The Failure in Our Success
George F. Kennan/New York Times, March 14, 1994
The Council on Foreign Relations in New York City held a party for the diplomat and author George F. Kennan in celebration of his 90th birthday on Feb. 15. His remarks, excerpted, follow.
I am reminded that it was 47 years ago that my involvement with the Council on Foreign Relations began in earnest. At the end of 1946, I had attended and addressed, in this very room, a dinner at which I spoke about the Russia of that day. This led to a further meeting, in January, this time with the council's newly established Discussion Group on Soviet Foreign Policy.
It was shortly thereafter that Ham Armstrong, as editor of Foreign Affairs, wrote to me, asking me to set forth in an article for that journal the gist of what I had been saying on these occasions about Russia and Soviet-American relations.
Now, Ham Armstrong was a great and talented seducer of victims from whom he hoped to extract a useful article. This was not the last one he would extract from me over the years. I was no more able to resist these extraordinary allures than were many others. What came out of this approach was what became known as the "X" article. And this was the beginning of my life of sin as a participant in the public discussion of Soviet-American relations.
Now first, a word or two from the perspective of 47 intervening years, about what was being discussed at those early meetings. What I was then advocating for our Government was a policy of "containment" of Soviet expansionist pressures, a policy aimed at halting the expansion of Soviet power into Central and Western Europe.
I viewed this as primarily a diplomatic and political task, though not wholly without military implications. I considered that if and when we had succeeded in persuading the Soviet leadership that the continuation of these expansionist pressures not only held out for them no hopes for success but would be, in many respects, to their disadvantage, then the moment would have come for serious talks with them about the future of Europe.
But when, some three years later, this moment had arrived -- when we had made our point with the Marshall Plan, with the successful resistance to the Berlin blockade and other measures -- when the lesson I wanted to see us convey to Moscow had been successfully conveyed, then it was one of the great disappointments of my life to discover that neither our Government nor our Western European allies had any interest in entering into such discussions at all. What they and the others wanted from Moscow, with respect to the future of Europe, was essentially "unconditional surrender." They were prepared to wait for it. And this was the beginning of the 40 years of cold war.
Those of my opponents of that day who have survived into the present age would say, I am sure: "You see. We were right. The collapse of the Soviet system amounted to the unconditional surrender we envisaged -- an involuntary one if you will, but surrender nevertheless. And we paid nothing for it."
To which I should have to reply: "But we did pay a great deal for it. We paid with 40 years of enormous and otherwise unnecessary military expenditures. We paid through the cultivation of nuclear weaponry to the point where the vast and useless nuclear arsenals had become (and remain today) a danger to the very environment of the planet. And we paid with 40 years of Communist control in Eastern Germany, Czechoslovakia and Hungary, the damages of which to the structure of civilization in those countries we are only now beginning to observe. We paid all of this because we were too timid to negotiate."
We will never know who was right and who was wrong in this disagreement. The one course was tried. Its consequences, good and bad, are now visible. The other course remained hypothetical. Its results will never be known.
We are now in a new age. It is an age which, for all its confusions and dangers, is marked by one major blessing: for the first time in centuries, there are no great-power rivalries that threaten immediately the peace of the world. We must do all in our power to see that things remain this way. But aside from that one encouraging situation, what we see is a highly unsettled and unstable world -- a world full of squabbles, conflicts and violent encounters, some not without dangers to world peace and stability.
This presents a challenge for which we are poorly prepared. For over 60 years, the attention of our policy makers and public opinion was monopolized by the effort to respond to what appeared to be, and sometimes were, great and overriding dangers -- the Nazis, the Japanese militarists, then Stalin's Russia.
Our statesmen and our public are unaccustomed to reacting to a world situation that offers no such great and all-absorbing focal points for American policy. And it is not surprising that we should now be hearing demands for some sort of a single grand strategy of foreign policy, to replace our fixation on the Soviet Union, and to serve as a guide for our responses to all those troublesome situations.
And about this demand, coming to us from many quarters, there are one or two things I think we ought to note.
First of all, as a problem for American statesmanship, this present situation is not really all that new. Similar situations existed in the early years of this Republic, and again toward the end of the 19th century.
And if you could bring to life some of the wiser of the American statesmen of those earlier periods and ask their opinion about the present demands for some sort of a grand strategy with which to meet all our problems, they would say, I suspect, something like the following:
"Why do you want anything like that? Yes, of course, your world is complex. So was ours. But many of these troublesome situations that bother you do not really threaten your interests. And even for those that do, there could be no single grand design -- no vast common denominator -- that would tell you how each of them should be approached. Each has to be judged on its merit. Discard, then, this traditional American fondness for trying to solve problems by putting them into broad categories. What you need are not policies -- much less a single policy. What you need are sound principles: principles that accord with the nature, the needs, the interests and the limitations of our country."
Some of these principles seem to be relatively immutable. A number were enunciated by John Quincy Adams in his great Fourth of July speech of 1821, and they have lost none of their relevance. Adams observed that if America should enlist under other banners than her own, "were they even the banners of foreign independence, she would involve herself beyond the power of extrications, in all the wars of interest and intrigue, of individual avarice, envy and ambition, which assume the colors and usurp the standard of freedom."
Principles, too, have of course to be reviewed and adjusted to meet the particular challenges of the time. And if you were to ask what such principles might be today, I could only say: "Look closely at our own society. Look at its strengths and weaknesses, at its successes and failures, at the possibilities and the dangers that confront it.
"And then ask yourselves how such a country ought to shape its foreign relations in such a way as to help it to be what it could be to itself and to its world environment, bearing in mind, of course, that it is primarily by example, never by precept, that a country such as ours exerts the most useful influence beyond its borders, but remembering, too, that there are limits to what any one sovereign country can do to help another, and that unless we preserve the quality, the vigor and the morale of our own society, we will be of little use to anyone at all."