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A Different Approach to the World: An Interview

(The following interview by Martin Agronsky took place on December 16.)

MARTIN AGRONSKY: Mr. Kennan, I think you are uniquely qualified to deal with the initiative of the Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who recently, you know, sent indirectly a very important message to President-elect Jimmy Carter and said Carter need not fear that the Soviet Union will subject him to any test of strength in will and will go out of its way to avoid any crisis with the United States. Do you believe him?

GEORGE KENNAN: Oh yes. I think there’s no reason to doubt that. I don’t think he would have said it unless he had meant to follow along that line.

MA: Well, you know, our secretary of state, Dr. Henry Kissinger, apparently doesn’t believe him. When he returned from his last trip to NATO, at the beginning of the week, he said that the Russians were on everyone’s mind, and the suggestion was made, apparently by Mr. Kissinger, that it was insulting of Brezhnev to have told Carter that he wouldn’t foment a crisis next year.

GK: Well, I saw that in the paper. It didn’t say specifically that it was Henry Kissinger who made this observation, but certainly it was some senior person in his entourage or himself.

MA: Mr. Kennan, you can assume it was the Secretary.

GK: I suppose one can. But I couldn’t agree with that at all, and I think it was unfortunate to take Mr. Brezhnev’s remarks that way. Everybody knows abroad that this period between our elections and the assumption of office by a new president is one of uncertainty and semiparalysis and disarray in our foreign policy, and I think Mr. Brezhnev meant this as a conciliatory gesture and as indicating that he would hold his options open for productive and useful exchanges with the Carter administration.

MA: Do you feel that it’s a mistake, then, to reject it as an insult or a provocation?

GK: Yes. Why we should take this sort of thing on the points of our bayonets, I don’t understand. We should be pleased. The word was used somewhere in that story that Mr. Brezhnev had said that he wouldn’t force us to any confrontation. I don’t think those were the words he used. He simply meant that there would be no initiatives from the Soviet side which would create sharp and difficult problems for this country in this uncertain period. Well, I welcome that. I think we should make the best of what favorable signs we can get on the international horizon.

MA: Well, it leads me, to stay with the current events for a moment, to the other observation that was made by this official spokesman, that being, of course, Dr. Kissinger, that Mr. Carter should be aware, according to The New York Times account on this, that the Russians will be watching his first moves carefully, and the United States must move quickly to warn the Russians if they try to meddle in the Rhodesian situation.

GK: Well, this, too, I must say I fail to understand, for two reasons. In the first place, we have recently involved ourselves quite actively in the Rhodesian situation, and I don’t think that we can really expect to have a double standard applied all the way down the line to the Soviet Union and ourselves. But secondly, this whole question of Soviet interference in the Third World and among the underdeveloped countries, supporting the so-called anti-imperialist movements—here was an area of Soviet policy where I would not have expected that we could make great changes at this time. I think if anybody supposed that what was called détente meant that the Russians were going to stop doing this sort of thing, stop supporting those factions, they were quite wrong about this. The Russians are on the spot, vis-à-vis the Chinese, and the Russians, from their standpoint, have to show themselves as principled Marxists who are not yielding and falling down and playing dead before counterpressures all over the world; they have to give an appearance of supporting the left-wing Marxist factions in these countries.

MA: So how should we show ourselves? Should we react vigorously? The secretary of state has said that we are now committed to majority rule, for example, in Rhodesia, and in all of southern Africa.

GK: Well, there are a number of problems involved in what you’ve said. I personally don’t know what people mean when they talk of majority rule. As far as I can see, they mean rule by an authoritarian regime or a dictator who happens to be an African and not a white, which is a different thing, in my opinion, than majority rule. Whether we should support those tendencies. I think personally that we should be very restrained in any advice we give to people in southern Africa about what they ought to do.

MA: Why do you say that?

GK: Because any advice that you give them is apt to turn out disastrously for them. As far as the Rhodesian whites and the South African whites are concerned, these people, it seems to me, have made their bed and they have to lie in it, and I wouldn’t really approve of this country trying now to tell them what to do. I don’t think we have the answers to their problems. It’s very dangerous to go on giving advice to people when you don’t have the answers.

