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Sunday, January 8, 2017

What Would George Kennan Say?

The attention being paid to possible Russian efforts to influence the results of the 2016 U.S. election brings me back to an earlier time.  It was 1946, and much of post-war Europe lay in ruins.  The war alliance between the US, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union was unraveling as one Eastern European country after another fell under Soviet domination.  Free, fair elections, and self-determination were giving way to an order dictated by Moscow, the iron curtain coming down fully with the suicide/murder of Jan Masaryk and the Communist coups d'√©tat in Czechoslovakia in 1958.

Washington was slow to react.  It is the job of diplomats to report on political developments, but years of cables written by the U.S. Embassy in Moscow were getting scant notice.  Then, in 1946, the Embassy received a cable from Washington in which it was asked, in effect, to "tell us what, after all, Moscow, is after."  Ambassador Averell Harriman was away, leaving his deputy George Kennan as charg√© d'affaires ad interim.  The very question from Washington must have frustrated Kennan, demonstrating as it did that the Embassy's reporting had been largely ignored.  Kennan, sick in bed with the flu, nevertheless set to dictating his reply in what became famous as the 5500 word long telegram.

George Kennan (1904-2005)
Kennan's long telegram fell on fertile ears.  The response from Washington was swift.  Within days Kennan was ordered home to brief top decision makers who were trying to decide how the US should respond to expanding Soviet dominance in Europe.  Kennan's career was made.  He became both a diplomatic celebrity and one of America's top foreign policy analysts.  He became the State Department's first Director of Policy and Planning.  After retirement, he went to a distinguished career as elder statesman and historian, dying only in 2005 at the age of 101.

So what did Kennan say in his long telegram and in his subsequent 1947 Mr. X article in the journal Foreign Affairs?  Kennan's main points included:
  • Moscow is "committed fanatically to the belief that with the United States there can be no permanent modus vivendi, that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted." 
  • Moscow will therefore exploit all opportunities to foment disunity in Western nations, to generate conditions under which “poor will be set against rich, black against white, young against old, newcomers against established residents, etc.” 
  • Moscow “does not work by fixed plans. It does not take unnecessary risks. Impervious to logic of reason, . . . it is highly sensitive to logic of force. . . .”  
  • Soviet expansion can be thwarted if the United States and other Western democracies act with “cohesion, firmness, and vigor,” making use of “adroit and vigilant application of counter-force” to oppose Soviet expansionism and pressure against “the free institutions of the Western world.” 
  • “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” 
I have myself spent years in the Soviet Union, Russia, and in post-Soviet space.  I first visited the Soviet Union during the Brezhnev years, was there during the time of glasnost' under Gorbachev, returned during the optimism and frustration of the Yeltsin years, and have spent most of the past dozen years in post-Soviet space.  I can speak only for myself, not as a State Department representative, but in that private capacity I can say I do see similarities between Russia-West relations today and post-war Soviet-West relations.  The difference is that today there are methods in the foreign policy toolkit that are much easier to deploy.  Influencing elections and policies in the West via disinformation is much cheaper than deploying an army.  It just could be the biggest bang for the buck for anyone or any government seeking to achieve its ends at minimal cost.  And it can be quite effective.

The Long Telegram (Source:  Truman Library)
For Americans living in countries where Russian media dominates, looking at state-controlled Russian news is a dose of alternative reality.  The US is backing fascists in Ukraine, and Russian soldiers are heroes in Syria.  Most people believe what they see and hear.  For them, this is reality.  Once my cosmetologist, while getting ready to inject my face with a needle, asked me, "Why is the US waging war in Ukraine?"  That is just one of many such examples of how people whom I count as friends see the US.  Our own media presence is minimal and consists of re-runs of old U.S. sitcoms and goodwill tours by American performing artists.  The contest in the information wars isn't even close.

Knowing the line between my official role and my life as a private citizen, I will stop here.  Suffice it to say that George Kennan figured large in my decision to join the Foreign Service, and I offer his words, penned in 1946-47, for consideration today.

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