Review: American Diplomacy

American Diplomacy, Expanded Edition, George Kennan. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984. (Link is to in-print 60th anniversary edition, 2012).

Summary: A compilation of Kennan’s six Charles R. Walgreen lectures, two articles on US-Soviet relations originally from Foreign Affairs, and two Grinnell lectures.

George F. Kennan (1904-2005) was one of the foremost thinkers, and at times, shapers of American foreign policy. He is perhaps most famous for the “long telegram” in 1946 from Moscow to the American Secretary of State, on how the U.S. should relate to post-war Stalinist Soviet Union. This telegram and two subsequent articles in Foreign Affairs which appear in this volume, served as the intellectual basis of the American policy of containment which prevailed until the end of the former Soviet Union in 1989.

This work actually consist of three parts. The first reviews American diplomacy from the Spanish-American War through World War 2 in six lectures sponsored by the Charles R. Walgreen Foundation. The second part reprints the two Foreign Affairs articles, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” and “America and the Russian Future.” The third part consists of two Grinnell lectures given in 1984, one a retrospective of the Walgreen lectures, and the other a review of American foreign policy in Korea and Vietnam and our present military-industrial complex.

One of the basic threads that runs through the Walgreen lectures is that our diplomacy flowed out of “legalistic-moralistic” foundations or situational, politically shaped responses that lacked “any accepted, enduring doctrine for relating military strength to political policy, and a persistent tendency to fashion our policy toward others with a view to feeding a pleasing image of ourselves rather than to achieving real, and desperately needed results in our relations with others. The lectures start with our war with Spain launched without any clear policy but shaped by popular mood. The second focuses on the “Open Door” policy with China where what appeared to be noble foreign policy poorly apprehended the material interests of the other powers involved. The third lecture looked at our pre-Maoist diplomacy with China and Japan, over-sentimentalizing China, over-vilifying Japan, and failing to work toward a balance of powers between Russia, China, and Japan that may have averted war, and possibly the rise of Communist China (I doubt this, given the corruption of the Chiang Kai-shek government).

In the fourth lecture, he observes the irony of our entering World War 1 because of the violation of our neutrality, and then rationalizing it as a great fight for the values of civilization when in fact we acceded to the gutting of Germany which led to the second war. With the second war, we allowed ourselves to begin at a place of weakness that created the necessity of dependency on Russia and then adopted an idealized vision of the post war future that failed to realistically face the price Russia would exact for its alliance. He concludes for a diplomacy of professionalism and realism rather than a moralistic-legalistic effort to project American ideals.

Part two reflects the working out of Kennan’s ideas in relation to the Soviet Union. He argues that it is vitally important to understand the ideology of the communist conflict with capitalism, the infallibility of the Kremlin and the concordant concentration of power in what amount to a dictatorship. It is here, that recognizing the difficulties of relating to Soviet power, that he contends for a policy of disciplined “containment.” He writes:

“In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward ‘toughness’ ” (p. 119).

The second article he argues that America should not directly challenge the Soviet Union, but allow it to decay from within, a consequence we watched unfold in the 1980’s.

The first of the Grinnell lectures basically reprises the Walgreen lectures and then considers Korea and Vietnam. He contends that our assessment of Communist global expansionist ambitions to be flawed, especially in Vietnam where he assessed Ho to first of all be a nationalist. In Korea, we failed to reckon with how our military presence in Japan, shutting out the Soviet Union, would be perceived as a threat warranting “consolidation of its military-political position in Korea, with all our efforts costing 54,000 casualties to achieve merely the status quo ante. I find this a bit troubling as he seems to infer that it would be fine if all of the Korean peninsula were communist. I don’t suspect today’s South Koreans, as much as they would like to see the reunification of Korea, would prefer communist rule. But there is an interesting question of whether a different settlement was possible if we had settled things differently with Japan, a historic enemy of Russia.

The second lecture argues that the large scale militarization of the U.S. in the post war reflected mistaken notions of Soviet global conquest and the folly of the nuclear arms race. He argues that having made these dispositions we cannot walk back commitments either to Japan or to NATO. His call is simply for a greater humility in our diplomacy, and that example is more powerful than demand. He hoped a budget of over $250 billion for our military would not be necessary. (Now it is over $750 billion).

I am writing this on the eve of what may be a massive Russian invasion of Ukraine, once part of the former Soviet Union. I cannot help but think of Kennan’s observations about both the communist mindset in Russia, humiliated in 1989, but hardly extinguished, and our lack of steady, professional diplomacy in the years since while the Putin government has been an implacable constant. I’m troubled by the corrosion from within, not of Russia but our own country, and the danger that this could further undermine a steady realism in our foreign policy.

A larger issue that Kennan raises is whether it is possible to have a “moral” diplomacy. One the one hand we may often be deceived by our own claims to morality or blind to other factors in international situations. Yet humility is a moral virtue. The recognition of human dignity inherent in our commitments to democracy is moral. Perhaps this compact volume was not the place to unpack whether a moral, if not moralistic diplomacy is possible. Perhaps we need to turn to his spiritual mentor, Reinhold Niebuhr, to explore these arguments, elaborated in Moral Man and Immoral Society and other works. Whatever we might conclude, Kennan’s call for a professional, unpoliticized and unmilitarized diplomacy that takes develops a long term approach to American diplomacy is worth considering.

One thought on “Review: American Diplomacy

  1. Pingback: The Month in Reviews: February 2022 | Bob on Books

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