with subtlety, especially the theme of “falling”; a song of MiMi’s alludes to Gérard de Nerval’s image of an angel falling into the gap between houses in Paris, not being able to fly away without destroying the street and withering into death. The convergence and crucial difference between falling and failing, falling in love and the “fall” of the human race – all these are woven together hauntingly, reflecting, perhaps, Shakespeare’s exploration in the play of Leontes’s terror of the physical, of the final fall into time and flesh that unreserved love represents.

A book of considerable beauty, then, if not without its problems. MiMi somehow lacks the full angry dignity of Hermione and Leo is a bit too much of a caricature of the heartless, hyper-masculine City trader. His psychoanalyst is a cartoon figure and Pauline’s Yiddish folksiness – although flagged in the text as consciously exaggerated – is a bit overdone.

How a contemporary version can fully handle the pitch of the uncanny in Shakespeare’s final scene, with the “reanimation” of Hermione, is anyone’s guess (the Bible is not wrong to associate the earliest story of the resurrection with terror as much as joy). Winterson does a valiant job and passes seamlessly into a moving and intensely suggestive ending but I was not quite convinced on first reading that her reanimation had done justice to the original.

However, weigh against this the real success of the New Bohemia scenes as a thoroughly convincing modern “pastoral” and the equally successful use of Xeno’s creation of virtual worlds in his games as a way of underlining Shakespeare’s strong hints in the play that art, with its aura of transgression, excess, forbidden magic, and so on, may be our only route to nature. Dream, surprise and new creation are what tell us what is actually there, if only we could see. Winterson’s fiction is a fine invitation into this deeply Shakespearean vision of imagination as the best kind of truth-telling.

Rowan Williams is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “The Edge of Words: God and the Habits of Language” (Bloomsbury). The Gap of Time by Jeanette Winterson is published by Vintage (320pp, £16.99)

Rowan Williams is an Anglican prelate, theologian and poet, who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 2002 to 2012. He writes on books for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide