George F. Kennan: The Greatest Architect of US Foreign Policy

Though often associated with Morgenthau, Niebuhr, and the Cold Warriors, George Frost Kennan cannot be exclusively claimed by neorealists. He in fact belonged to neorealism and constructivism respectively – perhaps most importantly as an historian in realpolitik, perched above the limits of these theories. This essay will show that Kennan, the father of containment, has been the most influential actor (for better or worse) in the determination of US foreign policy. Ultimately, Kennan’s containment work has been directly vindicated by the collapse of the Soviet Union and where the containment of bipolarity fails to transfer to disparate theatres, the legacy of its psychological assumptions proves stalwart from the Truman Doctrine to the War on Terror.

This essay will demonstrate Kennan’s influence by first examining his counter-force containment prescription as derived from essential observations in ‘Soviet Conduct’. Next, relevant policies which either endorse or morph containment’s lessons will be displayed, demonstrating Kennan’s gravity in the tradition of US foreign policy. Then, the paradigm shift from classical containment to selective transferability of the theory’s limits across polarity will be examined and its provision of alternative solutions to policy makers. Finally, Kennan’s place between neorealism and constructivism will be highlighted as an essential legacy for policy makers in the world of nuclear weapons.

Since its European settlers and colonial war of independence, the United States has faced several important foreign policy decisions. Whether managing its influence and presence on trade (sometimes covertly) with colonial powers (Draper 1996;Nuxoll 1985), its maritime and geo-political survival with the 1796 Treaty of Tripoli and the Barbary wars, or its turn of the century Open Door Policy with China and other global powers – no US foreign policy arena has matched the stakes of the age of nuclear proliferation. Given that nuclear weapons can erase our species, the threat of annihilation felt by a single nation can no longer be contained to its physical borders. Consequently, the nuclear age, in which Kennan and the Cold War sit, not only represent an historical paradigm shift in every sovereignties’ existential security, but that of the future of the world, especially as combined with its post-WWII construction.

The nuance of containment is vital to arguing Kennan’s influence on US foreign policy. His understanding of Soviet/Russian culture and psychology is the basis for containment and nuclear policy. Containment theory rests on Kennan’s historical view of the rise of the Soviets as connected to Russian culture and literature – where its heroes and tropes were used and abused by Bolsheviks and Soviets for political ends. Kennan sees internal and external dynamics of the Soviet regime, expressed though the history of the Bolshevik regime/revolution and Russian society, as compounded by the concomitant paranoia inimical to Soviet leaders’ political power consolidation. This consolidation is pressed against enemies, client communists abroad, and domestic Russians, establishing absolute power for the Kremlin (Kennan 1947). The post-Russian revolution period’s factors of civil war, foreign intervention, and communists as a minority of the Russian polity necessitated dictatorial measures for acquisition and maintenance of Soviet power (Kennan 1947).

The legacy of anti-tsarist fervour and Leninist philosophy produced an anti-capitalist strain of memes that proclaimed capitalism was not just inherently unstable and destined for self-destruction but, all the world should be viewed as under either capitalism or communism (Kennan 1947).  This meme became inextricable from the communist minority’s rise to power and, once in power, its reference in both Soviet foreign policy and Stalin’s maintenance of said power through organs of suppression (Kennan 1947). If this world view was maintained and transmitted (abroad and domestically) while capitalism exists – internal dissension could be typified as capitalist foreign intervention and/or its agents. Simply said, the communist minority in Russia rose to power and created a system iron control over Russian society, wedding itself to paranoia and suppression and insulating Kremlin power from dissent (externally and internally). These organs were used to facilitate the extreme industrial expansion of the USSR at the cost of a complete lack of any other kind of Russian project (or economic diversity), even that of functioning infrastructure or non-state centric activities (Kennan 1947). Compared to the US, the USSR’s economy was inferior and its people held hostage.

This understanding led to conclusions which form the basis of containment theory and detail why Kennan saw containing the USSR as primarily a political issue rather than a military one. First, there is an intractable, innate antagonism between capitalism and socialism which disqualifies the USSR and international community from cooperation due to existing capitalist powers (Kennan 1947). Consequently, the regime thought that ‘the cause of Socialism is the support and promotion of Soviet power, as defined in Moscow’ (Kennan Part II). Second, the centre of gravity in containment theory should be the Kremlin, as its own command structure regards itself as infallible (Kennan 1947). Finally, given the philosophical appraisal of capitalism’s containing the ‘seeds of its own destruction’ (Kennan Part IV), the Soviets did not see themselves on any time table and could retreat from commitments more readily as a result (Kennan 1947).

