Tag: George Kennan

In Defense of Particularism in American Foreign policy

[This is a cross-posting from Dart-Throwing Chimp.]

I’ve just finished reading John Lewis Gaddis’s terrific biography of George Frost Kennan, a towering figure in American foreign policy after World War II whom Henry Kissinger described as “one of the most important, complex, moving, challenging and exasperating American public servants.” Apart from recommending to the book, which I do without hesitation to anyone with an interest in world affairs, I wanted to talk about how Gaddis’ distillation of Kennan’s ideas helped me clarify some of my own thinking on the conduct of foreign policy.

Nowadays, discussions of grand strategy in U.S. foreign policy are usually framed as a battle between realism, which emphasizes power and encourages statesmen to focus shrewdly on their national self-interest, and liberal institutionalism, which emphasizes cooperation and encourages statesmen to build institutions that facilitate it. Kennan–who was not trained as an academic and apparently didn’t care much for formal theories of international relations–saw the same terrain from a different perspective, and I think his map may be the more useful one.

For Kennan, the crucial divide lay between universalists and particularists. Gaddis spells out this theme most clearly in his discussion of Kennan’s thinking about how the United States ought to respond to the successes of Communist revolutionaries in China in 1947. Mao’s gains posed an early test of the recently pronounced Truman doctrine, which had seemed to pledge the United States to do all it could to prevent Communist advances anywhere in the world. While Kennan was dismayed by that doctrine’s absolutist language, it overlapped with the containment strategy he had begun to advocate as a response to the global ambitions and aggressive nature he saw in the Soviet Union.

Even so, and despite loud calls in the U.S. to do whatever was necessary to defend Chiang’s regime, Kennan convinced Truman to provide only a bare minimum of support to the Nationalists. According to Gaddis (p. 299), Kennan had thought that

Americans had clung too long to the idea of remaking China, an end far beyond their means. The [State Department’s] Policy Planning Staff [which Kennan headed] should determine what parts of East Asia are ‘absolutely vital to our security,’ and the United States should then ensure that these remain ‘in hands which we can control or rely on.’

Kennan framed this recommendation within the need to choose between universal and particularist approaches in foreign policy. Universalism sought to apply the same principles everywhere. It favored procedures embodied in the United Nations and in other international organizations. It smoothed over the national peculiarities and conflicting ideologies that confused and irritated so many Americans. Its appeal lay in its promise to ‘relieve us of the necessity of dealing with the world as it is.’ Particularism, in contrast, questioned ‘legalistic concepts.’ It assumed appetites for power that only ‘counter-force’ could control. It valued alliances, but only if based on communities of interest, not on the ‘abstract formalism’ of obligations that might preclude pursuing national defense and global stability. Universalism entangled interests in cumbersome parliamentarism. Particularism encouraged purposefulness, coordination, and economy of effort–qualities the nation would need ‘if we are to be sure of accomplishing our purposes.’

Kennan’s recommendation on China seemed to contradict his own grand strategy, but this contradiction reflected his deeper beliefs about the importance of particularism. He understood that a Communist victory in China would be a setback for the U.S., but he didn’t think it would be a disaster, and he believed that even massive American assistance was unlikely to stop the Communists from winning.

In this history, I hear echoes of contemporary debates over the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine and whether or not the U.S. should intervene militarily in Syria to stop the mass atrocities occurring there. As in the arguments over China policy in the 1940s, universalists often make the case for intervention in Syria on both moral and strategic grounds. Mass atrocities are morally abhorrent, of course, but acting to stop or prevent them is also an essential function of America’s role as the producer and defender of a liberal global order, a universalist might argue, just as stopping Communism in its tracks was during the Cold War. In a recent call for more forceful U.S. action against Syria, Anne Marie Slaughter, a successor of Kennan’s as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, made just such a case. She wrote:

If you believe, as I do, that R2P is a foundation for increased peace and respect for human rights over the long term, that each time it is invoked successfully to authorize the prevention of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave and systematic war crimes, and ethnic cleansing as much as the protection of civilians from such atrocities once they are occurring, it becomes a stronger deterrent against the commission of those acts in the first place…If the U.S. says it stands behind R2P but then does nothing in a case where it applies, not only will dictators around the world draw their own conclusions, but belief in the U.S. commitment to other international norms and obligations also weakens, just at a time when the U.S. grand strategy is to expand and strengthen an effective international order. The credibility of the U.S. commitment to its own proclaimed values will also take yet another critical hit with every young person in the Middle East fighting for liberty, democracy, and justice.

After reading about his approach to China, it’s easy to imagine Kennan responding to this universalist argument by asking: “Yes, but how likely are we to succeed, and at what cost?”

