GEORGE F. KENNAN: AN AMERICAN LIFE By John Lewis Gaddis, Penguin, Rs 1,299
Writing in the 1980s about the Cold War, I made a slight mistake in the date of George F. Kennan’s famous 1947 essay in Foreign Affairs, written under the name X, which launched “the diplomatic doctrine of his era”, according to Henry Kissinger. The late Hiren Mookerjee, erstwhile professor and former member of the Lok Sabha, immediately corrected my mistake.
That trivial incident shows how large Kennan loomed in intellectual India’s consciousness. In contrast, India figured not at all in his. Not even when he approvingly quoted Gibbon’s warning that there is “nothing more averse to nature and reason than to hold in obedience remote countries and foreign nations in opposition to their inclination and interest”. That was in the 1940s. India was in ferment but doesn’t find a single mention in John Lewis Gaddis’s monumental biography. It didn’t either in Kennan’s own Memoirs or the later At a Century’s Ending: Reflections 1982-1995.
Kennan must have realized long before he died in 2005, aged a venerable 101, how outrageously wrong he had been in dismissing China and West Asia (and probably lumping India with them) as regions “where you could perfectly well let people fall prey to totalitarian domination without any tragic consequences for world peace in general”. World peace meant no more to him than American security. Yet, he thought Americans shallow, materialistic, self-centred and addicted to a “consumerism in which people equated charm with the absence of halitosis; balanced competing claims about toothpaste, and fretted about whether their refrigerators ejected ice cubes or required an ice pick”. But if Americans were despicable, America was sacred. The rest of the world existed to sustain that glory.
Baghdad, Cairo and Tehran “left Kennan with an aversion to what would later be called the ‘third world’ that he did little, in his own later life, to overcome”. Gaddis’s scathing reference to Jawaharlal Nehru reflected Kennan’s own disdain for a country that would never develop economically because it allocated “30 to 50 per cent of its food to sacred animals”. Loy Henderson, whose ambassadorial despatches reeked of his dislike of Nehru, was among Kennan’s closest professional allies. Apart from contempt for Nehru, the common ground was the elitism that shaped Kennan’s world view.
His reflections on Blacks, Jews and the “polyglot mix-mash” of Hispanicization amply justified Gaddis’s description of him as “an Ezra Pound of diplomacy”. Kennan welcomed the Munich sell-out, approved of monarchy and aristocracy, admired Salazar’s Portugal and was vehemently anti-majoritarian. “I hate the rough and tumble of our political life. I hate democracy; I hate the press... I hate the ‘peepul’; I have become clearly un-American.” The draft of his unfinished book advocated restricting the vote to white males, and other measures to exclude hoi polloi from government. He thought the United Nations a dream with “no basis in reality”, scorned humbug about human rights and would have loved Madeleine Albright’s complaint that CNN had become the 16th member of the Security Council.
Kennan was a career diplomat who helped to establish America’s first embassy in Moscow. He was himself appointed ambassador in 1952 but was soon expelled. His ambassadorship to Yugoslavia was almost equally ill-fated. Perhaps he had too much imagination for a diplomat. A romantic with scholastic interests, Kennan wrote beautifully and indulged in satirical verse. His flights of inspired prose drew on the wisdom of classical historians, statesmen and strategists. Though a distant relative with the same name who was an expert on Russia rebuffed his overtures, Kennan remained an ardent Russophile. But if he felt Americans betrayed America, he was even more convinced that the Soviet Union betrayed his dream world of Holy Russia whose messiahs were Chekhov and Tolstoy. After visiting Tolstoy’s estate, Yasnaya Polyana, Kennan wrote he felt “close to a world to which, I always thought, I could really have belonged”. Looking ahead to the Iron Curtain being lifted — naturally because of the belated effects of his own policy recommendations — Kennan prophetically dreaded what would happen to Russians suddenly exposed to “the wind of material plenty” and its “debilitating and insidious breath”. Meanwhile, Stalin’s detested regime would have to be destroyed so that Russians and America could live. Yet, he could not see why the “containment” policy (“military encirclement of the Soviet Union” in Walter Lippmann’s words) his Foreign Affairs article initiated should lead to an arms race and the Cold War.
Douglas Hurd, a former British foreign secretary, thought Kennan belonged “to the realistic as opposed to the moralistic school of American foreign policy”. But his realism was disguised in morality; his morality a mask for realism. He saw no inconsistency in proposing that the two superpowers should neatly carve up the world between themselves so that the United States of America was no longer militarily committed to South Korea, Vietnam and Japan. The Vietnam war was an unnecessary burden on account of an irrelevant country. The Truman Doctrine’s commitment to “a world of free peoples” could lead to provocative over-extension. The Marshall Plan, which he inspired, was a more acceptable way of saving Europe from Moscow’s clutches without any pretensions to a mission civilisatrice. Being prepared to help the Soviet Union “whenever called for by our own self-interest”, Kennan wrote that interventions “on moral principle” were “defensible only if the practices against which they are directed are seriously injurious to our interests rather than just our sensibilities”.
Washington has never understood the distinction he drew between “interests” and “sensibilities”. Taliban-ruled Afghanistan possibly affected American interests, but what of invading Iraq and Saddam Hussein’s execution? Does support for the Arab Spring and the campaign against Syria’s Bashar al-Assad mirror American interests or sensibilities?
Though Kennan’s personal influence may have been small, his doctrinal legacy outlasted the Cold War. Many of the colossal blunders of American foreign policy can be traced to it. Despite handsome financial compensation, Koreans, Vietnamese, Afghans, Iranians, Pakistanis, Iraqis and many others paid (and are paying) a cruelly high price for his mix of obtuseness and astuteness, idealism and ruthlessness.