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10 August 2023

George Kennan, loser

The American foreign policy sage was driven as much by pessimism about the US as antipathy to the Soviet Union.

By Ivan Krastev and Leonard Benardo

George Kennan’s name once loomed large in the American imagination. He was the first and, for many, the epitome of the “wise man”, the foreign policy sage who seeks to change the world with words. Kennan was the ultimate Russia hand, intimately familiar with the Russian condition and capable of discerning the hollowness at the heart of the Soviet regime while never being dismissive of its seductive power.

Yet despite his achievements as the first US director of policy planning after the Second World War, the author of twin essays that upended the general consensus around America’s strategy towards the USSR, and his service as ambassador to Moscow in 1952 and to Yugoslavia in the early 1960s, Kennan’s career crashed and burned, only for him to reinvent himself as a Pulitzer Prize-winning diplomatic historian of the first rank. For most of his life – he was born in Wisconsin in 1904 and died in 2005 – Kennan viewed himself as a loser, an exile of a now-vanished world of reason, the ambassador of an “old regime” that nobody remembers.

1946 was the year in which George Kennan wrote his consequential Long Telegram that in many ways defined America’s Cold War strategy. It was also the year in which the German jurist and grand strategist Carl Schmitt, confronted with Hitler’s defeat and forced to defend himself before a denazification tribunal, drafted an essay which argued that victors write history but only losers can make sense of it. He dedicated it to Alexis de Tocqueville, whom he characterised as a paradigmatic loser. Schmitt writes of the 19th-century French aristocrat and diplomat: “Every sort of defeat was crystallised in his person, and not just accidentally but as a kind of existential destiny. As an aristocrat, he lost out in the revolution… As a liberal, he anticipated the revolution of 1848 and its divergence from liberalism, and he was cut to the core by the onset of terror he knew it would bring. As a Frenchman, he belonged to a nation that was defeated after twenty years of coalition warfare… As a European, he was again in the role of the defeated since he foresaw the development of two new powers, America, and Russia… that would push Europe to the margins. Finally, as a Christian… he was overwhelmed by the scientific agnosticism of his era.”

Although landing on the winning sides of both the Second World War and the Cold War, Kennan paradoxically fits Schmitt’s notion of an insightful loser. Kennan spent most of his life fighting not his enemies but his admirers, arguing that his master concept of “containment” was gravely misunderstood by Western policy makers. He contributed to the West’s victory over communism but was personally pessimistic (and often morally appalled) by American democracy and consumerist society. What others celebrated as triumph he interpreted as defeat. In the 1990s, when the American foreign policy establishment consensually advocated the expansion of Nato as the consolidation of the West’s victory in the Cold War, he called the decision to expand the alliance “a fateful error” in a piece in the New York Times. He lamented that in pressing for “Nato’s borders [to] smack up to those of Russia we are making the greatest mistake of the entire post-Cold War era”.

In today’s age of pistol-packing polarisation, a figure like Kennan, who could never be neatly mapped onto a left-right axis, seems foreign, quaint even. You can hardly imagine him a member of Donald Trump or Joe Biden’s foreign policy teams. Kennan was what we might call a palaeo-realist, paying greater attention to interests over ideology, and valuing historical interpretations of policy over rational, technocratic solutions. He was also fixated on the planet’s well-being, a climate change advocate avant la lettre, who saw America’s decay closely linked to its prodigious appetite for consumerism and industrial expansion. His organicism – the belief that human society and the environment are intimately inter-related – is reminiscent of the social philosopher and critic Lewis Mumford, whom Kennan undoubtedly was reading and who was a presence palpable in Kennan’s advocacy of nature and the land.