To universalists, that kind of equivocation may seem immoral. Kennan, whom Gaddis portrays as a religious person and a philosopher, was not insensitive to these concerns. His rejection of universalism was not meant as a rejection of moral thinking. Instead, Kennan’s commitment to particularism was informed by his judgment that stark views about right and wrong were poor guides to foreign policy-making.

Could governments behave as individuals should? His preliminary conclusion, sketched out in his diary, was that politics, whether within or among nations, would always be a struggle for power. It could never in itself be a moral act…Foreign policy was not, therefore, a contest of good versus evil. To condemn negotiations as appeasement, Kennan told a Princeton University audience early in October [1953], was to end a Hollywood movie with the villain shot. To entrust diplomacy to lawyers was to relegate power, ‘like sex, to a realm in which we see it only occasionally, and then in highly sublimated and presentable form.’ Both approaches ignored the fact that most international conflicts were ‘jams that people have gotten themselves into.’ Trying to resolve them through rigid standards risked making things worse.” (p. 492)

As a frequent critic of the U.S. government’s attempts to provoke and promote democratic revolutions elsewhere–here and here are some blogged examples–I was particularly interested in how Kennan’s commitment to particularism was evidenced in his frustration with policies aimed at supporting the “liberation” Communist-ruled countries during the Cold War. In Kennan’s view,

“[A policy seeking ‘liberation’ in Communist-ruled countries] is not consistent with our international obligations. It is not consistent with a common membership with other countries in the United Nations. It is not consistent with the maintenance of formal diplomatic relations with another country. It is replete with possibilities for misunderstanding and bitterness. To the extent that it might be successful, it would involve us in heavy responsibilities. Finally the prospects for success would be very small indeed; since the problem of civil disobedience is not a great problem to the modern police dictatorship.” (p. 479)

Those concerns may sound cold, but Kennan was not indifferent to the liberationists’ cause. In fact, his views on the subject were also informed by a conviction that democracy would prevail in the end without active American support. According to Gaddis (p. 495), Kennan believed that

Democracy had the advantage over Communism in this respect, because it did not rely on violence to reshape society. Its outlook was ‘more closely attuned to the real nature of man…[so] we can afford to be patient and even occasionally to suffer reverses, placing our confidence in the longer and deeper workings of history.’

Like Churchill, who famously remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” Kennan saw many faults in Western society in the 20th century, but he saw the available alternatives as even worse. Nevertheless, he firmly believed that any gains realized by pushing for liberation were not worth the entanglements, lost opportunities, and even wars that might result, especially when war could be nuclear.

Kennan saw himself as more of a “prophet” (his word) than a theorist or practitioner, and his views on “liberation” illustrate how he often thought about international relations on time scales that most people either don’t consider or consider a luxury. His containment policy was founded on the prescient expectation that the Soviet Union’s internal flaws would eventually lead to its own disintegration, but he did not expect to live long enough to see that happen.

When contemplating the plight of actual people suffering under actual dictatorships, the idea that democracy will eventually prevail can seem a little too convenient, like it’s just a way to absolve us of any responsibility for the injustices of the here and now. Is it really more convenient, though, than the belief that righteousness is always right? Where Kennan’s view is materially convenient, implying that we can achieve the desired result through inaction, the liberationist’s view is morally convenient, presuming that well-intentioned actions will always bring good results.

And there’s the matter of the historical record. Long-term trends clearly support Kennan’s expectation that democracy would keep expanding, albeit fitfully and with many reversals. More important, these advances have usually come either without direct U.S. support, or in places where U.S. involvement was incidental to the eventual outcome. The events that precipitated the collapse of the USSR and the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe mostly caught the U.S. by surprise, and the U.S. response to them was generally modest and ambivalent.

Likewise with the Arab Spring. The wave of uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011 started in Tunisia, where the U.S. had done virtually nothing to promote democracy. It soon spread to Egypt and Bahrain, where U.S. support for military “deep states” vastly outweighed its material and verbal commitments to opposition groups, and to Libya, where the U.S. had actually warmed to the dictator in recent years in response to his decision to give up weapons of mass destruction. In other words, theses revolutions were hardly American-made; if anything, they occurred in spite of American indifference and support for the status quo. In this sense, the Arab Spring supports Kennan’s expectation that American intervention is hardly a prerequisite for democratic revolution, and that democracy will advance on its own through the “longer and deeper workings of history.”

If universal principles aren’t the way to go, how, then, should foreign policy be conducted? For most of his adult life, Kennan owned and worked a small farm in southern Pennsylvania, and he often did the yardwork at his home in Princeton, too. It’s not surprising, then, that he may have best expressed his commitment to particularism and penchant for thinking on long time scales in a horticultural metaphor that envisioned a patient, process-oriented approach as the best way to strike a balance between moral ambitions and animal interests. This metaphor was offered up during a series of four lectures Kennan delivered at Princeton in 1954–lectures that became the book Realities of American Foreign Policy, and I think Gaddis’ summation of those lectures (pp. 494-495) it makes a proper coda to this post.

