Through Containment and Beyond

He recoiled at the “rapid decline of family farming and the reckless raiding and ruining of some of the finest agricultural soil on the world’s surface,” condemning lustful developers and industrial farming moguls who exhaust the earth’s fertility with their reckless, short-sighted exploits. Identifying environmental decay as the single greatest threat to urban-industrial societies, he proposed the establishment of an International Environmental Agency. Said agency would advise—but not order—the world’s governments (for he opposed the United Nations since its inception). The “he,” here, may well be Wendell Berry. 

In Around the Cragged Hill, he bemoaned the urban bloats of exurbs and suburbs and lamented our cities’ litanies of pathologies. He saw serious fallout in the proliferation of cars. Whereas railways gathered disparate citizens around a common urban center, “the automobile disintegrated all that the railway had brought together. It was the enemy of the sense of community,” which bred isolation and laziness. If walking was the most readily accessible and most common form of exercise for most of the populace, the car kept children and their chauffeurs lazy and bored. Here he may have been adding a footnote to Ivan Illich’s Tools for Conviviality.

While engaged in a public debate with student radicals, he diagnosed their ascent as an inevitable outgrowth “of the sickly secularism” of American society; “deprived by the secularization of any sense of purpose or meaning,” they embraced revolutionary ideals not primarily out of unshakeable conviction, but in order to alleviate their anxious loneliness. In charging so many activists with desperately “creating for themselves some reason to live,” he might have been Christopher Lasch watching Narcissus Unbound

But the he in question is George Kennan, a Milwaukee-born kid plucked from obscurity when his “Long Telegram” diplomacy alerted the Powers that Be to the realities of Russian interests. This communique was prompted by our government’s fumbling grasp of Stalin’s refusal to join the International Monetary Fund. Sensitizing Washington to the Soviets’ “two planes: official and subterranean,” he explained that the enemies’ leaders were duplicitous opportunists who would nonetheless never assume needless risks. In most instances, political—not military firmness—would assure withdrawal. “Suddenly,” Kennan recalled in his memoirs, “my official loneliness came in fact to an end . . . My reputation was made. My voice now carried.”

In George Kennan for Our Time, Lee Congdon begins with an account of the cultured diplomat’s rise to geopolitical fame, but his major concern is to take Kennan’s principles, judgments, and aims—many of which transcend the standard partialities and tired prescriptions of establishment liberalism, as well as the cliché party lines on various points—and present them as wise corrections to the reflexive excesses of our age. 

Kennan would go on to become one of the great diplomats and strategic thinkers of the mid-20th century. His most famous policy advised a long game of firm but patient political “containment of Russian expansive tendencies by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” The so-called “containment” approach guided US foreign policy during the Cold War. Concerning that policy Congdon makes a crucial qualification: Kennan’s “containment of the Soviet Union . . . to his dismay” came to be affiliated with “a military, rather than a political strategy.” Worse, “it took the form of a doctrine to be applied universally rather than a principle adjusted to meet particular situations,” such as his original sense that containment of communism was more important than interventionist liberation of those subjugated to its ills. On this point it is hard to argue with history: “in almost every case, the target state [see “liberated people”] has resisted the democratic crusaders; better to be ruled by one’s own than by foreigners.”

For Kennan, the constant expansion of rights would inevitably lead to contradictory claims and spurious justifications.

Kennan caught a “whiff of . . . sanctimoniousness in American statements and demands about human rights,” an over-easy posture too often mimicked by a populace which is, says Congdon, “woefully uninformed and notoriously erratic.” The diplomat under a democracy must regularly remind an opinionated, affective demos that there exists “global dilemmas that would have to find their solution without US involvement.”

Human rights, Kennan cautioned, are too often treated as “the world’s religion.” Its church, the United Nations, crusades forward cooking up, “among other remarkable claims,” the declaration that all human beings everywhere possess the rights “to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and period holidays with pay.” Countenancing these castles in the sky, Kennan channels Simone Weil’s Prelude to a Declaration of Duties Toward Mankind, where she insists that “the notion of obligations comes before that of rights, which is subordinate and relative to the former.” Aghast, he asks if these rights are “really to be without obligation on the beneficiary’s part? Is he really to be at liberty to spend his life going fishing . . . and still be entitled to demand that he be provided with all these things that Article 25 assures him? And if so, who is supposed to pay for them?” 

For Kennan, the constant expansion of rights would inevitably lead to contradictory claims and spurious justifications. Pierre Manent develops this point in A World Beyond Politics? Oui, he concedes, nothing is clearer and more defined than the purpose of humanitarian action, premised on a compassionate doppelgänger of Christian love: “to save lives, to end violence . . . .” But in the name of humanitarian intervention, in the name of reducing human suffering through compassionate missions, “anyone is authorized to do anything whatsoever.”

Congdon cites a litany of interventions, including Obama’s “humanitarian bombardment of Libya in March of 2011,” formally authorized although “our safety is not directly threatened” because “our values are”—even as secretary of defense Leon Panetta later confessed that “our goal in Libya was regime change.” The humanitarian empire, like Woodrow Wilson’s declaration that “the world must be made safe for democracy,” is insidious because it is endless. And yet, it seems extreme to rule out all humanitarian interventions because some—or even many—are undertaken for utopian or specious ends. Sometimes you might just want to stop the bleeding. 

