George Kennan and the Restrainers
Monday Notes
George Kennan and the Restrainers
Kennan was a conflicted, complicated character. Neither he nor his heirs can be easily pigeonholed.
Published on: Jan 16, 2023  |  

Last week, I published a review of a new biography of George Kennan—Kennan: A Life Between Worlds, by Frank Costigliola—over at the Washington Examiner. It’s a good book, very much worth reading, for the reasons I outline in the review. It’s a warts-and-all portrait of the great Cold War icon that doesn’t necessarily reveal anything substantively new—we have known for a while just how bigoted and anti-democratic Kennan can be in his diaries and correspondence—but it does present a holistic portrait, taking all of this into account. At least for me, it’s triggered a broader re-evaluation of his contribution to American foreign policy debates. As I wrote in the review, the Kennan that emerged for me is less a realist icon than I expected. What didn’t make it into print are my thoughts as to who Kennan’s real intellectual heirs are.

The book takes a while to get going, and I found it a bit of a slog early on. There’s something about the conceit of a modern biography that can seem tedious. What is it in the person’s background that gives us insight into what he has achieved? For long stretches at a time reading the book, I felt like a postmodernist: “What do I care about the author of some of the defining documents of the Cold War? I have his text, and I can figure out everything I need to know from reading it. The inner life is of interest only to specialists—and pedants looking to score cheap points against an intellectual enemy.”

But Costigliola’s approach pays off. He edited and published The Kennan Diaries in 2011, the copious source material for which became public upon Kennan’s death in 2005. The Kennan which Costigliola dwells on for the better part of the book is passionate, neurotic, vain, insecure—a truly brilliant writer with all of the nervous mental habits that often cripple the most sensitive artists. He is haunted by the untimely death of his mother, and Costigliola doesn’t spare the reader Kennan’s torturous introspection. Early on, Costigliola frequently foreshadows Kennan’s personal discovery of Freud, specifically Civilization and Its Discontents, which comes to feature prominently in his private musings. Are his womanizing and frequent bouts of marital infidelity the results of this childhood loss? Can his high-strung ego survive the straight-laced demands that society puts on him?

The relevance of all of this becomes apparent only about half way through the book. Costigliola persuasively argues that the strength of Kennan’s influence in 1946 and 1947—the years he wrote his incomparably influential “long telegram” from Moscow as a serving diplomat, and his notorious “X article” in Foreign Affairs while serving as the first, and to this day the youngest, head of Policy Planning at the State Department—owe as much to his careful attention to psychology as to the power of his writing. And it’s true: once you’ve noticed how Kennan wields pop psychoanalysis on the Soviets in his most famous policy prescriptions, it’s impossible to unsee it.

More devastatingly, Costigliola shows how the same analytical toolset completely destroys Kennan’s career only four years later. Writing dispatches as U.S. Ambassador in Moscow in 1950, Kennan speculates wildly about what the various factions inside the Kremlin are up to. This time, however, he has written himself into the analysis. There are factions, he imagines, who fear that his proper understanding of, and appreciation for, the Russian people could yield a meaningful thaw in the Cold War—and know that such a thaw would be their ultimate undoing. His ambassadorship goes up in flames when an unfortunate offhand comment to a journalist gets him declared a persona non grata by the Soviet authorities. But his reputation back home at Foggy Bottom has already suffered irreparable harm, even among his most devout fans. His dispatches are officially ignored, and worse, quietly mocked.

The Kennan that emerges in Costigliola’s account is not the arch-realist Cold Warrior, but is in fact a romantic poet of sorts. He is an activist rather than an analyst, with a broad intellect that nevertheless often leads him astray into self-important delusions of grandeur. People often think of Henry Kissinger when they think of Kennan, but comparing him with Pentagon Papers leaker Daniel Ellsberg is probably closer to the mark. Kennan was far too much of an establishment figure to ever even consider doing what Ellsberg did, but he shared an intense messianic sense of mission with the Vietnam-era dissident, and indeed, famously testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee against the war. Both surely felt like Cassandras throughout their lives. Kissinger never felt similarly ignored.

Kennan’s romanticism is distinctly conservative. He idealized Russia before 1917, and felt that even as late as 1935, the inherent creativity and goodness of the Russian people was transforming what he ultimately thought to be a hopeless ideological enterprise—communism—into a project worth the effort. The purges embittered him to no end; he saw them as an assault against everything he loved about Russia. It’s as if Stalin had personally beaten his wife, or his mother.

Kennan’s view of America is similarly afflicted by romanticism, albeit in a far more sinister register. There is no love here, only despair at decay. The “good” America is also being destroyed, in its case by an excess of democracy. Blacks, immigrants, Jews, women are all hastening the demise of a noble experiment. The only solution, Kennan concludes, is that America must get its act together and become more austere, more authoritarian—more paternal. The most notorious exposition of these views, including calls for mass disenfranchisement, is to be found in an unpublished fragment titled “The Prerequisites,” which Costigliola analyzes at length in the book. (See here for a taste.) But these sentiments echo in the X article, as well as in more polished form in his late memoir, Around the Cragged Hill: A Personal and Political Philosophy. They are foundational to Kennan’s worldview.

It’s easy to get bogged down in these very real, ugly details and miss the broader point—a point I think has some relevance today. Kennan was an idealist, not a realist, and more than that, a moralizer, not an analyst. And his true intellectual heirs in American politics today are in the so-called “Restrainer” realist camp.

Let me be crystal clear here: in no way am I suggesting that today’s Restrainers are in any way bigoted, or that they share any of Kennan’s authoritarian and anti-democratic inclinations. Indeed, many I know would recoil from even being described as “conservative”. At their best, Restrainers caution about American activism abroad. Like Kennan, they worry that the intricacies and complications of global politics are too great for even the finest proactive statesmen to successfully navigate. The world is perpetually a stage for endless human tragedy, and the best we can hope to do is to manage its risks to us. These kinds of cautionary notes find a ready audience in me.

But like Kennan, Restrainers are quiet moralizers too. While few nurture burning admiration for foreign peoples to the extent that Kennan did for Russians, many do tell a tale either of America’s noble intentions going astray, or of a fallen America addicted to empire actively inflicting harm on the world. It’s with this morality play that Restrainers lose me. Statecraft has always struck me as a dark art that requires compromise and improvisation of those that practice it. “Good” statesmen are recognized as such as a result of their successes, however judged; “bad” ones by their failures. There’s no romantic poetry there, even though there’s very little science to it either. There’s certainly no salvation. And no final judgment.

Are Restrainers therefore not realists? Honestly, I don’t want to wade into those waters, as they are hotly contested. I suppose I’ll conclude by citing Kissinger, who once wrote: “The debate in America between idealism and realism, which continues to this day, played itself out inside Kennan’s soul.” I suspect my Restrainer friends are similarly afflicted. It’s a very American way to be.