Americans could no longer afford economic advances that depleted natural resources and devastated natural beauty, Kennan insisted. Nor could they tolerate dependency, for critical raw materials, on unreliable foreign governments. Nor could they tear their democracy apart internally because threats to democracy existed externally. Nor could they entrust defenses against such dangers to the first use of nuclear weapons, for what would be left after a nuclear war had taken place? These were all single policies, pursued without regard to how each related to the others, or to the larger ends the state was supposed to serve. They neglected ‘the essential unity’ of national problems, thus demonstrating the ‘danger implicit in any attempt to compartmentalize our thinking about foreign policy.’

That lack of coordination ill-suited the separate ‘planes of international reality’ upon which the United States had to compete. The first was a ‘sane and rational one, in which we felt comfortable, in which we were surrounded by people to whom we were accustomed and on whose reactions we could at least depend.’ The second was ‘a nightmarish one, where we were like a hunted beast, oblivious of everything but survival; straining every nerve and muscle in the effort to remain alive.’ Within the first arena, traditional conceptions of morality applied; ‘We could still be guided…by the American dream.’ Within the second, ‘there was only the law of the jungle; and we had to do violence to our own traditional principles–or many of us felt we did–to fit ourselves for the relentless struggle.’ The great question, then, was whether the two could ever be brought into a coherent relationship with one another.

They could, Kennan suggested, through a kind of geopolitical horticulture. ‘We must be gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to world affairs.’ International life was an organic process, not a static system. Americans had inherited it, not designed it. Their preferred standards of behavior, therefore, could hardly govern it. But it should be possible ‘to take these forces for what they are and to induce them to work with us and for us by influencing the environmental stimuli to which they are subjected.’ That would have to be done ‘gently and patiently, with understanding and sympathy, not trying to force growth by mechanical means, not tearing the plants up by the roots when they fail to behave as we wish them to. The forces of nature will generally be on the side of him who understands them best and respects them most scrupulously.’  

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Picking nits

With your indulgence I would like to spend a few minutes engaging in a favorite academic pastime. [No, not “blogging when I have grading to do,” although I am also doing that.] The pastime in question is “nit-picking,” in which one academic takes an argument by another academic — an argument the broad outlines of which one basically agrees with — and focuses on some relatively minor point of differentiation. Hopefully, the point is not altogether banal; in my case it’s usually because I like some author’s conclusion but not all of the stages of the case that they’ve built to support it, and usually the stage I don’t like is something theoretical, which allows me to make a broader conceptual point by picking at that particular nit.

[“Nit-picking” is also to be distinguished from “bullshit detecting,” or “blasting the living crap out of an argument that, despite its utter logical absurdity, has unaccountably gotten into the public sphere, at least as measured by its presence in the Outlook section of the Washington Post.” That’s something I plan to do tomorrow with this piece of trash that almost made me spit out my orange juice this morning while reading it over breakfast. Haiti is poor because its citizens practice voodoo? Please. But that’s a rant for another post.]

I want to pick a nit with Dan Drezner, who had an op-ed piece in this Sunday’s Outlook section entitled “The Grandest Strategy of Them All.” While I largely agree with Drezner on the basic points he’s making — US foreign policy is currently without an overall grand strategic direction, the front-runner is probably Lieven and Hulsman’s “ethical realism” (an evaluation which, in my case at least, is undoubtedly affected by the fact that I would prefer to see their Niebuhr-inspired sense of the tragic in politics come back into vogue — it would be a nice corrective to the shiny happy muscular liberal idealism that we presently have on display in USFP), and in any event a putative grand strategy often only looks like a grand strategy when viewed retrospectively with the benefit of hindsight — I want to critique one point in particular that he makes in the course of the argument.

Early in his piece, Drezner approvingly cites Jeffrey Legro’s claim about great power strategies: “Mere dissatisfaction with today’s foreign policy doesn’t guarantee that a new vision will take its place . . . A new strategy must be more than visionary; it must provide attractive and practical solutions to current challenges.” The example referenced is George Kennan’s “containment” policy, which Drezner (and Legro) claims was “a big idea that was both influential and correct.”

Here’s the nit: to say that Kennan’s containment policy was “correct,” and especially to say that Kennan’s containment policy was adopted because it was “correct,” makes little sense to me. I don’t know what it even means to say that containment was a “correct” policy; it seems to me that any such evaluation would be a political rather than an analytical statement, since it would build in all sorts of assumptions about what a policy was supposed to do, whether the results generated were desirable ones, and — most importantly — an assumption that the speaker can somehow produce an analysis of the situation into which the policy was articulated that is somehow not affected by that policy itself. The speaker claims to know what the “real issues” were, and can then use that knowledge to adjudicate questions about the policy — questions that were political questions at the time and, I’d posit, remain political questions up until the time that the speaker is speaking.