Kennan observes that the Soviets are ‘more sensitive to contrary force, more ready to yield on individual sectors of the diplomatic front when that force is felt to be too strong, and thus more rational in the logic and rhetoric of power’ (Kennan Part II). He also observes that the USSR ‘cannot be easily defeated or discouraged by a single victory of its opponents’ (Kennan Part II). Given these observations, Kennan ultimately prescribes that policy towards the USSR ‘must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies’ (Kennan Part II). Due to the constantly shifting geographical/political positions of communist clients globally, Kennan’s prescription was also trying to secure western institutions abroad, seeking a liberal world order in the post war context. This two-fold prescription of patient firmness and the protection/promotion of western institutions (the international community itself) was both realist, liberal, and constructivist given its sensitivity to historical dynamics, western values, and US responsibility. In so prescribing, Kennan offered a paradigm shift in the form of a third way: containment, not war or appeasement (Gaddis 2011).

Several US foreign policies bear Kennan’s influence. In Truman’s address to congress of the same year as ‘Soviet Conduct’, he requested 400 million dollars in military and economic aid for Greece and Turkey (US Historian). Communist belligerents Yugoslavia, Bulgaria and Albania threatened their borders. Inspired by Kennan’s counterforce (instead of direct intervention), this aid package was to promote and protect these countries from communist incursion, containing expansionistic Soviet interests via the Balkan Federation and regional stability in the Middle East. Economic counterforce would also secure US interests in the building of a liberal international community which states who wished to be free of communist control post-WW2 and have access the United Nations could do so without communist molestation (Truman 1947).

However, Kennan became a fierce critic of the Truman Doctrine and disputed the claim he was its muse (Layne 2012). This could be said to be the start of the mutations of Kennan’s containment, departing from its classical form – precise and limited counterforce strategy in a bipolar world moving towards a multipolar future. This theme continues throughout future US policies. Another imprint of orbiting containment concepts can be seen in the Economic Cooperation Act of 1948, known as the ‘Marshall Plan’ (US Historian). Rather than directly involve the US in rebuilding post-WWII European states, it aimed to assist Europeans in the rebuilding of infrastructure, respecting European sovereignty in the process (Marshall 1948). The ‘long term’ component of Kennan’s containment in conjunction with the promotion of western institutions, and indeed the international community itself, can be seen again, arguably setting the essential catalytic framework for the European Union (also the necessary diplomatic/liberal relationship to counteract the USSR’s regional influence). Without the Marshall Plan, in combination with other containment strategies, war fatigued European states would have been vulnerable to Soviet expansion, consequently making the nuclear world vulnerable without the consolidated and the USSR countering institutional bulwark.

The externality of Kennan’s influence is that while he influenced the Marshall Plan, it could be argued that the plan made USSR/US relations more tense by signalling growing US interests in Europe (Layne 2012). Poor relations often lead to aggression. Kennan’s influence, enacted by policy makers and bureaucrats, started to backfire – most notably in NSC-68. After the communist victory in the Chinese civil war, Soviet nuclear tests, and the invasion of South Korea, Truman enacted a build-up of nuclear weapons (US Historian). This move from patient and firm vigilance to military response in Nitze’s proposal for nuclear arms to counter the USSR, represented the height of unintended containment consequences from Kennan’s point of view. For example, GDP defence spending grew to fourteen percent between 1950-1953 (US Historian).

The containment rift between Kennan and Nitze is emblematic of Kennan’s influence on foreign policy in the nuclear age (Lawrence 2009). As ‘containment’ is picked up and morphed away from Kennan’s conception, it becomes harder to see what forms of containment are superior, especially given that it could be argued that both Nitze (nuclear build up counterforce) and Kennan (long term political counterforce), the Hawk and the Dove, had valid points (Thompson 2009).

Taking stock of important Cold War policy in the nuclear age and Kennan’s influence (classical and appropriated), over-commitment to non-communist nations through aid and institutionalism (Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan’s European reconstruction containment of the USSR) resulted in both positive effects and negative effects. The negative effects were increased USSR/US nuclear build up and USSR’s territorial aggression. Given this, it is important now to emphasize that the backdrop of shifting polarity, not simply US/USSR bipolarity but a future looking multipolarity, is key to Kennan’s influence on determining US foreign policy. To understand this, the limits of containment’s application must be examined and how different polarity environments negate Kennan’s classical containment and advocate its psychological assumptions.