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In a cable sent in August 1948 as director of policy planning, Kennan addressed the question that resounds strongly again today: in the case of a Soviet collapse, should the US favour maintaining the territorial integrity of the Soviet empire or should it strive towards its partition. Kennan’s advice was that the US should advocate the independence of the member states, but it should be exceptionally careful with Ukraine. Kennan fully recognised the power of Ukrainian identity, and the Ukrainians’ drive for independence. He feared, however, that Russia wouldn’t allow its peaceful separation. He advised the American government not to oppose an independent Ukraine, but to be extra careful not to be viewed as the power advocating for it. Kennan was thinking in terms of empire, and his perspective was from a Moscow-centric vantage point, but his reflections help to underline one of the hidden reasons for Vladimir Putin’s war today. The Kremlin is trying to make the world forget that it was Boris Yeltsin and the Russian leadership – not the West – that decided the fate of the Soviet Union.

Until his last days, and most strenuously during the Cold War, Kennan struggled with the myriad misreadings of containment. In retrospect, it seems highly probable that Kennan’s intention, wherein containment policy commences with pressure but must follow with diplomacy, might have averted the excesses – nuclear proliferation in the first instance – of the long Cold War. It didn’t help that John Foster Dulles, avatar of a brinksmanship and massive retaliation strategy, was the US secretary of state throughout most of President Eisenhower’s time in office in the 1950s. Mistaking Kennan’s meaning was intentional as Kennan’s advice was hardly obscure: he rehearsed repeatedly that politics, not militarisation, must follow from the initial containment of Soviet influence. Fear and loathing of a nuclear society animated Kennan like little else.

[See also: Why Tocqueville matters]

In Kennan: A Life Between Worlds, the historian Frank Costigliola, who had the pleasure and, as he makes clear to the reader, displeasure (racism, anti-Semitism and the like course through Kennan’s private statements) of editing Kennan’s letters and diaries, convincingly confects a new biographical treatment of Kennan only a decade after the authorised biography appeared by John Lewis Gaddis. What is achieved is a compelling synthesis of Kennan as elitist, committed Russophile and Germanophile, ambivalent romantic, tortured soul, and policy sage.

A persistent leitmotif in Costigliola’s study is the Freudian-derived struggle between Eros and Civilisation. Freud’s notion of a psychological conflict between the unconventional and the conventional, the impulsive and the rational is helpful in sorting through Kennan’s life. Kennan’s manifold personal affections and quiet love affairs gave him no small sense of unease. Costigliola portrays him as oscillating between his emotional needs and the social standards and norms that hold back someone in the public eye. What results is not psycho-history (Costigliola is careful not to venture into those murky waters) but an interpretation that deploys psychological considerations.

Costigliola makes abundant use of Kennan’s diaries, and these bring a freshness and intimacy to his story. It is also a treasure-trove for projection, in this case not always convincingly so. Costigliola is careful not to make grandiose assumptions, but Kennan left so many of his private thoughts inconclusive that making any claims about what he truly thought can be a perilous exercise.

Kennan was not a man, Costigliola points out, who relished the thrust and parry of intellectual debate. Having his mind changed by dint of reasoned argument hardly featured. He also wasn’t particularly keen on mentoring the next generation of foreign policy intellectuals, whether in policy, diplomacy or history. Kennan was always interested in, well, Kennan. Confronted with the spate of revisionist history of the 1960s and 1970s that exploded received wisdoms about the origins of the Cold War, Kennan fumed. He saw these parvenu historians as woefully misguided in their often Marxist, economics-driven explanations of US behaviour, and taken in by Soviet arguments about post-war vulnerability, namely that after the deaths of 27 million of its people, the Soviet Union needed a buffer zone for psychological and physical protection. Kennan had little time for these arguments as he believed that there was nothing benevolent in the Soviet Union’s claims, and Soviet influence needed to be countered decisively in the West, not pandered to.

Troubling, of course, is that Kennan himself, were he to have been intellectually more generous, would probably not have veered too dramatically from the positions of the younger set. Kennan’s psychological propinquity to the Russian condition, having spent substantial time there in the 1930s and again in the post-war period gave him insights that often aligned with the upstart historians. Kennan’s “forever war” with those who misapprehended containment, and later favoured Nato expansion, are the two most resonant illustrations.