Let me try to say this more plainly: it is not possible to determine whether or not Kennan was “correct” in developing and recommending the containment policy, because we (and all speakers with whom we might be having a conversation) inhabit a world that was made, in part, by the containment policy. To evaluate “correctness,” we’d have to first reconstruct the world as it was in 1946-1947, and then consider all of the alternatives and their likely consequences — and this would only work if we could somehow reconstruct 1946-1947 without knowing how the story turned out, lest we rig the game from the outset. This is a lot easier said than done, and as far as I know precisely no historian has ever accomplished this feat; lots of them claim to do so, but if they’re honest, they admit that history is always written from a particular vantage-point, and stop making silly claims about having gotten down to the One True Way That Things Actually Were — which is a place you’d actually have to get in order to make a claim like “the containment policy was right” and have it mean anything scientifically.

Of course, one can make that claim politically without such epistemological strictures, and most historians of the early Cold War can’t resist trying to intervene in such political debates, at least in the conclusion sections of their monographs. This impulse always seemed kind of bizarre to me, since when I went to look at debates in the early Cold War I wasn’t interested in participating in them fifty years after they came to a contingent resolution; I was interested in explaining how they came to the contingent resolutions that they came to. But I digress.

The reason this is important to Drezner’s argument is that it allows him to claim, albeit implicitly, both that we need a “correct” grand strategy and that the “correctness” of a potential grand strategy has something to do with its eventual victory. (Legro calls this, somewhat more ambiguously, the “fit” between a policy and the world.) But his own analysis in the remainder of the piece works against this claim, since he (correctly, in my view) cites domestic-political reasons why particular grand-strategic ideas might or might not catch on: Mandelbaum’s The Case for Goliath won’t catch on because “This approach too closely resembles the Bush administration’s current strategy, and people are looking for change.” Also: “The grand strategy that wins out in the end may be the one that — regardless of specific positions on Iraq or terrorism — convinces Americans that it is possible to have free and fair trade at the same time.” So the emphasis here, once we get past generalizations about “correctness,” seems to be on how well a potential grand strategy and its advocates can knit together a socially sustainable coalition of ideas, principles, rhetorical tropes, and other cultural resources. Not a word about “correctness.”

Indeed, in a widely unread article that Dan Nexon and I wrote in response to Legro’s initial posing of the “fit” mechanism for how policy ideas win out, we argued that

Theories of structural change are specifications of the conditions under which potential shocks will be absorbed by socio-cultural networks, or will aggregate to produce lasting alterations in modes of relating. Legro’s theory covers the most straightforward of such conditions: when the challenge to role expectations is so severe and widespread that a critical mass of actors in the network experience dissonance. When this happens, actors innovate by drawing upon preexisting heterodoxies or combining available roles to produce novel configurations of beliefs and identities. Since the shock is widespread, there exists a good probability that some new orthodoxy will emerge.

Which means: whether some policy “fits” or not is a function of how actors deploy extant cultural resources in their local political and social contexts so as to produce “fit,” and not a function of whether the policy in question really corresponds to some externally existing set of conditions. This is even more obviously the case in 1946-1947, in which the “situation” was ambiguous enough to support a number of more or less valid readings and predictions of likely futures; the adoption of the “containment” policy didn’t so much reflect reality as it shaped reality.

If your institution has an online subscription to Cambridge Journals Online, you can download our article (and Legro’s response) here.

Why am I picking this nit? Because I’d posit that a) what was true of 1946-1947 is equally true of 2006, and that therefore b) which grand strategy (if any) will win out in the present debate about the US role in the world will be determined by its “correctness,” but by how socially plausible it becomes. Although his framing seems to disagree with me, Drezner’s actual analysis of strategic options seems to reinforce my point. The “one strategy to rule them all” (love the LotR reference; kind of surprised that the Post’s editors let him leave it in) will not emerge because of its intrinsic powers of dominion, but because of its cultural location in a web of resources that provides potentials for action, but not inevitable outcomes.

If I had more time, the fact that Drezner mis-characterizes Kofi Annan’s Truman library speech as “idealist” when it’s pretty clearly liberal-institutionalist — a direction in which Truman himself often leaned — would be another nit to pick. If I were to do that I’d also expand on the subtle differences between liberal universalism of the sort that Annan is promoting, and Cold War liberalism of the Truman-Acheson variety (which is more about securing certain centers of power and influence to shore up a liberal order that is only supposed to exist in certain regions of the planet — the “Western” region, actually), and then include yet another gratuitous plug for my book — which, in fairness, actually is about this issue.

But alas, there’s still grading to be done. I’ll have to whip those hobbits harder.

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