Mr. X Abandons Containment: George Kennan Loses His Nerve

George F. Kennan’s “Morality and Foreign Policy” in the Winter (1985) Foreign Affairs, drawn to its radical conclusions, dramatically reverses the argu­ment Mr. Kennan made thirty-eight years ago under the pseudonym Mr. X, proposing the “containment” of the Soviet Union. Today, Mr. Kennan wishes to “contain” the United States within very narrow bounds. Making no claims to be a professional moral philosopher — indeed, exhibiting several confusions about morality — Mr. Ken­nan makes instead a plainly political point. “We are all isolationists now,” might encapsulate that point.

According to Mr. Kennan, students today ask him whether in his book of thirty-five years ago, American Diplomacy 1900-1950, he really meant to advocate “an amoral, even immoral, foreign policy for this country.” In reply, Kennan insists that foreign policy must rigorously pursue, the needs of the national interest, which “have no moral quality,” and are “therefore not subject to classification as either ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ ” This leads him to assert, for example, that the Helsinki accords of 1975, particularly the provisions concerning human rights, are merely “high-minded, innocuous professions .. . declaratory in nature, not contractual . . . deprived .. . of the character of specific obligations to which signatory governments could usefully be held.” Some of these pro­visions “could not be implemented on the Soviet side, within the meanings we normally attach to their workings, without fundamental changes in the Soviet system of power — changes we had no reason to expect would, or could, be introduced by the men then in power.” Mr. Kennan sees an intractable moral relativism in foreign af­fairs. When others injure “American interests,” he stresses, “We have every right to complain and, if necessary, to take retaliatory action. What we cannot do is to assume that our standards are theirs as well, and to ap­peal to those standards as the source of our grievances.”

As with the Soviet Union, for Mr. Kennan, so with the many other unsavory, dictatorial, abusive, and odious regimes on this planet: interventions by the U.S. in “mat­ters of internal affairs” in such countries “can be formal­ly defensible only if the practices against which they are directed are seriously injurious to our interests, rather than just our sensibilities.” Mr. Kennan wishes to defend himself against any implication that he is making an “apology” for such ugly situations as the “grievous and reprehensible mistake of Soviet policy” in Afghanistan. He also hastens to assure readers that “certain of the pro­cedures of the South African police have been no less odious to me than to many others.” But even here he sticks to his general principle: “Without the power to compel change, there is no responsibility for its absence.”

One might reasonably conclude that in the internal affairs of other nations, there is — on the part of the U.S. government — “no room for the application of moral principle and that all must be left to the workings of expe­diency, national egoism and cynicism.” Is it true, then, that in the internal affairs of the U.S., the same fastidiousness must hold sway? “The answer, of course, is no . . . .” Here, Kennan mentions two “negative con­siderations.” The first opposes “the histrionics of moralism . . . the projection of attitudes, poses, and rhetoric that cause us to appear noble and altruistic in the mirror of our own vanity. To these Kennan prefers actions “without self-consciousness,” taken “as a matter of duty or common decency.” The second involves Kennan’s rejection of “secret operations,” and his public “regret” for having supported such operations against Hitler and Stalin during an earlier period of his life. “Operations of this nature are not in character for this country.”

Kennan then makes two “positive” observations. The first is “the duty” to bring “one’s commitments and undertakings into a reasonable relationship with one’s real possibilities for acting upon the international environ­ment.” The second is to focus highest priority on “two unprecedented and supreme dangers … the environmen­tal and nuclear crises.” Actions on these should become, he proposes, the chief priorities of U.S. foreign policy.

Toward the end of his essay, Kennan manages an appeal to religious faith, first by way of seeing “an ele­ment of sacrilege” in current failures to heed our true dangers, in environmental and nuclear matters. Next he asks, “whether there is any such thing as morality that does not rest, consciously or otherwise, on some founda­tion of religious faith, for the renunciation of self-interest, which is what morality implies, can never be rationalized by purely secular and materialistic considerations.” Final­ly, Kennan offers a clear summary of what his reflections finally come down to:

…the outlines of an American foreign policy to which moral standards could be more suitably and naturally applied than to that policy which we are conducting today. This would be a policy founded on recognition of the national in­terest, reasonably conceived, as the legitimate motivation for a large portion of the nation’s behavior, and prepared to pursue that interest without either moral pretension or apology. It would be a policy that would seek the possibilities for service to morality primarily in our own behavior, not in our judgment of others. It would restrict our undertakings to the limits established by our own traditions and resources. It would see virtue in our minding our own business wherever there is not some overwhelming reason for minding the business of others. Priority would be given, here, not to the reforming of others but to the averting of the two apocalyptic catastrophes that now hover over the horizons of mankind.

Clearly, Kennan’s primary intention is to criticize the current foreign policy of the United States — and precisely on moral grounds. Paradoxically, he bends every effort to “contain” American foreign policy within the exceedingly narrow moral standards he brings to bear on it. “Minding our own business” is his major lesson.