A stand-out chapter in the biography is the one devoted to the year 1934 in the Soviet Union. Costigliola here paints a vivid picture of the near-bacchanalia that existed in 1934 among American and Soviet diplomats, and in which Kennan, a young whipper-snapper at the newly consecrated embassy, heartily participated. Romantic interludes, drinking campaigns, dreamy toasts to life-long friendship – all of this seemed to presage a different future for the relationship. “We need their imagination,” Kennan wistfully proclaimed, and to gain from “the spontaneous unrestrained fashion in which the Russian expressed his emotions”. Such hopefulness would be savagely cast aside in the horrors of the Stalinist purges that began the next year, which made an enduring mark on Kennan. Alongside the propaganda assault on the West that accompanied the purges, this was for Kennan the beginning of the end. After that, he rarely missed an opportunity to become disillusioned with people, policies, or countries.

Kennan never veered into anything that would resemble apologia or even sympathy for the regime that the Soviet leadership fashioned. But neither was he an unabashed booster of democracy. His conservative temper and his impatience with the centrality of the individual in American culture would lead him to question the “fetish” for democracy. While socialism was not the answer, certainly, his attraction to the spirit of the collective and the recognition that individualism above all could be a recipe for anomie set him apart from many of his diplomatic brethren.

None of these tendencies, however, prepares the reader for the fulsome bigotry that scars Kennan’s diaries and reached its grim apotheosis in his late 1930s book fragment, The Prerequisites. Here Kennan trumpets the potential advantages of authoritarianism for America, especially during the presidency of FDR, a man Kennan found wanting both intellectually and politically. And it is also here that Kennan, anticipating Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, yearns for “that cruel and mighty storm which will blow all the laziness, the indifference… and the rotten boredom out of society”. Straight out of autocratic central casting, Kennan argued for stripping the right to vote from naturalised citizens, non-professional women and “the negroes”. Kennan’s model for a leader during this period comes as no surprise: António Salazar, the strong-man, thuggish ruler of Portugal, who reviled liberalism and democracy, not to mention communism. Costigliola is not wrong to see this tone-deaf juvenalia of Kennan’s as “nearly fascist” in its sensibility. No small wonder Kennan tried to restrict access to it for decades.

In this light, it is curious that Kennan, Salazar’s secret admirer, maintained for decades close relations with the man whom many consider to be the foremost liberal intellectual in the West: Isaiah Berlin. Certainly their mutual appreciation of 19th-century Russian intellectual figures (Herzen for Berlin, Chekhov for Kennan) fuelled the friendship. So too did Berlin inviting Kennan to take up the prestigious Eastman professorship at Oxford University in 1955, soon after Kennan was made persona non grata from the Soviet Union and had to stop short his ambassadorship, for comparing (at Tempelhof Airport no less) Nazi Germany to Soviet autocracy. It was devotion to high culture rather than devotion to liberalism that kept them together. Berlin always defended his friend, whom he saw as “more thoughtful, more austere, and in a way more melancholy” than most Americans he had encountered.

Kennan’s policy realism, in which self-restraint is primary, is distinct from the current roster of realist international relations scholars. One might say that the contrast is between the human mind and a computer algorithm. Kennan’s approach was always non-deterministic and never mechanical, embedded in an intimate grasp of history, culture and political psychology. Structural realist scholars from Kenneth Waltz to John Mearsheimer, by contrast, have theorised the world in a far more self-contained and arid fashion, where the putative power of theory trumps reality, history and often common sense.

Costigliola’s biography resurrects Kennan’s melancholy. Reading it one is poignantly reminded of Pasternak’s famous line: “So dear, what millennium for us is this?” You are also left with the sense that it was Kennan’s idiosyncrasies and frustrations rather than his analytical sharpness, his pessimism of his own society rather than his indignation towards Soviet communism, that allowed him to shape his own time.

[See also: America is nothing more than a self-help society]

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