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Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Kennan, Morality, and Leading by Example

In writing about the early formation of American foreign policy, historians Robert Tucker and David Hendrickson contrasted the dichotomy between the roles of crusader and exemplar. Early statesmen like Thomas Jefferson believed that America should stick to the exemplar role. They feared that if America became a crusader for her principles, she would sully herself in the effort and therefore lose the unique qualities she sought to impart on the rest of the world. Nonetheless, even these early statesmen of a country much less powerful in the world than we are today were unable to resist the crusading impulse. With the release of a new biography, much attention has been placed on modern statesman George Kennan. The author of containment, Kennan might be cited by those setting up new cold wars around our globe. They should read carefully, however, as Kennan had words of warning in the Long Telegram that would provide the basis for his “X” article in Foreign Affairs. “[W]e must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society.” He saw America’s strength in its power of example and its self-confidence.

Kennan took up this issue again in a 1985 Foreign Affairs article entitled “Morality and Foreign Policy.” He urged America to concern herself with the “interests of the national society” it governed, particularly “military security, the integrity of its political life and the well-being of its people.” This, in and of itself, was such a daunting task in Kennan’s mind that the government would have little capacity for other issues. This was a warning. He specifically stated that, “Democracy, as Americans understand it, is not necessarily the future of all mankind, nor is it the duty of the U.S. government to assure that it becomes that.” He indicted the tendencies of special interests pursuing their moral objectives as a major cause of America’s crusading bent, and of our overextension, stating that it was a duty to limit the country’s commitments to those which it had a reasonable chance of actually and predictably influencing the international environment. He was skeptical, however, (as am I) that this capability for influence was nearly as broad as many thought it.

Nonetheless, the country’s crusading bent had produced military spending “badly out of relationship to the other needs of its economy,” representing no less than a “national addiction.” He condemned the “feeling that we must have the solution to everyone’s problems and a finger in every pie…”

Instead of moralizing crusades, Kennan suggested an inward focus and some humility. “A first step along the path of morality would be the frank recognition of the immense gap between what we dream of doing and what we really have to offer, and a resolve conceived in all humility, to take ourselves under control and to establish a better relationship between our undertakings and our real capabilities.”

While some may quibble, claiming that his approach is immoral because it seeks to be amoral, or that it is too hard-nosed and unsympathetic, or that we ignore moral issues at the peril of our military security, I think that his call for humility and realistic appraisals of our capabilities is spot on. His missive should be required reading for all budding cold and hot policy warriors.

1 comment:

  1. Have you read Bacevich? This is his basic schtick as well. Good guy, former army officer, and quite disillusioned. Lost a son in Iraq too.

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