What Kennan’s life teaches us

Today’s leaders should learn from George Kennan’s pragmatic view of foreign policy.

Last week, George Kennan, arguably the State Department’s most famous diplomat and the architect of the U.S. Cold War containment doctrine, died at the age of 101. As historians and public officials lament his passing, one point should not escape notice: Kennan approached U.S. foreign policy with a caution and sensibility current policy-makers in the Bush administration would be wise to emulate.

Kennan set the course for the Cold War with an 8,000-word cable – dubbed the “Long Telegram” – written early in 1946 while serving at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. That essay approached the growing divide between the United States and the Soviet Union with a keen sense of history and realistic appraisal of the limits of U.S. power. The result was a foreign policy that held the Soviet Union largely at bay and kept much of Europe free of communist oppression.

The containment doctrine Kennan developed envisioned a combination of diplomatic, political and covert actions to limit Soviet aggression and prevent war. His strategic thinking accounts for some of the most successful foreign policy efforts in U.S. history, including the Marshall Plan to rebuild Western Europe in the wake of World War II and the NATO military alliance.

Years later, as U.S. Cold War strategy assumed a more aggressive and militaristic tone, Kennan would bemoan what he called a misinterpretation of his thinking. Cold War ideologues quickly seized the containment doctrine to justify the arms race.

That lesson in the power of ideology was not lost on Kennan, and it should give President George W. Bush reason to pause as he seeks to spread democracy abroad.

Kennan’s genius lay in shunning ideology in favor of a pragmatic approach to foreign policy. That kind of level-headedness would be a welcome change for a country now struggling to cope with a deeply ideological Bush presidency and a costly war in Iraq.

Bush has made the growth democracy the center of his foreign policy agenda, and rightly so. But we hope the lessons Kennan’s legacy teaches us can help Bush strike the balance between ideology and pragmatism that so clearly eluded him during his first term.