The U.S. should not seek to change “the internal affairs” of other nations, unless U.S. “national interests” are threatened. In the absence of any definition of the scope of these interests, moreover, Kennan’s prescriptions for foreign policy end by dwelling upon U.S. internal affairs — U.S. environmental and nuclear policy.

There are several obvious oddities about this analysis. Is the United States as powerless (regarding Afghanistan, South Africa, and the Helsinki Accords, to cite only his examples) as Kennan opines? The portrait of the U.S. that emerges from Kennan’s brushstrokes is not even that of a pitiful giant. Rather, he portrays a nation with no real moral standing in the world, its own internal affairs wildly out of control, facing an unacknowledged and “immense gap between what we dream of doing and what we really have to offer.” It is a faintly repulsive portrait, which seems to disgust him.

One recognizes from this portrait the character of the artist: fastidious about a high moral code of “principle,” “consistency,” “substance,” “duty,” “common decen­cy,” concerned with a morality erected on a “rational basis,” “conceived in all humility,” and involving “the husbanding and effective use of resources.” One hears behind Kennan’s prose a recognizable voice of the American middle-west, Calvinist, descended from hardy Scandinavian pioneer stock, trusting in “moral standards” that are “America’s own, founded on traditional American principles of justice and propriety.” One hears in it no lit­tle disdain for “the mosaic of residual ethnic loyalties and passions that make themselves felt in the rough and tum­ble of our political life.” There is in this artist a sublime self-confidence, flinty in its own common decency. One hears in such sentences as these the high rectitude of an Establishment attorney, banker, or doctor circa 1925:

Government is an agent, not a principle . . . No more than the attorney vis-a-vis the client, nor the doctor vis-a-vis the patient, can government attempt to insert itself into the consciences of those whose interests it represents.

In the mind of George Kennan, each responsibility is, or should be, neatly in its place. So clearly does he see the world in moral terms that he does not even need to call those terms “moral” when he does not choose to. So self-confident is he in his own moral probity that he knows no one will really fault him for defining a position that seems “amoral, or even immoral,” or for taking a position in which “all must be left to the workings of ex­pediency, national egoism and cynicism.” He doesn’t really mean it the way it sounds.

How seriously are we to take Kennan as a moralist? I have listed in the margins of my text sixteen different assertions that Kennan makes about the nature of morali­ty, not even counting those occasions on which he iden­tifies it with “sensibilities,” “the projection of attitudes, poses and rhetoric,” “residual ethnic loyalties and pas­sions,” the absence of “some clear and generally ac­cepted international code of behavior,” “the agreeable sensation of being impressively moral,” “the mere ap­pearance of moral behavior,” etc. Such phrases as these point to false moralities. They represent the “unreal” as opposed to the “real” morality, to use a distinction of which he is fond. They are not, in any case, attributes of the particular morality to which he calls us.

What then, for Kennan, is the real morality? Im­mediately after defining the national interest as having “no moral quality,” “not subject to classification as either ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ ” and in need of “no moral justification,” Kennan makes a curious intellectual move: “This assertion, assumes, however, that the concept of national security taken as the basis for governmental con­cern is one reasonably, not extravagantly, conceived” [italics added]. This sudden tying of morality to reason is at first vitiated by its immediate context, for Kennan links it merely to recognition of “the intentions of rival powers” in “an age of nuclear striking power,” in which “national security can never be more than relative.” This context of threat and fear is what Kennan names “reali­ty.” In its light he insists that the U.S. “concede the same legitimacy to the security needs of others that it claims for its own.”

In later contexts, though, Kennan makes quite a bit more of his early and surprising appeal to “reason,” more than would be required for the brute contest of power. He asks us, for example, to examine “each case on its own merits”; to consider that “the alternatives to [a bad situation] might be worse”; to take thought about “consequences” and who is to pay them; and to pay heed to “consistency,” on the grounds that “morality, if not principled, is not really morality.” In a less than perfect world, furthermore, “the avoidance of the worst” is often “a more practical undertaking than the achievement of the best.” He adds that, “the acceptance of one’s own limita­tions is surely one of the first marks of morality.” He sees “virtue in minding our own business,” and calls, above all, for the “ability to distinguish between the real and the unreal.” All these are appeals to a morality based upon reason. It is not obvious why he explicitly denies the workings of moral reasoning in foreign policy, when he himself turns to them at every step.

Surprisingly, too, Kennan actually assigns to morality in foreign affairs a quite considerable power. He writes of “the credibility of true moral behavior and the great force such behavior is, admittedly, capable of exerting.” And again: “. . . in world affairs, as in personal life, example exerts a greater power than precept.” He praises the “resolve, conceived in all humility, to take ourselves under control and to establish a better relationship between our undertakings and our real capabilities.” And most amazingly of all: “The success of our diplomacy has always depended, and will continue to depend on its in­herent honesty and openness of purpose and on the forth­rightness with which it is carried out.”

