American Diplomacy, George Kennan

Original publication in 1951; with Mearshimer forward, 2012




Key ideas:

-Soviets as political threat but not military threat; US could not grasp this and allow its example of democracy and capitalism speak for itself 171, 133

-Kennan is the father of containment doctrine; advocated perimeter defense against Soviets

-War is not a vehicle for change; America needs to shed the obsession with achieving "victory" through military such thing as total military victory, esp in case of ideological or attitudinal objectives 94, 108, 136

-Legalistic-moralistic modus operandus leads US to images of moral superiority and lustful vengeance on enemy, or unconditional surrender. 107

-There is nothing absolute in the theoretical value of different political institutions, i.e. communism is not inherently bad or evil 142, 137

-Essentially asserts that Vietnam and Korea might have been avoided had we correctly characterized the Soviet threat as a political and not a military one 171

-Fundamental problem with democracies' inability to devise consistent foreign policy (due to nature of system); uses de Tocqueville, and also the centrality of public opinion/domestic concerns in politicians' foreign policy decisions

-Importance of European balance of power to US security 74

Summary: Kennan delivers six lectures at the University of Chicago in 1951 that seek to account for the perceived exponential increase in insecurity circa 1950 as compared with the turn of the century. Through discussion of the Spanish-American War, the Open Door policy, relations with China and the Orient, WWI, and WWII, Kennan reveals his concerns about America's foreign policy. First, democracies appear to be slow beasts to anger but, once riled, seek a vengeful retaliation against the enemy. Both the emotional nature of this retaliation and the need to associate inferior morality with the enemy leads to few options other than unconditional surrender. Kennan harps on the susceptibility of the masses to manipulation by the government, to emotional and shallow responses to international events, and to a lack of understanding of foreign policy.

-Lecture 1 " The War with Spain" In Kennan's view, America has been unduly responsive to this public mood, and he uses the Spanish-American War of 1898 to demonstrate the government's unthoughtful move to war as evidence of this predilection. Kennan discusses not only the Spanish government's offer of very conciliatory concessions to avoid war, but also of America's inconsistent military actions; namely, the destruction of the Spanish fleet in the Philippines and the taking of Manila. Kennan indicates that it still is not clear why that decision was made to annex the territories of Hawaii, Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico, and that this move was not only apparently inconsistent with the war aims but also with America's raison d'être.

-Lecture 2 "Mr. Hippisley and the Open Door": Kennan uses the Open Door policy in China as evidence of America's lack foreign policy clarity, intentional manipulation of the public, and immature/inexperienced foreign policy making. The policy itself, which was intended to secure equal rights for all in China and the territorial and administrative integrity of China, was nebulous and had little impact on the states carving China up into spheres of influence, and misled others (Japanese) who thought the U.S. might be counted on to enforce the policy. The U.S. policy-makers failed to see the parochial interests of the Customs Service at work here, as well as the fact that British policy had itself already migrated away from the Open Door. Finally, the policy was touted as a "triumph of American principles in international society" to the American public, and established the "myth" of American's foreign policy having struck "an American blow for an American idea."

-Lecture 3 "America and the Orient": Kennan uses this lecture to again talk about the power of public opinion over American foreign policy making, as well as the problematical way American foreign policy transfers moralistic-legalistic domestic concepts to the international sphere. He suggests America has a "tendency to achieve foreign policy objectives by inducing other governments to sign up to professions of high moral and legal principle," and the Open Door policy is a prime example of such tendency. (49) The problem with this approach, Kennan asserts, is that, as in the Open Door policy, foreign states think the lofty and unclear sentiments are an attempt to hamstring them into action or penalty for not acting in accordance with them. (50) Kennan thinks we enslave ourselves to concepts of international law and morality, and that we should exercise more restraint in this regard. Kennan also points out the variance in our policy toward the Orient and Europe, suggesting that the relationship with the East is characterized by patronization.

-Lecture 4 "World War I": Kennan suggests that the US should have recognized the importance of Europe's balance of power to US security long before WWI. If US had identified this issue it may have intervened sooner, potentially avoiding war, or deciding to enter if Britain was bound for defeat, it may have better been able to address balance of power issues that were not achieved by the requirement for unconditional surrender. The disequilibrium in Europe had not been remedied by WWI and the moralistic rhetoric that justified US entry into the war and the call for unconditional surrender made providing for better equilibrium impossible. Kennan highlights the danger of using moralistic ideas/rhetoric to justify foreign policy and especially military action because of the strong tendency to use the enemy's moral inferiority to warrant using war to "punish" the enemy, call for unconditional terms, or to use war to achieve aims it is unlikely to achieve.

