Discover more from Discourse
The Editor’s Corner: We Need Another George Kennan
To confront the foreign policy challenges we’re currently facing, the U.S. needs a clear overarching strategy that the American people understand and accept
Much has been made of President Biden’s claim in his recent Oval Office address that the world is at an “inflection point in history”—that the invasion of Ukraine and the massacre in Israel are not just regional disputes but part of a larger, emerging effort to overturn the American-led world order. But while the president deserves credit for publicly connecting these dots, he has yet to articulate a clear strategy for dealing with the threat these disputes represent. It’s almost as if a doctor has diagnosed the illness but hasn’t come up with a treatment plan … and we need a treatment plan.
For the past decade or so, the nation’s foreign policy has had a patchwork quality to it. As far back as the Obama administration, the post-war on terror plan was supposed to be a “pivot to Asia” in recognition that the real geopolitical threats were now coming from the Indo-Pacific, specifically China. But that strategy—if one can call it that—has failed in two important ways. First, since that pivot was first announced, China has grown not only much stronger, but much more aggressive—continuing to dot the disputed waters of the South China Sea with illegal military bases, snuffing out political autonomy and personal freedoms in Hong Kong, harassing Taiwan by air and sea and skirmishing with its neighbors from India to the Philippines. Second, whatever pivoting was accomplished has been superseded by recent events, first in Europe and then in the Middle East, forcing the U.S. to reallocate military and other resources back to these regions.
There have been successes too. The Biden administration has made progress strengthening alliances in Asia as well as Europe, particularly in the wake of the invasion of Ukraine. Meanwhile, there’s a growing recognition that, as Michael Puttré recently pointed out in a great Discourse article, our defense industrial base is woefully inadequate for our future defense needs, prompting the government to take some initial steps to remedy this problem. Finally, thanks to efforts by the Trump administration, a rare bipartisan consensus has coalesced around the idea that China is now a strategic rival.
Still, while progress has been made here and there, the fact remains that the U.S. has not settled on a clear, overarching strategy to address the challenges it faces. And these challenges are great and growing. After decades of wishful thinking, many in the West now recognize that China seeks not only to have a place at the table of great nations, but to replace the table altogether, ending the long reign of the U.S. as the world’s premier power and dismantling the global American-led order. Joining in this effort is a veritable rogues’ gallery of repressive states—from Russia and Iran to North Korea and Syria. It’s hard to know exactly what the world will look like if this revisionist axis succeeds in its aims, but given how poorly these countries treat their own people, it’s not likely to be pretty.
Perfect or even close-to-perfect historical parallels are very rare. However, in many ways, what’s happening today resembles the situation the U.S. faced in the years immediately following World War II. Then, as now, we were at an inflection point in history. We also needed a conceptual framework to effectively deal with an emerging threat—in that case, the Soviet Union.
In hindsight, many of our actions taken during the early years of the Cold War, such as the Marshall Plan and the creation of NATO, seem obviously sound. But in 1946, there was no consensus on whether the Soviet Union was even a threat to the West, let alone on how to deal with its emergence. After all, the Soviets had been our chief ally in the fight against Nazi Germany, and many Americans (and probably many Soviets too) assumed the two countries would remain friends, or at least rub along together without too much trouble.
While the work of alerting American policymakers—and the American people—to the new postwar reality was undertaken by many people (including a visiting Winston Churchill), an obscure diplomat named George Kennan may well have had the greatest impact. In February 1946, Kennan famously warned top policymakers about the Soviet threat—sending what became known as the “long telegram” from his perch as chargé d’affaires at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow back to Washington, D.C. In the 8,000-word missive, Kennan, who had spent years in Russia, warned that now that the war was over, Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had no intention of peacefully coexisting with the U.S. and its Western allies and that only a strong military deterrent could keep Soviet ambitions in check. Kennan’s analysis made its way up the political food chain, finally landing on President Harry Truman’s desk. It proved extremely influential in altering elite attitudes about the Soviet Union and its true intentions.
But Kennan played an even more important role a little over a year later, penning an essay for Foreign Affairs magazine that laid out a conceptual framework for dealing with the Soviets. Known as Article X (referring to the letter Kennan used as a pseudonym) the essay famously proposed a strategy of “containment” to counter the Soviet threat—consistently pushing back against Soviet attempts to gain the upper hand as well as looking for opportunities to degrade their power and influence. Kennan argued that since the Soviet Union was “by far the weaker party … a policy of firm containment” would over time work to our advantage and possibly even lead to the country’s breakup—which, of course, is exactly what happened.
