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Thursday, December 1, 2011

George F. Kennan: The Grand Old Man of ‘Containment’ policy

At last, the book that intended to bring out the frame of mind of George F. Kennan, who conceived and designed the American ‘containment’ policy towards the then Soviet Union, to the larger audience is out in print.

The author of Kennan’s biography, John Lewis Gaddis, is a known admirer of the American way of looking at the world: “American imperial power … has been a remarkable force for good, for democracy, for prosperity.” And naturally, he was all praise for Ronald Reagan, and even George Bush junior, and their craze for the so-called “grand strategy”.

Yet, as observed by many, Gaddis did do justice to the biography of the multilingual diplomat of America of Cold War era, who so categorically stated: “nobody ‘won’ the cold war”, for it was “fuelled on both sides by unreal and exaggerated estimates of the intentions and strength of the other side”.

A forewarned Kennan had this to say about Stalin in 1945: “In manner—with us, at least—he was simple, quiet, unassuming. There was no striving for effect. His words were few. They generally sounded reasonable and sensible; indeed they often were. An unforewarned visitor would never have guessed what depths of calculation, ambition, love of power, jealousy, cruelty and sly vindictiveness lurked behind this unpretentious façade.”

As is natural for a man of such critical and objective observational capabilities, Kennan, the US charge d’ affaires in Moscow, had sent a “long telegram” to Washington, in February 1946, analyzing the Soviet foreign policy, highlighting the unremittingly hostile attitude of the Soviets towards West and advocating a firm but patient policy to contain “Stalinist expansionism”.

It did cause quite a stir in Washington, for it warned the power centers in Washington DC thus: “The USSR still lives in antagonistic ‘capitalist encirclement’ with which there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence”. He further cautioned the US saying: “we have a political force committed fanatically to the belief that with [the] US there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.”

The telegram did achieve its intended objective: could strip the Truman administration of its illusions—many Americans still treated the USSR as an ally—about the then USSR. And Kennan had thus sown the seeds for the onset of Cold War.

However, Kennan had never foreseen a military threat from the Soviets. All that he expected from them was a political challenge. That’s the precise reason why he opposed the nuclear buildup by the US, besides objecting to the NATO getting overly militarized. He opposed the decision to send the UN forces across the 38th parallel during the Korean War. Indeed, he started distancing himself slowly from his “long Telegram”, as the latter events proved.   

After leaving the Policy Planning Staff in 1949, Kennan’s views had changed dramatically. He criticized the US Administration for not fine-tuning its policy in accordance with the liberal trend that surfaced in the USSR, particularly, with the death of Joseph Stalin. He also criticized the US involvement in the Vietnam War. Similarly, US Administration too started sidelining him.

After his retirement, he became a bitter critic of the US foreign policy and of the very American culture. Indeed, Kennan had gone to the extent of labeling Reagan’s bellicose foreign policy in so many words: “simply childish, inexcusably childish, unworthy of people charged with the responsibility for conducting the affairs of a great power in an endangered world”, although Reagan was considered by many not only as the ardent implementer of Cold War strategy, but also the man who ensured its successful conclusion.

As a public intellectual, Kennan started lecturing about a new kind of thought —“anti-Americanism”? At times, he used to air his despair of even democracy.  He was very unhappy about the decadence that was creping into American way of life as is reflected in what he stated in 1976: “I think this country is destined to succumb to failures which cannot be other than tragic and enormous in their scope.”  One is not sure if what he had in mind was the kind of analysis Joffery Sachs, the Columbia University professor, painted in his recent publication—The Price of Civilization: Reawakening American virtue and Prosperity: 9% unemployment, an exploding budget deficit, loss of American technological leadership to China, etc.

Kennan was a great scholar, besides being an honest seeker of truth. He had a strong belief in public service. He conducted himself all through with an upright morality. His character well reflects in what he once commented about the so-called American attitude that puts to the test America’s credibility in achieving success in whatever it undertakes: “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.”

How true! But alas! Who heeds to it?

The absence of such wisdom is evident: the outcome of over-militarization of America and the craze of the zealots for policing the world is there for all to see. Isn’t it true that the America of today is tasting the sour fruits of its imperial exercise of the power, particularly, post-9/11 terrorist-attacks? 

To his credit, John Lewis Gaddis brings out theses interesting facets of Kennan’s great personality, without of course omitting his flaws, in his book, George F. Kennan: An American Life.

That is, of course, the American way of life.  

Turning to us: Wouldn’t it be a great fortune if India was to have such individuals in the ranks of its bureaucracy who are capable of articulating their thoughts—be it on foreign policy or containing the growing civil disobedience in the country, or for that matter in steering the country towards growth, the fruits of which can be distributed effectively to the people living in the margins—forthrightly to their political bosses?
GRK Murty


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