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.
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.