George Kennan and the Discovery of Realism

The tradition of thought with which George Kennan (1904-2005) is most often identified is that of political realism. That tradition appears to most Americans to be rather foreign, incompatible with new world enlightenment and morality. To them, diplomacy is morality as it applies to relations between states and to human conduct around the globe. The guiding principle of American foreign policy should therefore be to act in ways calculated to make the world a better place. Such a view presupposes that the moral principles embraced by Americans possess both perfect clarity and universal validity; their adoption by all men would lead inexorably to a world of peace and justice.

Realists take a different view. Those responsible for the conduct of foreign policy must, in their judgment, take the world as it is, not as it ought to be. They must recognize that the world is a dangerous place, because human nature, with its capacity for evil as well as good, remains constant, everywhere and at all times. In contrast to what most of his countrymen believed, for example, Kennan viewed man as a cracked vessel; as a result, the world in which he lives is, and will remain, fallen.

According to realists, the guiding principle in the conduct of foreign policy must be the national interest. That principle alone can give to policy a consistent and rational character. Far from being immoral, it prescribes prudent and hence moderate behavior. It rules out moral crusades that, however well intentioned, inevitably produce more evil than good. For realists, in short, prudence is virtue as it is pursued in a political context in which the struggle for power is never wholly absent.

While conducting foreign policy, realists insist, a person acts under the authority of a standard of morality at some variance with that which governs his personal behavior. As an individual he may well choose to sacrifice his personal interest for some higher good”€”he may even obey the scriptural injunction to turn the other cheek. But insofar as he acts as the agent of others, of those whose welfare has been entrusted to him, he cannot, so to speak, turn a collective cheek. His duty is to defend their interests, not to sacrifice them to his own sense of right and wrong. That does not mean that he is free of moral responsibility; it means that the moral responsibility he has accepted as an agent is the well-being of those whom he serves.

The principle of political realism, or raison d”€™Ã©tat as the French say, was first propounded and put into practice by Cardinal Richelieu, a prince of the church who was first minister of France from 1624 to 1642. So successful was the system that that principle dictated that it was adopted by virtually all European countries during the next three centuries. But only when the great Prussian/German chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, appeared on the scene did Richelieu find a truly worthy successor.

For Bismarck, realpolitik ruled out actions based upon personal prejudices”€”even the prejudices of those in authority. “€œI cannot,”€ he observed, “€œreconcile personal sympathies and antipathies toward foreign powers with my sense of duty in foreign affairs; indeed I see in them the embryo of disloyalty toward the Sovereign and the country I serve. … Not even the King has the right to subordinate the interests of the state to his personal sympathies or antipathies.”€

Realist ideas such as those defended by Bismarck have not always been frowned upon by American leaders; no less a figure than George Washington looked to them for guidance. On April 22, 1792, under political pressure to honor a treaty of alliance with France”€”then fighting the War of the First Coalition”€”the president issued a proclamation of neutrality. Against those who protested that morality”€”faithfulness to treaty obligations and gratitude for aid during the War of Independence”€”required that the U.S. enter the fray, Alexander Hamilton insisted that the national interest was the final arbiter. According to Hamilton, the rule of morality is not precisely the same between nations as between individuals. The duty of making its own welfare the guide of its actions, is much stronger upon the former than upon the latter; in proportion to the greater magnitude and importance of national compared with individual happiness, and to the greater permanency of the effects of national than of individual conduct. Existing millions, and for the most part future generations, are concerned in the present measures of a government; while the consequences of the private actions of an individual ordinarily terminate with himself, or are circumscribed within a narrow compass.

Long before Max Weber made his famous distinction between an ethic of conviction or intention (do what is right!) and an ethic of responsibility, Hamilton pointed to the importance, for a political leader, of considering the likely consequences of his actions.

John Quincy Adams, another astute leader during the Republic’s formative years, also belonged to the realist camp”€”and as a result won Kennan’s plaudits. It was Adams who, when secretary of state, let it be known that “€œAmerica goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy. She is the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all. She is the champion and vindicator only of her own. She will recommend the general cause by the countenance of her voice, and the benignant sympathy of her example.”€

Voices of realism continued to be heard in America after Adams passed from the scene, but as time wore on they were drowned out by those raised on behalf of high-sounding, though abstract, moral principles. When Woodrow Wilson assumed the presidency, he could openly proclaim that politics was nothing but morality and that he intended always to do that which was right. Among those things which were right in his view was that the world be made safe for democracy. As a result, he took the nation into the Great War and set it on a course of intervention that was almost always given moral justification; sometimes that justification was cynical, but not in every case. Wilson’s belief, for example, that the Great War pitted good against evil was sincere; it meant that total victory was mandatory”€”thus prolonging the bloodshed. It was because he had learned nothing from this error that Franklin Roosevelt led the U.S. into another war in which victory became an end in itself and the enemy was forced to surrender unconditionally.