The realist vision Kennan voices in his Walgreen Lecture unduly reduces the role of government to a “primary obligation” of protecting “the interests of the national society.” Raison d’État, no less than humanitarian rights, has been invoked to justify endless immoralities. With perilous aplomb, the man who went out of his way to tell audiences he was Christian, the same man who attributed our barely-bridled “hopelessness, skepticism, cynicism, and bewilderment” to “a loss of, or indifference to, the Christian faith.” This same Kennan compartmentalizes and therefore de facto consigns morality—“as a matter of individual faith, conscience, and principles”—to the private sphere. But his reason for doing so on the level of foreign, though not domestic policy, solicits sympathy and bids us consider the many deleterious marriages of “world power” and “spiritual purpose.” He explained to the Catholic historian John Lukacs, “What I detest is moralistic posing and the attempt to clothe in the garments of virtue functions and undertakings that are very much a product of the ambitions and appetites and necessities of this world.” 

When media heads and politicians call upon the US government to “hold China accountable” for “the probable release of the coronavirus from a research laboratory in Wuhan,” Congdon asks us to wonder what they propose: “A threat of war? Such a war, if it came to a ‘nuclear exchange,’ would be suicidal for the United States and calamitous for humanity.” And then, when those governing us either in Washington or via technocracy decry Russia “as a hostile power that must be taught to behave . . . how that would be done without risking a nuclear war is left unexplained.”

Blend blindness to the persistence of elites with an infectious “permissive excess” of egalitarian ressentiment, and you get a public oblivious to the Founders’ distinction between “representative government, as opposed to government by plebiscite, or by direct action of the public.”

Thus, against primary-color ethics of “moral crusades,” Kennan preached balance of power as a constant and irrevocable scale underlying—though not fatally determining—international affairs. The capacity to exercise wise judgment concerning matters of state, Congdon quips, “requires something more than the ability to open a Twitter account.” This is not to say that Kennan mistook mass democracy for a pure plebiscite. No: “democracies are invariably ruled by elites able to master the art of propaganda, the art of achieving and maintaining political power by manipulating public opinion.” Ever clever at isolating themselves from “serious challenge,” elites wish to eclipse the fact that “The People do not actually rule; they are only made to believe that they do by ambitious men and women.” Here Congdon and Kennan echo Vilfredo Pareto’s The Rise and Fall of Elites, where he argues that, especially in a democratic age, a “new elite which seeks to supersede the old one . . . assumes the leadership of all the oppressed, declares that it will pursue not its own good but the good of the many” so that “the rise of the new elite appears as the vindication of the humble and weak against the powerful and strong.”

Blend blindness to the persistence of elites with an infectious “permissive excess” of egalitarian ressentiment, and you get a public oblivious to the Founders’ distinction between “representative government, as opposed to government by plebiscite, or by direct action of the public.” You also get a liberal history utterly unwilling “to concede to [European royals and aristocrats] any serious merit, or even sympathy.” Evidence of good government among non-democratic regimes is quickly swept into the cobwebbed corner, to forge statues out of such a dusty patrimony would be to disrupt the “otherwise tidy pattern of unadulterated . . . iniquity” that defines our forebears. 

Not that our forebears and leaders are without fault. Testifying at the Vietnam hearings, Kennan counseled that “There is more respect to be won in the opinion of this world by a resolute and courageous liquidation of unsound positions than by the most stubborn pursuit of unpromising objectives.” Don’t we all of us crave politicians capable of public culpability for deadly misjudgments—in Iraq and Afghanistan, for instance?

At times Congdon seems to remake Kennan in the image of his own ideological inclinations, and some strings of sentences can devolve into an uninventive screed against—for instance—decadents jonesing after their devices. The author sometimes fails to discriminate precious insights from specious prejudice. Sometimes his attempts to awaken our appreciation of Russian interests fail to veer clear of sympathy for Putin. Yes, Kennan was eager to “avoid anything that could appear to the Russian leaders to be an aggressive encirclement of their country,” and he therefore considered the expansion of NATO up to Russia’s borders to be “the most fateful error of American policy in the entire post-Cold War era.” It is one thing to therefore aver that Kennan would be startled by the 2017 Ukraine-European Union Association Agreement. It is another to hint that Putin’s statesmanship is worthy of admiration.

Congdon offers an America with a notoriously short memory an instructive diplomatic history of the twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. His Kennan, stately and detached, is an elder interlocutor filled with what we might call persuasive prophecies—and they are prophetic critiques more than insights that translate easily into practical applications. You may not agree with his every persuasion, but his probing vision reaches into the very roots of numerous half-examined assumptions. Rather than clinging to “rampant materialism and consumerism—and then trembling before the menace of the wicked Russians,” he concluded, we must moderate “this persistent externalization of the threat from without” and heal “the blindness to the threat within.” This is not to diminish the significance of America’s Cold War victories. And things may be worse over the fence’s far side. But it’s hard to sustain celebrations of past triumphs in a house divided against itself.