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After Kennan’s ‘containment’

The late George Kennan's big idea sought to define America's 'spiritual vitality' against a rotting USSR - and laid the basis for today's crisis of US foreign policy.

Philip Cunliffe

Topics Politics

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George F Kennan, probably the most famous American diplomat of the Cold War, died at the age of 101 on 17 March 2005. While the obituary in the New York Times on 18 March notes that Kennan had a significant influence on a number of Cold War projects (1), his key historical legacy boils down to one solitary but enormously influential word: ‘containment’ (2).

Kennan’s concept of ‘containment’ was variously interpreted throughout the Cold War, but it essentially amounted to the idea that Soviet influence had to be stopped from spreading. While the historical importance of this idea is difficult to understate, its significance is frequently misinterpreted. The two greatest mistakes in interpreting Kennan’s legacy are: firstly, to assume that the strategy of containment ‘held up awfully well’, in the words of historian and authorised Kennan biographer John Lewis Gaddis (3); and secondly, that Kennan’s vision for international relations has no bearing upon the post-Cold War era.

The word ‘containment’ first appeared in an article entitled ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct’ that Kennan penned for the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, the influential in-house journal of the US foreign policy establishment. The substance of the idea was articulated the year before on 22 February 1946, when Kennan cabled what became known as the ‘Long Telegram’ to the US State Department, from the US embassy in Moscow. The ‘Long Telegram’ set out both an analysis of Soviet diplomacy and a grand strategy for dealing with the USSR.

In the subsequent Foreign Affairs article, Kennan likened Stalinism to ‘a malignant parasite, which feeds only on diseased tissue’ (4). Though basically correct, Kennan missed the point that the nature of this ‘parasite’ revealed more about the ‘diseased tissue’ than it did about the USSR – the tissue and disease in this case being a crisis-ridden international capitalism. ‘In these circumstances’, Kennan reasoned, ‘it is clear that the main elements of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies’ (5).

The obituary pages have made much of the alleged misinterpretation of Kennan’s doctrine. According to the Guardian’s Harold Jackson, ‘[t]he irony of the US “containment” approach towards the Soviet Union…was that it assumed exactly the opposite shape to that which [Kennan] thought he had recommended’ (6). In 1950, for example, in a classified report known as ‘NSC 68’, Kennan’s successor in the State Department, Paul Nitze, redefined containment to mean a major military build-up. Kennan later argued that he had meant containment to be understood as a ‘political containment of a political threat’, and not mere militarism (7). As the obituary in The Economist noted, ‘[a]t the core of [Kennan’s] whole containment idea had been what he called “spiritual vitality”’ (8).

Kennan saw this ‘spiritual vitality’ as being ‘the point at which domestic and foreign policies meet. Every courageous and incisive measure to solve the internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, moral and the community spirit of our people is a diplomatic victory over Moscow, worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués’ (9).

But to say that Kennan’s vision was merely misinterpreted by Pentagon hawks is to overlook the flaw shared both by Kennan and the subsequent interpreters of his doctrine. Regardless of whether it was interpreted in a political or military sense, the problem with containment was that it was a purely negative doctrine, whereby all politics was defined defensively, as a retort to its perceived enemy (world communism). While Kennan saw the core problem as one of American ‘spiritual vitality’, this was still not a positive vision that could stand alone. Instead, the USSR was set up as the yardstick for measuring the extent of the ‘internal problems’ of US society.

In his memoirs, Kennan admitted that calling for the ‘firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies’ was ‘ambiguous and lent itself to misinterpretation’ (10). But this ambiguity was less a product of unfortunately chosen language so much as of the profoundly vacuous nature of the idea of containment itself. In the words of historian Bruce Cumings: ‘Imagine, a doctrine defining hegemony by what it opposes, obviating the necessity to explain to the American people what it is, and what its consequences will be for them.’ (11) In other words, the best justification that America could ever give for itself boiled down to that defensive old red-baiting sneer: ‘If you don’t like it here, go live in Russia.’ Thus the true irony of the ‘entire containment approach’ was that it was the decaying Soviet Union that set the agenda for American foreign policy.