Kennan’s theory has at least three limitations: transferability, adversarial requirement of shared risk, and state-based strategy (Gaddis 2005). Classical containment is constructed for bipolar superpowers and cannot transfer into either unipolar or multipolar environments without modification. Adversaries must share a sense of risk for classical containment to apply and thus transferability of the theory may not succeed against certain actors, Napoleon and Hitler, for example, because unlike the cautious USSR who had no timetable and thus could be more sensitive to risk and choose to avoid it without contradicting ideological obligations, these leaders had rigid timetables and ideological obligations which required greater risk taking (Gaddis 2005). Classical is limited to state-based strategy where states are the actors based on their exclusive rights to violence (Gaddis 2005), so rogue actor phenomena (like martyr terrorism) are a problem for classical containment.

Given the moves from classical in both policy and limitation, bolstered by Kennan’s criticism of policies which evoke or morph his ideas, his legacy of influence can be seen in selective transferability. In the post-war multipolar world of today, classical containment does not apply based on limitations, especially evident in the combination of limits manifest in stateless terrorists. However, selective transferability accounts for this by providing through containment a ‘mapped out path between dangerous even deadly—alternatives’ (Gaddis 386). This feature of containment derived from its limitations encapsulates the psychological assumptions necessary to operate in different polar environments. Understanding alternatives for transferable containment across polarity has assisted Nixon/Kissinger, and Reagan even if Kennan disagrees with their policies on Vietnam and communism. In the Nixon/Kissinger case, Vietnam outcomes all spelled disaster as well as their solutions. Kennan’s containment legacy, that of the third way to rethink transferable alternatives, allowed the administration to change their positions without risking zero sum consequences (Gaddis 2005). In the case of Reagan, Kennan’s legacy of alternatives equipped the administration to reverse the soviet idea of capitalism’s capacity for self-destruction onto the Soviet ideology itself, following in the historical observations of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz that superior strategy allowed the enemy to destroy itself (Gaddis 2005).

Therefore, Kennan’s main contribution to determining US foreign policy is a tradition of first examining adversaries in conditions of polarity at the cultural and ideological level rather than theoretical. Second, prescription should be based on history, realpolitik, and the limits of classical containment whose psychological assumptions of both adversaries and options can equip policy makers to avoid zero-sum consequences of nuclear weight – vastly constraining the necessity of direct intervention. In a way, these contributions are borne out more by Kennan’s criticisms of the realist policy makers of his time who morphed his ideas instead of using his classical containment theory (Ninkovich 1990).

While Kennan’s criticism helps to establish selective transferability, neorealism theory is still an effective explanation of why others morphed his ideas. If the perceptions of power and the structure of their government inform a leader’s decisions (Walt 2002), then the USSR is efficiently explained by this theory, supplemented by Kennan’s observations in ‘Soviet Conduct’. However, the notion of ideas as related to identity and their impacts on grand strategy posed by constructivists (Dueck 2006) seems entirely compatible with the neorealist explanation of Cold War policy, especially in the construction of NSC-68 (also supplemented by ‘Soviet Conduct’).

Constructivism’s traditional de-prioritization of empirical explanations of how identity arises in an anarchic international system (Wendt 1992) seems to carve out a space for Kennan’s psychological assumptions, between constructivism and neorealism. That is to say that neorealism and constructivism, even when combined, are insufficient alone to bridge the prescriptive gap in US foreign policy, either towards the USSR or other nuclear states today. Neorealism and constructivism have played important roles in the development of US Foreign policy, each of which are influenced and brought together by Kennan in policy tradition.

The nuclear stakes of systematic power balancing analysis by neorealists across polarity, necessitates the investigation of the ideas and culture which form the identity of actors which conduct policy. Kennan achieves both aims in the nuance of considered Soviet/Russian history and in his contributions of influence in subsequent post-Cold War policy, even when he disagrees with mutations by policy peers of his containment. In arenas most divorced from classical containment, its theoretical limits can salvage psychological assumptions which equip policy makers, like the Bush administration, with a third way to handle non-state actors.

In conclusion, this essay has looked at the legacy of Kennan’s classical containment as based on his nuanced observations in the ‘Sources of Soviet Conduct’. It has examined how even when Kennan got things wrong or his classical containment was morphed by other policy makers, it proved influential to determining US foreign policy across polarity. Kennan’s criticism of policies which dropped his name, have helped to identify the limits of popular US policy theories like neorealism and constructivism to sufficiently produce prescriptions. Instead, the limits of Kennan’s classical containment have lessons of selective transferability and psychological assumptions which can bridge the gap between the theories as well as alternatives to zero-sum situations. For better or worse, Kennan remains influential in an important time period of nuclearization and perhaps best exemplifies the utility of a blended approach to US foreign policy, that of the consideration of realism, constructivism, culture, and history. In this way, Kennan is an essential touchstone for US policy makers who want alternative paths to dealing with aggressive states in the nuclear age.

Featured image credit: Harris & Ewing on Wikimedia Commons

Disclaimer: This essay was originally written in November 2019

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