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What Would George Kennan Say About Ukraine?

“We must be gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to world affairs” (George F. Kennan)

The spectre of Russian expansion is once again haunting Europe. The longer the Ukrainian crisis rumbles on, the louder become the voices in favour of reviving the cold war policy of containment. Putin may be an authoritarian nationalist rather than a totalitarian communist, but those voices contend that -- like his Soviet predecessors -- the Russian President is intent on creating a sphere of influence to challenge western values and political systems.

Putin has even been compared to Hitler and his critics ask: after Russia’s absorption of the Crimea, what next?

The original architect of containment was George F. Kennan, a hitherto obscure diplomat in the US embassy in Moscow who captured the public imagination when, in 1947, he published an article in Foreign Affairs entitled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” His article was published anonymously but the author’s identity soon became known and Kennan became a celebrity commentator on Soviet affairs.

Kennan’s analysis captured the mood of the moment. He explained why efforts to negotiate a postwar peace settlement had failed in the face of Soviet expansionism in central and eastern Europe. Power was the only language the Kremlin understood, argued Kennan. The only way to stop the Soviets and their communist allies was through deploying countervailing power.

Less well noted was Kennan’s comment in the same article that containment was not a moral posture and “had nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures towards toughness.” It was a policy tool to protect vital American interests. The Soviet Union was an ideological state committed to spreading communism, he noted, but it was also a great power with its own interests and sensibilities. Soviet leaders were not beyond considerations of prestige and, as with leaders of other great nations, they should be given ways to save face.

Kennan saw containment as fundamentally a political strategy. Military power should be reserved for protection not projection. The Soviet foe would be vanquished in a contest of values and ideas. In the late 1940s Kennan was disturbed by what he saw as the militarisation of his concept of containment – the establishment of NATO, the division of Germany and the ever-deepening cold war divide in Europe.

Kennan opposed the 1950s version of today’s regime-change policy, the so-called liberation strategy of Eisenhower’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles. Kennan argued the communist bloc would change as a result of internal processes not through the force of external threats or intrigues. Liberationist rhetoric would only entrench Soviet hardliners. “We must be gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to world affairs,” urged Kennan in his lectures on The Realities of American Foreign Policy at Princeton University in 1954.

Kennan was particularly irked by the western failure to understand Soviet anxiety about NATO and the rearming of West Germany in the 1950s – it was, after all, less than a decade since the end of a war in which millions of Soviet citizens had been massacred by the Germans. While Soviet perceptions of a western military threat were exaggerated, their underlying fears were genuine. Western leaders seemed unable to grasp how their own fears were being mirrored by those of the Soviets.

When Kennan was appointed Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952 he recorded in his diary that he felt “we were expecting to gain our objectives without making any concessions whatsoever to the views and interests of our adversaries. Our position seemed to me to be comparable to the policy of unconditional surrender.” From Moscow he cabled the State Department that “if one were able to strip away…propagandistic distortion and maligning of foreign intentions, one would find that there remained a certain hard core of genuine belief in the sinisterness of western intentions.”

Kennan’s vision of containment included a degree of US military disengagement from Europe so as to open an American-Soviet dialogue based on an acceptance of differences in perspectives and interests. The United States need not fear that it would be subverted or weakened by such a dialogue. America only had to be true to itself to win the cold war, Kennan believed. In his Reith Lectures in 1957 Kennan advocated Soviet and Western withdrawal from West and East Germany and the reunification of the country as a neutral state – an act which he believed would in time help loosen the Kremlin’s grip on the communist bloc.

As a realist rather than an idealist Kennan was fond of quoting John Quincy Adams that America “goes not abroad, in search of monsters to destroy.” While the United States “was the well-wisher to the freedom and independence of all”, it was through example rather than force that America should lead the world. If it pursued force the United States would undermine its own values and beliefs.

The cold war ended much in the way Kennan envisaged – through a process of internal change within the Soviet bloc led by Mikhail Gorbachev. In the 1990s Kennan opposed taking too much advantage of the collapse of communism and the Soviet Union. He believed NATO’s expansion to Russia’s borders was “the greatest mistake of the entire post-Cold War period.”

Kennan died in 2005 but his likely advice on the Ukraine crisis would be threefold.

  • First, understand Putin’s point of view about the vital Russian interests he believes to be at stake in Ukraine – a country in Russia’s backyard, not America’s.

  • Second, defend America’s vital interests but pursue broader, transformational goals through a process of constructive engagement with Russia.

  • Third, learn the negative as well as the positive lessons of cold war history. Do not allow containment to become an instrument for the isolation of Russia that may turn a potential ally in world affairs into a dedicated foe. A new cold war is certainly not in the interests of the people of Ukraine, who need not the mutual enmity of Russia and the United States but rather to benefit from aid and collaboration with them both.