Defining the USA’s ‘internal problems’ and its diplomacy against that of the USSR left US political life brittle and hollow, hostage to the fortunes of the imploding Soviet system. When the Cold War ended, US politics, including its diplomacy, was left disoriented and adrift. One measure of this disorientation is the remarkable flux in US foreign policy ideas since 1991. The intellectual volatility of the US foreign policy establishment is something that is frequently lost in the hysterical fixation with the neocons’ geeky babbling about ‘full spectrum dominance’.

Since 1990, US foreign policy has careered between contrasting visions, covering a spectrum ranging from gloomy doom mongering about ethnic warfare, ecological collapse and disease pandemics (12), to fantasies of the ‘clash of civilizations’ (13), to defending human rights through military intervention (14), to spreading peace through liberalisation (‘democratic peace theory’) (15), to the latest neocon vision of implanting democracy through military intervention, coupled with debilitating paranoia over bioterror and nuclear proliferation.

But as these visions have come and gone, no single new strategic concept has emerged to stabilise and cohere US foreign policy in the way that Kennan’s vision did. As the Washington Post has observed, while the strategy of containment underwent ‘numerous permutations over time’ – ranging from Nitze’s military build-up to Reagan’s idea of ‘rolling back’ world communism – the doctrine of containment itself ‘never lost its vitality’ (16). But this vitality and underlying coherence was only given to it by the USSR. US foreign policy imploded with the USSR. In other words, Kennan’s vacuous strategic vision set the stage for the belligerent floundering of US foreign policy today.

Philip Cunliffe studies international relations at King’s College, University of London (philip.cunliffe@kcl.ac.uk).

(1) These included the Marshall Plan (that channelled American capital into post-war Europe), the establishment of both Radio Free Europe and the CIA’s ‘covert-operations directorate’. See ‘George F. Kennan dies at 101; Leading Strategist of the Cold War’, Tim Weiner and Barbara Crossette , New York Times, 18 March 2005

(2) ‘The Sources of Soviet Conduct’, George F. Kennan, Foreign Affairs, July 1947

(3) ‘George F. Kennan dies at 101; Leading Strategist of the Cold War’, Tim Weiner and Barbara Crossette , New York Times, 18 March 2005

(4) ‘George Kennan’, Guardian, 19 March 2005

(5) ‘George Kennan’, Guardian, 19 March 2005

(6) ‘George Kennan’, Guardian, 19 March 2005

(7) ‘George F. Kennan dies at 101; Leading Strategist of the Cold War’, Tim Weiner and Barbara Crossette , New York Times, 18 March 2005

(8) The Economist, ‘George Kennan’ 26 March – 1 April 2005 Vol 374 No 8419

(9) ‘George Kennan’, Guardian, 19 March 2005

(10) ‘George F. Kennan dies at 101; Leading Strategist of the Cold War’, Tim Weiner and Barbara Crossette , New York Times, 18 March 2005

(11) Bruce Cumings (1999) ‘Still the American Century’, Review of International Studies Issue 5, 1999, p14

(12) See, for example, R.D. Kaplan (1994) ‘The Coming Anarchy’ The Atlantic Monthly, February; J. Mearsheimer (1990) ‘Back to the Future: Instability in Europe after the Cold War’, International Security vol 19

(13) S.P. Huntington (1993) ‘The Clash of Civilizations’ Foreign Affairs vol 72, issue 3

(14) See David Chandler (2002) From Kosovo to Kabul: Human Rights and International Intervention Pluto Press, especially chapters 4 and 8, for analysis of humanitarian intervention

(15) Michael Doyle (1986) ‘Liberalism and World Politics’ American Political Science Review vol 80, pp.1151-1170

(16) J.Y. Smith ‘Outsider Forged Cold War Strategy’, The Washington Post, 18 March 2005

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