Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Gilbert on Kennan

In a blog post, Prof. Alan Gilbert of the Univ. of Denver praises Obama's recent speech on counter-terrorism policy, drones, and Guantanamo as a "turning point," while noting (among other things) that it should have come earlier and contending that presidents never do anything decent without mass pressure from below.

Toward the beginning of his remarks Gilbert, referencing his 1999 book Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, comments briefly and in passing on George Kennan:
In most foreign policy discussion and international relations as an academic field, realist theories - both official ones used in making/apologizing for American foreign policy and more sophisticated versions employed in the critical study of American errors and crimes, even systematic ones - abstain from the outset from looking at the consequences [of U.S. foreign policy] for democracy at home....
For instance, the leading post-World War II realist, George Kennan in American Diplomacy, pits sober, professional diplomacy against democratic crusades like Woodrow Wilson's in World War I.... But in the 1984 edition, responding to the disastrous American aggression in Vietnam, Kennan noticed the war complex, "our military-industrial addiction." He shifted to a more democratic, common-good oriented view without naming the shift.
Kennan opposed the Vietnam War from the start mainly on pragmatic grounds (he testified against it in congressional hearings in 1966), and Vietnam probably did influence his thinking.  There are tensions in Kennan's views deriving partly from the way in which moral considerations are often kept unacknowledged or beneath the surface, with the biggest exception to this being his increasingly passionate writings, starting in the 1980s, about nuclear weapons. But I think Kennan remained ambivalent, at best, about democracy until the end of his life. These tensions (or contradictions) run through much of his career, complicating the idea of an un-named shift "to a more democratic, common-good oriented view." Still, it is interesting that some of the language in American Diplomacy, originally published in 1951, changed in the 1984 edition.

P.s. A minor point: "One of the leading post-WWII realists" would have been better than "the leading," since Morgenthau, Niebuhr, and Kennan are usually given roughly equal billing as the key figures of post-1945 American Realism, with Arnold Wolfers, John Herz, and some others not far behind. (Generationally speaking, Waltz and Kissinger come after this group.)

Added later: It's possible to put a somewhat more uncomfortable (for lack of a better word) gloss on Kennan's position on Vietnam, which would note that, in addition to his (correct) judgment that Vietnam was not a vital U.S. interest, he just didn't care much about the Third World (as it was then called) and didn't think non-Europeans (or non-descendants of Europeans) had much capacity for self-government. But going into that would require another post.

[To find previous mentions of Kennan on this blog, type "Kennan" into the search box in the upper-left corner.]


Ralph Hitchens said...

Back in the late 1980s I had an opportunity to hear George Kennan speak at the Wilson Center. His was the "big picture" view of the Cold War and intervention. He said that there were only three regions of the world capable of manufacturing "the sinews of modern war" -- America, Western Europe, and the USSR. So long as two of these remained free, there was no possibility of our losing the Cold War. Vietnam had therefore been an unfortunate sideshow of no real consequence.

LFC said...

Interesting -- thanks for the comment.

Yes, I think that was always his basic view (with some additional nuances I hinted at but don't want to go into right now).

Of the major U.S. 'realist' figures, Kissinger stood pretty much alone on Vietnam; I think all the others opposed the American involvement, either from the outset or (in the case, I think, of Niebuhr) changing to opposition after initial ambivalence/support.

hank_F_M said...


You made the big time.

Dan put this post on the daily round up at the Duck of Minerva.


It is a good post

LFC said...

Thanks, Hank.

Actually I don't think this is the first time Dan has linked to a post here -- he's done it once or twice before. But this time, for some reason, it was higher up on his list, not buried down low or beneath the fold. Which does make a difference, I guess.

(Btw, Alan Gilbert is planning a reply to this, which will I add to the post as an update link when it happens.)

As for "making the big time" -- this blog has been in existence now for about five years. If I were going to make the big time, it would have happened by now. I ain't makin' the big time. (Which is fine, because I do various other things and have other commitments and this way I don't have to worry about putting up a constant flow of stuff. Besides, if I made the big time I probably would have to start using my full name rather than my initials and would no longer feel at quite so much liberty to confess my shortcomings. ;) )

You were the first person to comment on this blog when it was just starting and have been a steadfast reader and commenter -- which I definitely appreciate, even though we often disagree.