Monday, March 28, 2005
There's a good piece on Tech Central Station by someone named Carroll Andrew Morse about George Kennan of recent memory, and how contemporary liberalism, neo-conservatism and conservative realism all fail to do justice to the quality of his thought.
Kennan was an odd bird in the foreign-policy aviary. He was a small-government guy who advocated a vigorous, forward strategy to respond to the Soviet challenge. He was a diplomat and a great believer in diplomacy who advocated systematic confrontation. He was a realist whose strategy became identified with a view of foreign policy as a moral crusade. The left mistakenly understands containment to have been a passive strategy and the Soviet Union's collapse to have been inevitable because of its internal contradictions; Kennan believed neither. The right mistakenly understands Kennan to have advocated confrontation because the Soviet Union was, for ideological reasons, inexorably expansionist, and therefore had to be resisted with similar ideological fervor; Kennan didn't believe that either.
One does not have to wonder what he would make of the political and foreign-policy scene today. Kennan, late in life, was sufficiently depressed by the long-term prospects for the United States of America to have mused - in print - about breaking up the United States into twelve constituent republics. He felt, simply, that the United States was too big, in terms of population and land area, to both defend its interests and remain the land of a free, self-governing people. That in itself suggests that we should not take too much to heart his personal view of our failures as a nation; it is, among other things, hard to listen to a man say out of one side of his mouth that our success in foreign policy depends on being a country that knows what it wants and out of the other that perhaps we ought not even be a single country. But it is very worthwhile to restore access to the mental habits of a man like Kennan. Most important, it would be instructive to recover the ability to construct a theory to suit the case at hand, rather than, as we too often are, operate intellectually at one or the other extreme: deriving everything from first principles or reacting in a narrow fashion to details without any overarching concept whatever. The former is the great failing of this administration and its theoreticians; the latter, the great failure of the last two administrations and theirs.