would give any other Dead White Male such a pass–a “Hero”?– for some of his core beliefs. And is foreign policy really about, er, “temperament” (of which apparently Mr Kennan had a distinct lacking in his private self)? Anyway, further to this post,
the former leader of the Canadian federal Liberal Party reverts to his other, American, persona–“just visiting” after all?–in a major article at the NY Review of Books, strangely not remarked upon in Canada as far as I can see. But then who in our media could give a beaver’s tale about George Kennan and the issues about which Mr Ignatieff feels such a true affinity? Full text may be subscriber only:
America’s Melancholic Hero
The Kennan Diaries
…his love for the Russian people tempered his hatred of the regime and prevented his doctrine from locking American policy into a war between civilizations.
This in turn enabled him to bring American righteousness and moralism under the control of a strategically patient temperament. The captive nations of Eastern Europe certainly deserved freedom, he conceded, but it was senseless to risk a third world war to secure it for them. America might be responsible for global order, but, as he wrote, “we cannot be the keepers and moral guardians of all the peoples in this world.” It was more important, he confided in another entry, “to convince others that we were strong than to convince others that we were right or idealistic or virtuous.”..
Empowering friends, picking your battles, always checking principle with prudence, never overestimating American capacities, but never overestimating the enemy’s strength: this is best seen not as a strategy for all contingencies but as a disposition, a habit of mind, a temperament…
Key to the temperament was a shrewd humility about the capacity of presidential power to shape the course of historical outcomes in countries far away. Kennan liked to quote John Quincy Adams’s remark that America should never be ranging over the world in search of monsters to destroy. In later life, when containment had done its work and the Soviet Union was no more, Kennan’s positions became very nearly isolationist. He was consistently anti-Zionist and warned against letting America’s commitment to Israel drag it into Middle Eastern conflicts. He was entirely out of sympathy with the fashions of post–cold war foreign policy. He had little or no belief in humanitarian intervention and little more than indifference toward rising powers like India and Brazil. He thought China would always be a rival, while Japan could always be kept a friend. He was a life-long skeptic about international law, the United Nations, and human rights. When George Schulz tried to persuade him that human rights ought to have a place in American foreign policy, Kennan was firm, especially about China. Human rights in China were their affair, not America’s.
…His lifelong alienation from the country he served is truly remarkable, leading his biographer, John Gaddis, to observe, rightly, that he understood Russia a good deal better than he understood America [more here on the biography].
Examples of this lofty incomprehension abound. Still only twenty-four, he vented contempt in his diary for Europe’s new passion for Hollywood movies and soft drinks and jazz. “The Americanization of Europe,” he wrote “like Bolshevism, is a disease which gains footing only in a weakened body.” In 1938, on a return from Europe to his native land, he expressed disgust at “a diseased world and…people drugged and debilitated by automobiles and advertisements and radios and moving pictures.”
He made no secret of the fact that he was not at home in the egalitarian, multiracial immigrant society America was to become. As he confided to himself in the 1930s: “The overflow from the entire world has seeped into a great territory and has drowned out the heritage of my fathers.” His elitism was unrelenting and unapologetic. From the early 1930s right through to the end of his life, he always said he preferred America to be ruled by an oligarchy of well-born, well-educated experts like himself instead of the vulgar democratic politicians he served.
There was even a sour eugenic caste to his elitism. Once while gazing at portraits in the National Portrait Gallery in London he found himself regretting “the obvious erosion of the genes, brought about over this past century by the effect of modern hygiene.” In the 1980s we find him thinking out loud about how much better America would be if it stopped immigration altogether and sterilized any male who had more than two children.
…“Write, you bastard, write,” became the master exhortation that guided the last fifty years of his life, as if he knew that his true vocation was to save insights from the wreck of his own ambitions. The insights he saved—the disabused, historical skepticism that kept insisting on both the responsibilities and limitations of American power—will outlive the times he lived in, for they capture so eloquently the enduring temperament required for American leadership.
Writing on a flight to Los Angeles in 1978, Kennan thinks about how few white faces he will see when he lands and laments the decline of people “of British origin, from whose forefathers the constitutional structure and political ideals of the early America once emerged.” Instead, he predicts, Americans are destined to “melt into a vast polyglot mass, . . . one huge pool of indistinguishable mediocrity and drabness.” Kennan at times displayed conventional racism. His views on South Africa were strongly shaped by his feeling that blacks were simply not capable of handling liberty and democracy. “I would expect to see within five or 10 years’ time,” he wrote in 1990, “only desperate attempts at emigration on the parts of whites, and strident appeals for American help from an African regime unable to feed its own people from the resources of a ruined economy.” But for the most part, Kennan’s racism was a product of his conservatism, which is to say that he was profoundly mistrustful of the modern multiethnic nation-state with its “mingling of the races.” He did not look down on the Chinese, Indians, Russians or Jews, believing that they would succeed better in their own coherent communities than in a mixed-up melting pot. The tone of his comments about nonwhites, however, always has a sharp and derisory edge…
Mr Ignatieff for his part only writes, to repeat: “He made no secret of the fact that he was not at home in the egalitarian, multiracial immigrant society America was to become.” Too right and a bit of a gloss, what?
However, as regards American power, tormented George was I think on to something:
Dead White Males–in this case a viciously prejudiced person by today’s standards–if honestly appreciated are still worth considering for their public big picture points. Discuss. Especially Kennan’s actual policy positions.