FDR was far from being the only American Wilsonian at the outset of World War II. Virtually all public figures and those for whom they spoke viewed international policy through moral lenses; few remembered the sober counsel offered by Washington, Hamilton, and John Quincy Adams. In part, no doubt, this was due to the messianic strain in American thought, the belief that America had risen above the fallen state of other lands and peoples and thus bore a responsibility to redeem them.  

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Although he drew intellectual sustenance from realists of the past, Kennan arrived at his views independently, as a result of his diplomatic experience and historical study. Lacking any taste for abstract discussions or treatises, he usually set forth his view of realism within the context of concrete examinations of concrete problems. Nevertheless, certain of his convictions and principles stand out in bold relief.

Of human limitation he seems always to have been almost painfully aware. As he saw it, man’s animal nature set limits to his efforts to lend his existence a greater dignity, order, and elevation than could be found in the lower species. Man, in short, was not perfectible. That fact ruled out all utopian projects, all hope for a world of permanent peace and harmony, and all efforts to remove considerations of power from the diplomatic equation. A prudent foreign policy was one that accepted the realities of power and interest and strove to keep the inevitable conflicts between nations within tolerable limits.

Such a policy could be successful only if it took as its guiding principle the national interest. With respect to the purposes of states”€”as distinct from the methods, which should always be moral”€”moral principles could not, according to Kennan, serve as useful (that is, practical) guides, not only because no nation could assume the universal validity or acceptance of its own principles, but also because governments were agents responsible before all else for protecting the interests”€”the security and well-being”€”of those whom they represented. It was precisely “€œman’s irrational nature, his selfishness, his obstinacy, his tendency to violence”€ that rendered government an institution unsuited to give pure expression to morality.

That did not mean, Kennan insisted, that a policy based upon the national interest was immoral. If “€œwe will have the modesty to admit that our own national interest is all that we are really capable of knowing and understanding”€”and the courage to recognize that if our purposes and undertakings here at home are decent ones, unsullied by arrogance or hostility toward other people or delusions of superiority, then the pursuit of our national interest can never fail to be conducive to a better world.”€

It has generally been held by realists that the pursuit of the national interest entails a moral double standard; the duties possessed by a private individual cannot simply be carried with him when he assumes responsibility as a leader of government.

That does not mean that he can act according to personal caprice or that he is at liberty to pursue his own selfi sh ends, but it does mean that he cannot be held to strict moral account when to do so would imperil or work to the disadvantage of an entire people. Kennan would certainly have agreed that he could not indulge his own moral enthusiasms, but whether or not he would have approved of morally problematic actions is difficult to say; such approval does seem inescapable if one believes, as he surely did, that public servants are agents rather than principals.

There is no doubt, however, that he believed that the pursuit of the national interest had always to be peaceful and constructive.

For Kennan, realism mandated moderation, a sense of proportion, and a recognition of limits. He evinced no sympathy for moral crusades, imperial adventures, or interventions in foreign lands. It was not, in his view, the business of the United States to attempt to determine political developments in other countries; it was certainly not its business to work for the overthrow of a foreign regime. There was, to begin with, the problem of finding a viable alternative. Then too, it was easier to intervene than to find a way out. Only when U.S. interests were seriously and directly imperiled should intervention be contemplated.

But realism meant something else as well: a rejection of any idea of American “€œexceptionalism”€ or messianism, any claim that superior virtue placed upon Americans a redemptive burden on a global scale. “€œLet us not,”€ he wrote in a 1952 letter to the New York Times, “€œattempt to constitute ourselves the guardians of everyone else’s virtue; we have enough trouble to guard our own.”€ In Around the Cragged Hill, he put it more strongly: “We are, for the love of God, only human beings, the descendants of human beings, the bearers, like our ancestors, of all the usual human frailties.”€ To the best of its ability, then, a chastened America would be well advised to tend its own garden and to seek those accommodations with other countries which helped to maintain a stable, if potentially dangerous and always imperfect, world. This was not isolationism (it was too late for that), but a recognition of limits and a policy of restraint”€”all the more necessary in the nuclear age.

