Friday Roundup, November 1st

  • A Realist Who Preached Jeremiads: Will Hay in our feature essay this week reviews an expanded sixtieth anniversary edition of George Kennan’s American Diplomacy. Hay writes:

American Diplomacy originated in the Charles Walgren lectures Kennan gave at the University of Chicago in 1951 after he left government for the Institute of Advanced Studies at Princeton. The published version became a standard text for courses in diplomatic history and international relations that went through several editions with new material added. Kennan expressed surprise to an audience at Grinnell College in 1984 that it remained in print. A new anniversary edition includes the Grinnell Lectures and two major Kennan essays for Foreign Affairs—“The Sources of Soviet Conduct” (July 1947) and “America and the Russian Future” (April 1951)—along with a critical introduction by the noted political scientist John Mearsheimer. What began as an occasional piece took on a life of its own. So why did it resonate beyond the author’s expectations?

The central question Kennan poses in his thematic overview suggests the answer. Given that the United States had enjoyed a sense of security in the 1890s unmatched since Rome, how and why had the situation reversed so sharply fifty years later? American preponderance in a political system where great power rivalry had given way to ideological conflict between superpowers left the United States feeling less secure. Applying practical diplomatic experience might illuminate the country’s predicament and its underlying causes. American Diplomacy thus sought to “identify the relationship between challenge and response in American diplomacy” since the 1890s and then consider what weakness of analysis or concept led to failure when the response fell short.