MA: Do you think it reflects in any way our own domestic political concerns?

GK: Well, I have no doubt that it does, and this, of course, as you probably know, is a thing against which I’ve reacted very sharply for many years: the bending, that is, of American foreign policy to domestic political purposes. I think this is an abuse of the interests of our people as a whole, and it’s one of the worst habits that we have. It’s an abuse of our national interests, of our foreign relations, for the purposes of individual groups of Americans here. I just don’t believe in it at all. I wish this would stop.

MA: Let’s move from Africa to the Middle East, with the secretary of state. He is directly quoted as saying that the Middle East is ripe for settlement, but, he says, this doesn’t mean a Geneva conference is the best solution since, and this is the significant point, such a conference would only give the Soviet Union a free invitation to get involved in an area where it has been steadily losing influence.

GK: Well, Martin, this frightens me a little bit, this view. We haven’t liked everything that the Russians have done in the Middle East in recent years. In fact, I thought some years ago that their policy was extremely dangerous and extreme and bad there.

MA: Date that for me.

GK: That would have been in the period after 1955, when they were stirring up the Egyptians and the Syrians and all these others against Israel. But this is an area which is closer, far closer, to their borders than it is to our own. It’s an area in which they can hardly help but have interests, and the implications of the statement that you’ve just read are that we hope to exclude them totally from any involvement in the affairs of this area; and then we hope that we can get satisfactory solutions, from our standpoint, of the situation there. I don’t think this is fully realistic, and it seems to me it’s years since we’ve really talked about the main problems of the Middle East with the Russians; and I’m not sure that if we talked to them today we couldn’t perhaps arrive at some at least limited meeting of minds.

MA: Let me ask you this, if you think you could—do you think that we could, as apparently Dr. Kissinger thinks we could—arrive at a lasting Middle East settlement that would indeed exclude the Russians?

GK: No, I don’t. I think there would always be a great element of instability there. I am not convinced, you see, that Russian purposes and goals in the Middle East today are wholly different from our own. We, incidentally, today—as you see, I am sure, as clearly as I do—are not in a terribly good position to take the lead in solving the problems of the Middle East. Our very dependence on Arab oil constitutes a limit on our freedom of action of the most dangerous sort, and until we can free ourselves from that, I think we’re going to be in a very bad position to take the lead in solving these problems.

MA: Now, you know the new secretary of state designate, Mr. Vance, very well, and what would you suggest? I have a hunch that you’re going to be consulted by Mr. Vance. What would you suggest as an American initiative in regard to the Middle East, in regard to the Soviet Union? What could the president-elect do that would improve the prospects for getting along with the Soviets, the prospects for peace generally in the Middle Eastern area?

GK: Well, first of all, because I attach great importance to this, I think he should move smartly to correct the enormous error made by the last administration in permitting our dependence on imported oil, and on Arab oil particularly, to grow.

MA: How?

GK: Well, there are a whole list of things that can be done. Conservation, first of all; the development of alternative sources of energy…

MA: Like coal.

GK: And the others to which we have given nowhere near the research effort that we gave to the development of nuclear weaponry.

MA: Solar energy?

GK: Exactly. All these things—there should be a much greater research effort; but having done that, then I think we should try to enter into a reasonable communication with the Soviet government on the problems of the Middle East. We’ve both, I think, learned bitter lessons in the last ten or fifteen years; and perhaps we’re both today mature enough and realistic enough to realize that neither of us is going to make great gains in that area by the attempt to exclude the other entirely from its affairs.

MA: You would attempt to remove the Middle East from the US-Soviet relationship in terms of it representing in any way a possibility of confrontation?

GK: Exactly. I don’t fancy that either of us two great powers, the Russians or ourselves, either independently or together, can solve the problems of the Middle East. Only the people of that area can do it. But we can play either a helpful or an unhelpful part, and it will be a much more helpful one if we have some understanding between ourselves; and I’d like to see at least the possibilities of that probed before we assume that what we have to do is to get the Russians out of there and keep them out of there forever.

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