One does not have to read much of Kennan’s work to recognize that he believed democracy to be inimical to a mature and responsible foreign policy. In the published version of his Oxford lectures of 1957″€“58, he cited Tocqueville to the effect that “€œa democracy can only with great difficulty regulate the details of an important undertaking, persevere in a fixed design, and work out its execution in spite of serious obstacles.”€ One reason for that unsteadiness of purpose was that those charged with responsibility for the conduct of foreign policy had to contend with public opinion, which was woefully uninformed and notoriously erratic. Once aroused by war, democratic peoples were subject to seizures of political emotionalism; nothing short of total victory would satisfy them.

Moreover, because democratic governments were persuaded of their own moral superiority, they came to believe that they were duty bound to promote democracy around the world. That sense of responsibility created in their leaders an interventionist mentality that often distorted their judgment. It was by no means clear, Kennan believed, that democracy possessed universal validity, that it was the form of government best suited to all peoples at all times. In fact, world history knew of relatively few democracies in the modern sense of the word; they were limited in both time and space. The claim advanced by many Americans that all peoples would prosper under democratic
rule had to be viewed with suspicion.

And so should all talk of “€œhuman rights,”€ said to be discoverable by reason and universally binding. The notion of rights “€œremote from human authorship,”€ Kennan did not hesitate to say, “€œleads me into philosophical thickets where I cannot follow.”€ While he could understand human rights as ideal projections of Western liberal principles, he could not conceive of them as already existing in the absence of a granting authority, an enforcing agency, and a set of corresponding duties. Moreover, as a Christian, he could not see how, before his Creator, he could assert a “€œright”€ to anything. He would instead hope for God’s mercy.

But even if global democracy were a worthy policy goal, Kennan felt little confidence in the ability of U.S. leaders to achieve it. For one thing, all those clamoring for democracy seemed to be highly selective in the countries they identified as being in need of America’s ministrations. It always seemed to be right-wing authoritarianism that sparked their moral outrage; left-wing tyrannies failed to inspire the same crusading zeal. As he put it to George Urban, the splendid Hungarian-born interviewer:

Any régime that chooses to call itself Marxist can be sure that its brutalities and oppression will be forgiven, whereas any régime that does not is stamped as being of the Right, in which case the slightest invasion of the rights or liberties of the individual on its territory at once becomes the object of intense indignation.

Then there was the naïve American belief according to which all who claim to be fighting for democracy and freedom would, once in power, institutionalize democracy and freedom. More likely, Kennan believed, “€œfreedom fighters”€ were looking forward to the day when they could torment those who had tormented them. Kennan recalled the efforts of his namesake, the author of Siberia and the Exile System, to rally support for Russia’s revolutionaries”€”his assumption being that, in power, their rule would prove to be morally and politically superior to that of the tsar. “€œHave we learned anything from this lesson?”€ Kennan asked rhetorically.

But Kennan’s criticism of democracy was not limited to its adverse effect upon foreign policy. Although he occasionally expressed a resigned allegiance to political democracy, he clearly sympathized with the tradition of antidemocratic thought that reaches back to Plato. In the Republic, the great philosopher was willing to concede that tyranny was worse than democracy, though not much worse. Burke allowed that “€œthere may be situations in which the purely democratic form will become necessary. There may be some (very few, and very particularly circumstanced) where it would be clearly desireable.”€ Very particularly circumstanced indeed. Like most thinkers of Kennan’s admired eighteenth century”€”including philosophes such as Voltaire and Diderot”€”he was hostile to democracy. So, for that matter, were America’s founding fathers.

Tocqueville, for whom Kennan felt a particular affinity, gave democracy credit where he thought it due”€”for its introduction into the family of greater affection, for instance”€”but his overall assessment was decidedly negative. In the French aristocrat’s view, democracy equaled equality, social as well as political. And equality meant the centralization of power, because only national government could impose uniform conditions upon an entire people; those lobbying for egalitarian measures would therefore demand the introduction of new national laws and a corresponding increase in national authority.

Such demands would increase the threat of tyranny. Not only would power rest in fewer hands, but each new step in the direction of equality would lead to greater restrictions upon liberty.

That was so because equality had to be coerced; those above the line would not willingly lower themselves to it. Nor was that all. Tocqueville also argued that democracies would elevate to power men of inferior rank, and that education, in its striving to be universal, would inevitably tend toward mediocrity.

Opposition to hierarchy was, in Kennan’s view, opposition to civilized life. “€œI am anything but an egalitarian,”€ he told Eric Sevareid in 1975. “€œI am very much opposed to egalitarian tendencies of all sorts in governmental life and in other walks of life. Sometimes I”€™ve been charged with being an elitist. Well, of course, I am. What do people expect? God forbid that we should be without an elite. Is everything to be done by gray mediocrity?”€ Men were equal in dignity, but in nothing else; to pretend otherwise was to insult intelligence.