-Lecture 5 "World War II" War could have and should have been anticipated based on the balance of power at the close of WWI, and the terms of Versailles Treaty. Entering only after Germany declared war on American and then using moralistic slogans to justify our entry was disingenuous; if it was a legit cause, we should have intervened early on. Kennan advances this argument to suggest that the general public in a democracy is much more inclined for emotional response than objective understanding of a situation, and tends to lead us to unrestricted military action, or unconditional surrender. 88-89. War is not a vehicle for change or advancing causes, and America fails to appreciate the limits of war to do so. 94-95.

-Lecture 6 "Diplomacy in the Modern World": Kennan highlights his key observations about American foreign policy: the susceptibility of democracies, as political systems, to public opinion, and the ramifications for foreign policy 99; the perils of the legalistic-moralistic approach to international problems, which leads both to a tendency to transfer Anglo-Saxon ideas about the influence legal rules and restraints should have in the international system 102, and to morally evaluate political systems or state behavior 107; finally, the risk of conceiving of the military instrument as being more efficacious that it is in attaining political objects, or thinking that military victory is total victory (or even that total victory is a useful concept) 109.

Part II

"The Sources of Soviet Conduct" also known as Article X from Foreign Affairs, 1947

Kennan outlines the evolution of the Soviet's Communist ideology, links to Marxism, and fundamental belief in the menace of capitalism, internal or external, to the Communist system. Highlights that part of the disposition towards capitalism externally was the need to justify continued authoritarian power once all internal capitalistic-type forces had been destroyed. 119. Articulates need for "long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies," identifying the need for "vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points" 125-126. Emphasizes the long-term nature of the Soviet goal; there is no exigency to the Communist movement. US should use the powerful example of capitalism and democracy as the ideological counter-force movement against the Soviets, allowing the Communist system's inherent deficiencies speak for themselves. 132-3.

"America and the Russian Future" Foreign Affairs, 1951

In this article Kennan does tries to persuade against the use of military force or war to achieve the outcome the US wants from the Cold War. He says, "War itself will not bring about such a Russia." 136. Kennan then articulates the Russia we won't see, don't want to see, and should want to see. America should not look for or try to facilitate the emergence of a Russia that looks and acts like the US. 137-142. America should want to see a Russia in which the government stops short of totalitarianism, more tolerant and transparent in its foreign relations, and that is will refrain from asserting itself over peoples that do not want to be ruled by Russia. 143-150. America should promote the emergence of such a Russia by refraining from war, and letting the example of America's greatness speak for itself. 151-161.

Part III

"Reflections on the Walgreen Lectures," 1985

Kennan summarizes his lessons in the lectures, and suggests that the Korean and Vietnam Wars could have been avoided if America had been more perceptive in understanding the nature of the Soviet he saw as distinctly political, and NOT military. As a result of this mischaracterization, the US miscalculated the imperative of maintaining a military force in post-war Japan, and leading the Soviets to promote hostile action by Communist North Korea against the south. US involvement in Korea stemmed from the belief, per Kennan, that Korea was just the first of the Soviets move to dominate Asia and then the world. Finally, Vietnam was seen in a similar manner, with nationalist Vietnamese forces conflated with hard core communists, and seen as puppets of the Soviets, and domestic pressure not to "lose Vietnam" to communism the way Truman "lost China" to communist victory in their civil war.

"American Diplomacy and the Military"

The two great mistakes of the post-war era, mischaracterizing Soviet aspirations as military conquest and developing reliance on potentially suicidal nuclear weapons, stemmed from an extreme militarization of the American culture. 184. This distortion had profound affects domestically as well as in the foreign policy arena. First, it created a giant and expensive industrial military complex, on which a large sector of the American economy now depended. Second, it created the need for a perpetual enemy, threatening in the distance, to justify those military expenditures and the sustainment of the mil-industrial complex. America's major failures in its short history have usually been where military affairs were involved, as America lacks a tradition of large standing military in peacetime and we "have no traditional concepts of military strategy or place for military power in national life." 188. Part of this is due to the nature of democracies, but we can and should bear this in mind when making foreign policy decisions, bearing in mind the limits of our capabilities and let the power of our example do the bulk of the lifting. 192.