George Kennan, International Lawyer?

by Harlan Cohen

Many of you have probably seen the reviews of John Lewis Gaddis’ new biography, George F. Kennan: An American Life. John Gaddis was one of my mentors in college and graduate school, and I have really enjoyed seeing what I know to have been a labor of love reviewed so favorably. Congratulations John!

Kennan, the man primarily known as the author of the U.S.’s Cold War “Containment” strategy, is a fascinating figure and he and his work could be the focus of any number of interesting international law conversations. A quick search within Westlaw’s JLR database yields 394 citations to George Kennan, 132 specifically to his book, American Diplomacy (admittedly, at least one of those is mine).

To start with, one could talk about his signature policy. What were the international law implications of a containment policy that divided the word into two separate spheres? In what ways was international law mobilized as an instrument of that policy? To what extent were jurisprudential schools/approaches shaped by realities of containment? In current terms, our containment policies have taken on an increasingly legal cast, whether in the form of UN sanctioned sanctions, no-fly zones, inspection regimes, or interdiction on the high seas or by using conditional membership in regimes and clubs as a carrot and stick. How well have these tactics been working? Perhaps the time has come to reassess Kennan’s signature idea.

We could also talk about Kennan’s complex realism and his well-known critique of “the legalist-moralist approach” in American foreign policy. We could take it on its own terms: How valid was his critique? Looking at the conflicts of the moment, was he right that moralism in international affairs only makes conflicts worse? Or we could probe the critique, asking how well Kennan understood international law and whether his views, when fully understood, may actually suggest more of a role for international law than might be apparent from his rhetoric. Kennan’s realism was complex and conflicted; he had faith that the West’s ideas would triumph eventually and lamented policymakers’ over-reliance on military tools. We could also look at Kennan in his intellectual-historical context, looking at how he reflected and helped steer developing American understandings of international law (a particular interest of mine.)

But in reading the reviews of Gaddis’ book (I admit that I have not yet read the book. Cut me some slack! It came out last week.), the thing that stood out was his personal story, one Henry Kissinger refers to in his New York Times review as “a kind of tragedy.” Kennan was most definitely not an international lawyer, but his difficulties navigating the foreign policy establishment sound familiar. Certainly, Kennan’s ambivalence about the morality of a policy of nuclear deterrence based on the threatened destruction of humanity is recognizable to international lawyers. More broadly though, Kennan’s tragedy was to have always been stuck on the outskirts of foreign policy making. Kennan was the policy architect, trying to create rules for a new chaotic game of diplomacy. And it was his attachment to principle that frustrated his State Department bosses and got him fired from the few key positions he attained. Kennan was too much the intellectual, too much the philosopher, to fully adapt to the hypocrisy of diplomacy, and yet he too struggled to find balance between idealism and its exceptions.

As Fred Kaplan sums up in his New York Times review,

Repeatedly Kennan would retreat to the groves of academe to escape the ulcer-inducing agonies of rejection; yet he would wait by the phone or shamelessly call to offer his services whenever a new president entered office.

Hopefully, we don’t all share Kennan’s ego, but I can’t help wondering if Kennan’s plight is our own, to be right at the outskirts of power – at our best, highly influential as architects or critics, but too constrained by our professional norms and training, our propensity to make things simultaneously too simple and too complicated, to be in the driver seat of policy for long. I’m curious what others think?

Anyway, I for one am looking forward to reading the book.

4 Responses

  1. Harlan, interesting post.  HK’s calling it “tragedy” is totally self-serving – guess who didn’t have any trouble influencing policy. You and others might be interested in Frank Costigliola’s review in the latest NYRB – he takes Gaddis to task for not highlighting Kennan’s high-profile anti-Vietnam stance and his call for more negotiations with the Soviets.  I wonder if there might be more IL material there.

  2. Was that not the reincarnation of Machiavelli, known for quotes like the following?: “We will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day dreaming and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We should cease to talk about vague and unrealistic objectives such as human rights, the raising of living standards and democratisation. The day is not far off when we will have to deal in straight power concepts. The less we are hampered by idealistic slogans the better.”

  3. Thanks Peter.  The NYRB is illuminating.  This, of course, is the problem with writing about a book I have not yet read, though his description of Gaddis’ spin on Kennan doesn’t surprise me.  In terms of HK, well, the whole multi-page review was pretty self-serving.  Fred Kaplan does make substantially the same point though, and whatever the spin, it is interesting to think about the particular type of influence Kennan had and the fact that he did it largely from outside high-level official positions.  Personally, I’ve always been something of admirer of Kennan’s – in all his complexity – so if I were to use “tragedy” at all, it would be in a very narrow sense.

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