The closer one looks at Kennan’s view of governments, democratic and nondemocratic, the clearer it becomes that had there been a choice, he would have opted for a government of a conservative authoritarian type”€””€œthe norm,”€ he pointed out, “€œof Western society in the Christian era.”€ There was a good reason for that: “€œThe authoritarian regime, despite its origins and its sanctions, often rests on a wide area of popular acceptance and reflects popular aspirations in important degree.”€ Recall that he once composed a paper titled “€œThe Prerequisites: Notes on Problems of the United States in 1938,”€ in which he argued for changes leading to an “€œauthoritarian state,”€ much like that presided over by Austria’s Kurt von Schuschnigg. He was later to describe that government as “€œconservative, semi-fascist, but still moderate”€ and to complain that those in the West who criticized it “€œfound it hard to distinguish between traditional conservatives and Nazis.”€

In the first volume of his memoirs, Kennan wrote that “€œintellectually and aesthetically, Germany had made a deep impression on me.”€ He could not, therefore, have been surprised to find that almost all of his fellow realists were German or of German descent. Along with Hans Morgenthau and Reinhold Niebuhr, one might mention in this regard Walter Lippmann and Henry Kissinger, for both whom Kennan had the utmost respect. Of the policy of détente pursued by Kissinger and President Nixon, for example, Kennan wrote approvingly that the former Harvard professor “€œbrought to the operation a measure of imagination, boldness of approach, and sophistication of understanding without which it would have been difficult to achieve.”€ And there was, of course, Bismarck, for whom Kennan’s admiration was unbounded. 

In 1978, the Ethics and Public Policy Center in Washington published a collection of papers titled Decline of the West? George Kennan and His Critics. The title was well chosen, because as the years passed Kennan did adopt an ever more pessimistic attitude with respect to the West’s future. Often, he must have thought back to the summer before he reported for duty with the foreign service”€”the year was 1926″€”when he read Spengler’s Untergang des Abendlandes, a book that left a permanent mark upon him, as it did upon so many other thoughtful people.

While on a ship leaving Southhampton in 1959, Kennan looked out at the shoreline and saw remainders “€œof a civilization that not long ago (within the memory of living man) seemed, and believed itself to be, of a solidity unequaled since the days of the Roman Empire, and is yet today so wholly undermined that almost nothing remains of it except in the universities, in the pretenses or habits of a few older people, and in
[some] physical Victorian relics.”€

Kennan had lived through the Great War, the event that he believed lay at the heart of the decline of Western civilization. For him as for so many other members of his generation, the war changed everything. “€œThings fall apart,”€ W. B. Yeats wrote in “€œThe Second Coming”€ (written in January 1919), “€œthe centre cannot hold.”€

Later in the decade, we know, Kennan confronted the threat posed by student radicals to what remained of Western civilization. He answered them and their supporters in great detail and, in the summer of 1968, delivered a sober address in colonial Williamsburg on “€œAmerica After Vietnam.”€ He spoke of violent protests, of “€œthe spectacle of angry and disorderly people: milling about, chanting, screaming, shouting other people down, brawling with the police or with equally violent opponents, obstructing other people in their normal pursuits.”€ Taking his cue from Tocqueville, he reminded his audience that in order to remain loyal to the principles upon which it was founded, America required a broad community of political and cultural understanding. He warned against throwing the country open to “€œthe immigration of great masses of people reared in quite different climates of political and ethical principle.”€

He was thus among the first to sound an alarm concerning immigration policies that had the effect of undermining the cultural tradition upon which the nation’s identity, in fact its very existence, depended. As he spoke, he may have had in mind what Gibbon had written about provincials who received the name “€œRoman”€ without understanding or adopting the Roman spirit.

Kennan lived long enough to witness the invasion”€”there is no other word for it”€”of the Southwest and the refusal of the national government to enforce immigration laws. In 2000, he said to a New Yorker interviewer, “€œI think the country is coming apart, partly because of its susceptibility to immigration”€; and he devoted a section of Around the Cragged Hill to that critical issue. Because, he wrote, America was a nation of immigrants, many Americans had come to assume that there was no limit either to the number of immigrants or to the diversity of ethnic characteristics the country could accept. But while America might be a large country, it could not open its borders to all those, many of whom came from a background of poverty, who wished to enter.