Containment ultimately provided the framework for the early policy decisions that helped win the Cold War, from the already mentioned Marshall Plan and NATO to the Berlin airlift and the rearmament of Germany. Today, we once again need an overarching policy framework for the challenges we face.
While I can’t say exactly what that framework should look like, it must be grounded in the recognition of the hard truths of today’s world in order to be effective. And that means acknowledging that American credibility, and thus our ability to deter unfriendly powers and their proxies, has degraded significantly in recent years. It also means reaching beyond the tired tropes that even today drive so much American foreign-policy thinking—from the idea that the U.S. is destined to continue shaping and leading the global order to the related Whiggish notion that liberal democracy and free peoples may stumble, but they will always prevail in the end.
Whatever new framework we settle on will need the support of the more mainstream elements of both parties, as well as a majority of the American people. Cold War presidents, from Truman to Reagan, all worked to educate Americans about the threats we faced and thus the need for our continued involvement in the world. This kind of leadership will be required again.
Finally, implementing a new global strategy will almost certainly require real sacrifices, starting with significant increases in defense spending—up from 3% of GDP today to 4% or possibly to Cold War levels of 5% or 6%. Kennan and the other “wise men” of the early Cold War period understood that everything we did hinged on the U.S. maintaining its military advantage. Right now, America is still the only country in the world that can project significant military power anywhere in the world. That is likely to change in the next decade. But making sacrifices, even big ones, will be easier if they are part of a clear global strategy that is understood and supported by the American people.
We could instead continue to muddle through, reacting to crises and trying to put out fires. And that may work. The U.S. is still a great nation with, as I wrote recently in Discourse, great potential. But so far, the results of the patchwork strategy have been mixed. And challenges greater than Ukraine and Gaza are almost certainly coming.
As Rob Tracinski recently pointed out in Discourse, the end of Pax Americana will not produce a multipolar world of friendly, competing powers. It will likely be a dangerous, Hobbesian place. To prevent that from happening, we need a new geopolitical framework. We need another Kennan.
What I’m Listening To: Given that tomorrow is Halloween, someone asked me if I was going to write about my favorite horror film in the Editor’s Corner. But frankly, I’ve seen only a few horror movies; that’s because they scare me, and not in a good way. (The last time I watched a horror film, “The Omen,” I was a teenager and it was nighttime and when the film was over I literally turned on every light in the house.)
For some reason, however, scary music doesn’t bother me. What’s more, there are a lot of great pieces to choose from, including Modest Mussorgsky’s terrifying “Night on Bald Mountain” (animated into a wonderful narrative in Walt Disney’s “Fantasia”), Bernard Herrmann’s violently frenetic score to “Psycho” and Elton John’s “Funeral for a Friend,” which opens his wonderful “Goodbye Yellow Brick Road” album.
However, for my money, the best piece of scary music is Camille Saint-Saëns’ terrific “Danse Macabre” or “Dance of Death.” This brief tone poem is particularly appropriate for the holiday as it recounts the legend that every Halloween at midnight, Death calls for the dead to rise from their graves and dance to the music he plays on his violin. Saint-Saëns, who was part of a group of amazing French composers working during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, had an unerring ear for melody, and you can hear that in the varied and evocative themes he crams into this short piece. Close your eyes and take a listen: You won’t have to work hard to imagine the dead rising from their graves to dance to these jaunty tunes.
And While I’m At It: Writing about Kennan brought me back to the late historian John Lukacs’ short but excellent biography of the American diplomat: “George Kennan: A Study of Character.” In his book, Lukacs, who knew Kennan very well, does not provide a detailed year-by-year account of his subject’s life. (Those looking for an in-depth biography should try John Lewis Gaddis’ “George Kennan: An American Life.”) Instead, Lukacs gives us a treatise on the measure of the man, focusing on Kennan’s character and achievements. As much a humanist as he is a historian, Lukacs writes about Kennan’s life with great insight and empathy. Anyone looking to understand one of the great geopolitical thinkers of the past century could do worse than start with this slim volume.
Take care, and see you next week.