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March 18, 2005 [LINK]

George Kennan

One of the 20th Century's leading scholars and practitioners of diplomacy died today at the age of 101. George Kennan made his first big mark by writing "The Long Telegram" from his post in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in 1946. He meant to alert the complacent bureaucrats in the State Department that the Soviet Union was not content to merely defeat Germany, but was determined to expand and fill the power vacuum in Europe and elsewhere in the Eurasian continent. Unlike the Red-baiting purveyors of panic that soon came to dominate the Cold War environment, however, he remained calm and clear-eyed about the nature and extent of the Soviet threat. In his mind, Communist ideology was only part of the explanation for Soviet behavior, which embodied traditional Russian imperialistic tendencies, as well as paranoia. Later that year Kennan wrote the famous Foreign Affairs article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," developing the thesis outlined in the "Long Telegram" and expounding his proposed policy of "containment" which guided U.S. foreign policy for the next 44 years. (These were among the canonical works that my colleagues and I pored over in graduate school at U.Va.) He went on to serve in various diplomatic capacities and wrote several highly regarded books, including one that bemoaned the nuclear arms race. He was a sober realist who always aimed to maintain a balance of power, but he was not a militarist. His pragmatic, non-ideological approach to foreign policy influenced thinkers and statesmen such as Henry Kissinger and Brent Scowcroft, and to some extent Condoleeza Rice today. Can the force of this intellectual tradition prevail over the gung-ho neoconservatives in the Bush administration?

UPDATE: For an assessment of Kennan's legacy by a current scholar at U.Va.'s Miller Center, where I used to work, see David Adesnik at Oxblog. He says that Kennan was often misunderstood, and gives as an example the obituary for Kennan in the New York Times. Adesnik says the Times editors completely missed the point about Kennan's contributions. Specifically, Kennan would have recoiled at an ideological foreign policy based primarily on the promotion of democracy. Is Mr. Wolfowitz paying attention? Well, he's heading to the World Bank, if President Bush has his way...

Posted (or last updated or commented upon): 19 Mar 2005, 12: 35 AM

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