To do so would be to risk replicating in the United States those conditions which obtained in the lands from which the immigrants had taken flight. Cheap labor might seem attractive to businesses, but a dependence on it could prove fatal to American civilization. Kennan warned that such dependence, “€œlike the weakness of the Romans in allowing themselves to become dependent on the barbarians to fill the ranks of their own armies, can become, if not checked betimes, the beginning of the end.”€ He thought it inexplicable that the U.S. government could put hundreds of thousands of troops in the Near East to expel Saddam Hussein from Kuwait, while confessing “€œitself unable to defend its own southwestern border from illegal immigration by large numbers of people armed with nothing more formidable than a strong desire to get across it.”€

Kennan knew that, like many Muslims in Europe, most of the invaders of the United States arrived without any intention of assimilating; quite the contrary, they expected Americans to accommodate their language and culture. Other critics have begun to echo Kennan’s warning. “€œWe are witnessing,”€ Patrick Buchanan has written, “€œhow nations perish. We are entered upon the fi nal act of our civilization. The last scene is the deconstruction of the nations. The penultimate scene, now well underway, is the invasion unresisted.”€

The invasion of millions of unassimilated and unassimilable human beings was not the only sign of decline that Kennan perceived. He spoke with unconcealed disgust of pandemic crime, the widespread use of narcotics, the deterioration of educational standards, the decay of cities, the ubiquity of pornography, and the thoughtless exploitation of nature. He was not joking when, in 1976, he told George Urban about a recent summer cruise in the Baltic: “€œI put in at a small Danish port which was having a youth festival. The place was swarming with hippies”€”motorbikes, girl-friends, drugs, pornography, drunkenness, noise”€”it was all there. I looked at this mob and thought how one company of robust Russian infantry would drive it out of town.”€

The following year, on a ferry headed for Denmark, Kennan could not help but think, as he looked at the young Europeans aboard, of the intellectual and spiritual vacuum that the European welfare state had produced. Things were no better in the United States. In Florida in 1984, he gazed at the small homes that lined an artificially created canal. They were modern and tidy, but he could not believe in their permanence. In his mind’s eye, he saw them in ruins, victims of hurricanes, insects, “€œand the ultimate collapse of civilization as we know it.”€

Not only civilization but life itself, Kennan argued, was endangered by environmental deterioration”€”only nuclear weapons posed a greater threat to the future of mankind. Rarely did he miss an opportunity to issue apocalyptic warnings or to lobby for draconian measures to protect the natural world. His devotion to this cause was religious in character. “€œFor young people, the world over,”€ he wrote in 1970, “€œsome new opening of hope and creativity is becoming an urgent spiritual necessity.”€

Twenty-five years later he asked whether there was not, “€œwhatever the nature of one’s particular God, an element of sacrilege involved in the placing of all this [that is, the earth and its beauty] at stake just for the sake of the comforts, the fears, and the national rivalries of a single generation?”€

That Kennan was a cultural pessimist there is no doubt, but he stopped short of counseling despair. As the motto for the epilogue to Around the Cragged Hill, he chose the words of the wizard Gandalf in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Fellowship of the Ring: “€œDespair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.”€ However pessimistic Kennan was concerning the future of Western civilization, his Christian faith made him tremble at the thought of destroying all hope among his readers. That would be, he wrote, “€œthe unpardonable sin. The hour may be late, but there is nothing that says that it is too late.”€ We know that he meant what he said because he gave so much of himself in an effort to steer the United States and the entire West in new”€”or rather old”€”and more promising directions. In a sermon titled “€œWhy Do I Hope,”€ delivered at Princeton University’s beautiful chapel, he declared life to be good, especially when lived in harmony with nature.

Kennan may not have been aware of the fact that Tolkien had fought at the Somme, one of the Great War’s most horrific battles, and that by 1918 had lost all but one of his close friends; Tolkien knew suffering and loss. And yet, unlike so many of those who fought and survived, or who simply experienced the war from afar, he never surrendered to disenchantment and despair.

His friend of later years, C. S. Lewis, called The Lord of the Rings (1954″€“55) “€œa recall from facile optimism and wailing pessimism alike”€ that presides at “€œthe cool middle point between illusion and disillusionment.”€ That is undoubtedly why Kennan felt so drawn to Tolkien’s epic work of the imagination.

Lee Congdon is Professor Emeritus of History at James Madison University, where he taught for 33 years. He is the author of a trilogy on twentieth-century Hungarian intellectuals and coeditor of two volumes on the Hungarian Revolution.

This essay has been adapted from George Kennan: A Writing Life by Lee Congdon, recently published by ISI Books.


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