It is not easy to reconcile all these appeals to morali­ty — even to God — with Kennan’s claim that “the na­tional interest” is barren of moral materials. It is even more difficult to imagine how anyone can come to discover — accurately, wisely, “reasonably” rather than “extravagantly” — the “real” national interest, as op­posed to the “unreal,” without the most extraordinary prac­tice of critical intellectual and moral virtues. Indeed, Ken­nan explicitly makes “diplomacy” depend on rare moral virtues. One has the impression that this highly moral, even moralistic, man is trying to sound far more cynical than he can ever be, trying to out-Gromyko Gromyko, to out-Lenin Lenin. His own statements about morality make him a poor Machiavelli, this upright “realist,” Wisconsin born-and-bred.

There is no real reason for Kennan to try to sound tough minded, since he is not. And he is wrong to hold that “secret operations” are “not in character” for a country born in the French and Indian Wars, in the mid­night crossing of the Delaware, and among the Minutemen who refused to fight in file and rank — a country nourished on the stealth and secrecy of the Leatherstocking Tales, a country sprung from “perfidious Albion” and delighting in the wiles and arts of wit, a country whose young men took to the O.S.S. like college boys to nighttime sorties to paint the statues on a rival’s campus. Kennan cannot attribute his newly discovered distaste for “secret operations” to George Washington, one of whose first orders as Commander-in-Chief of the Continental Army was to select and to dispatch spies and saboteurs.

There must be a hidden meaning in Kennan’s simultaneous couching of his argument in moral terms, while also taking up the attitudes, poses, and rhetoric of an amoral, even immoral, conception of the national in­terest. The cognitive dissonance is vast; has it an explana­tion? Is Kennan hiding his true judgment of our present circumstances? I fear so. Like a true patriot, he is asking his countrymen to “husband” their resources, to live quietly, to “mind their own business,” while a giant tramples the underbrush roundabout.

Perhaps a clue is to be found in Kennan’s 1947 arti­cle in Foreign Affairs, in which he held that “contain­ment” would be necessary only for about “fifteen years.” In that article, Kennan rested considerable hope in the younger generation of the peoples of the U.S.S.R., after the passing of the aging survivors who were spared by Stalin. There is no sign of such hope in the Kennan of today.

Instead, at every opportunity, Kennan sees dreadful limits, not in Soviet endurance, but rather in U.S. power and agency. It would be one thing if Kennan were urging us to have modest dreams, a well-designed and long-term strategy for victory, a patient and humble trust in the capacity of our own people and institutions to stay the long and dangerous course that history has assigned us. Instead, Kennan describes our future task in exaggerated terms: “Despite frequent assertions to the contrary, not everyone in this world is responsible, after all, for the ac­tions of everyone else, everywhere. Without the power to compel change, there is no responsibility for its absence.” Everyone else, everywhere? Compel change? Of course not, in a world of adults. But elicit change, have a strategy for change, carry forward the moral — and the realistic — argument for change? Why not?

Why not, indeed, unless one has always concluded that the Soviets are too enduring in their views, too strong, too clever — and perhaps, therefore, historically, realistically, and morally correct. Kennan has several times confessed the power of true morality, yet seems to hold that that morality has no power among the peoples of the Soviet Union. At times he suggests that, in his eyes, at least, the Soviets are morally wrong, in Afghanistan for instance. Is that fact of no moment whatever? Has it no historical weight, substance, and authentic power? Perhaps there lies behind Kennan’s thought some cold, fixed world in which human actions have no effect, except insofar as they are massive enough to “compel” change. But that is not likely, if only because history affords us so many ex­amples (not least in such Russian novelists as Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn) of the power of humble persons and humble events to effect outcomes of immense significance. A single position held by a handful of brave men can turn the tide of a battle in which scores of thousands are engaged. Does Winston Churchill’s singular courage during “The Battle of Britain” count for nothing in the calculus of how historic change is to be compelled?

There is in Kennan no appeal to the courage, the dar­ing, and the wit of the American people. Since manifestly such traditions of our people cannot be unknown to him, one is forced to turn elsewhere for the explanation of the sad note of defeat that is so jarring in this essay. In his heart of hearts, has Kennan concluded that there is nothing the United States can do to halt the inexorable ad­vance of Soviet power? Is that why he bids us, as it were, to “go gently” into that good night with such dignity as we possess?

Such advice does not represent the highest form of morality in foreign policy. Nor does it represent the best in George Kennan. More than anything else, it is defeatism that is “not in character for this country,” and quitting that does not “accord with its traditions.” The brave and noble Mr. Kennan, who has served his country well, seems to have tired at the end. There will be others who will seize the torch, a younger generation here in the United States, reaching out to those “anxious nomenklaturists” on the other side, with a confidence born of their own society’s vital power, and with a moral vision of the humble and universal workings of liberty. In the long run, made shorter by intelligent efforts of our own, liberty is the natural order also of the peoples of the long-suffering U.S.S.R.

For if one judges the tides of history differently from Kennan — distinguishes “the real” from the “unreal” in a different way — now is more than ever a time for a dif­ferent sort of modesty, not that of defeat, but of steady and incremental advance, cut to the cloth of our real possibilities. Not without cause, it is precisely our moral capacity for action that the Soviets fear most. It is to the Soviets that Mr. Kennan’s defeatism is best addressed. It is there that the apogee has been reached and decline is in the air.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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