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What Would Kennan Say to Obama?

George Kennan was a preeminent US Russia specialist and realist diplomat who commanded immense respect among his peers - he was an early architect of US Cold War policies

This article first appeared in February 2014 in the New York Times, as the horrific events of the last year in Ukraine were just unfolding. RI didn't exist then, and we just stumbled across it now, and decided to print it because it is important, now more than ever.  

It is patently clear that there is a militarist, neocon "war party" in Washington, that is pushing for a hot war with Russia, or at least a very expensive cold war. This is the natural outcome of ignoring Kennan's advice.  

“I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” Barack Obama volunteered to David Remnick in a recent interview. Obama got it wrong. He, and we as a nation, do need Mr. Kennan now, as much as at the dawn of the Cold War.

Mr. Kennan’s diary and other writings offer timely advice about balancing United States policy in the era after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and managing Iran. Though Mr. Kennan is most famous for predicting in 1947 that containment would lead to the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union, his strategic thinking ranged far wider.

Whether planning policy at the State Department or writing history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Mr. Kennan stood out as an intellectual who thought otherwise — indeed as a thinker whose thought was often wise. Like the Founders, he believed the wisest foreign policy limited military intervention abroad while affording the broadest scope for hard-headed diplomacy. He saved his most candid advice for his diary, which he kept for 88 years.

Along with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Mr. Kennan insisted that the challenge facing the United States was containing not only rival nations and threatening ideologies, but also America’s own outsized ambitions and self-righteous assertions of virtue. Both men understood that however loud the claims of American exceptionalism, Americans could escape neither original sin nor its secular manifestation, the will to power.


In 1946-47, Mr. Kennan laid out his containment policy, intending to limit its application to the major power centers of the world, particularly Western Europe and Japan. He grew horrified as containment exploded into a global venture miring the United States in areas of marginal strategic importance, such as Vietnam. In the post-Cold War era, Mr. Kennan criticized military interventions in Panama, Somalia and Iraq as a waste of scarce resources. Policing the globe exacerbated resentment abroad while neglecting the decaying infrastructure at home. Trying to spread democracy by using military force, he said, “is something that the Founding Fathers of this country never envisaged or would ever have approved.”

Mr. Kennan’s strategic vision entailed containing adversaries, curtailing our foreign ventures, and conserving our moral and material assets.

This advice pertains to dealing with Iran. Mr. Kennan understood that even if bargaining positions start off at loggerheads, they can evolve toward compromise if diplomats receive reasonable freedom to cut deals. Today such flexibility is threatened by the Senate proposal to fetter the Obama administration’s negotiations seeking to thwart Iran’s nuclear program. As a lifelong skeptic of legislative interference with diplomacy, Mr. Kennan would certainly protest the Senate measure. Although ardently opposed to nuclear proliferation, he would also dispute the bill’s insistence that a negotiated deal reduce to zero Iran’s capacity to enrich uranium. That restriction would preclude even the face-saving option of low-grade uranium enrichment for civilian purposes.

Diplomacy seeking capitulation rather than compromise was foolish, Mr. Kennan pointed out, because a settlement resented as unfair would be undermined by overt or covert resistance.

After the Cold War, Mr. Kennan fiercely opposed the eastward expansion of NATO and other measures that would take advantage of Russia’s weakness. Nor was it wise to humiliate even a powerful adversary. When George Shultz, President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, asked Mr. Kennan how to approach the new Kremlin leader, Mikhail S. Gorbachev, the former diplomat replied that the Soviets remained “in many respects insecure people and require reassurance in the form of respect for their prestige.” So do the Iranians, who nurture both pride in their history and resentment of their humiliations, such as the C.I.A.-sponsored overthrow of their elected leader, Mohammad Mossadegh, in 1953.

Mr. Kennan believed that psychologically astute tactics were the most effective way to manage tensions. He warned that all-out efforts to weaken a rival’s capabilities could backfire by hardening resolve or by escalating into a dangerous preemptive war. 

“We are ultimately dependent on the intentions, rather than the capabilities, of the adversary, the influence of which is primarily a political and psychological, not a military problem,” Mr. Kennan explained. War itself should aim not at killing for killing’s sake, but rather at changing the enemy’s “understanding and disposition.”

Even during the most perilous periods of the Cold War, Mr. Kennan insisted that the other side retained a lively interest in self-preservation. However much the Soviets might fulminate against the United States, they would not invite certain destruction by bombing America or its allies. Nor, Mr. Kennan would add if he were still alive, would a nuclear-armed Iran risk such devastation by launching an attack, or by giving atomic weapons to a client group. Deterrence works, he argued.

As for America’s role in the world, Mr. Kennan wanted the United States to abandon its exhausting efforts at playing world policeman. “The greatest service this country could render the rest of the world would be to put its own house in order and to make of American civilization an example of decency, humanity, and societal success from which others could derive whatever they might find useful to their own purposes.”

As he neared the end of his 101-year life, Mr. Kennan comforted himself that “much of what I have said has a chance of being rediscovered after my death ... and to evoke understanding by that perverse quality of human nature that makes men more inclined to respond to the work of someone long dead than to those of any contemporary.” Although President Obama cannot talk to Mr. Kennan, he can rediscover his wisdom.

Frank Costigliola is a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and the editor of “The Kennan Diaries.”

<figcaption>Obama and his neocons are doing everything Kennan warned against</figcaption>
Obama and his neocons are doing everything Kennan warned against

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