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The US and the World: An Interview with George Kennan

The following interview with George Kennan took place in Princeton in June, during the days following the end of the war in Kosovo.

Richard Ullman: Are you surprised at the role that Russia has played in the bargaining over Kosovo?

George Kennan: Not really. It is, for them, largely a matter of prestige. Precisely because they now have no great military power they fear that the rest of the world will forget that they are a great people, which of course they are in many respects, and by no means only the military ones. To be able to play a useful part in the resolution of the Kosovo crisis is, for many of them, a much-needed source of reassurance about themselves; and I see no reason why we should not, on principle, welcome it. Of course, their involvement will present problems. There will be many disagreements. Compromise will be required at many points. Such is the essence of international life.

R.U.: How do you explain the chaos in Russia?

G.K.: Chaos? I am not sure that that is the best word for it. Conditions are, of course, terrible. But life goes on. We seem to have expected them to change, within a single decade, an entire great governmental, social, and economic system. Even in more favorable conditions that would have been difficult. But consider their situation. Since the Thirty Years’ War, no people, I think, have been more profoundly injured and diminished than the Russian people have been by the successive waves of violence brought to them by this past brutal century. There were: the Russian-Japanese War of 1904-1905; the fearful manpower losses brought about by Russia’s participation in the First World War; the cruelties and the fighting that were a part of the consolidation of Communist power in the immediate aftermath of that First World War; then, the immense manpower losses of World War II; and finally, extending over some seven decades and penetrating and in part dominating all these other disasters, there were the immense damages, social, spiritual, even genetic, inflicted upon the Russian people by the Communist regime itself. In this vast process of destruction, all the normal pillars on which any reasonably successful modern society has to rest—faith, hope, national self-confidence, balance of age groups, family structure, and a number of others—have been destroyed. The process took place over most of an entire century. It embraced three generations of Russian people. Such enormous losses and abuses are not to be put to rights in a single decade, perhaps not even in a single generation.

You may ask: Was not much of all this the fault of one or another of Russia’s own governments? Certainly it was. But it was not the fault of the great and essentially helpless mass of the common Russian people.

R.U.: One of the striking things is the absence of a feeling of common endeavor. Everyone seems to be out for himself.

G.K.: Yes, that is the way things look, but mostly among certain fringe sectors of Russian society. And one must not forget the positive features of the situation. Communism has been cast off. They have a constitution. They have elections, and elected institutions. Of course it is true that these institutions function extremely badly. But no one has seriously urged their abandonment. To me, one of the heartening aspects of the recent period has been the almost pathetic patience of the common people of Russia in the face of the terrible conditions under which they have been compelled to live. I think it amazing that there has not been more of a popular demand for a return to communism, since in many instances much of their recent condition has been worse than it was in the final years of Communist rule.

R.U.: I am surprised that the public hasn’t rebelled against enormous profits made by some individuals.

G.K.: Well, I think that is coming. I hope, at least, that with the approaching elections in Russia you may see a change for the better in that respect. The outgoing parliament embraced many people who had one foot in the old regime and one foot out of it, and never knew quite how to behave. But what is now impending has to be a change in the generations. Younger people are bound to come more prominently into more powerful positions than has been the case in the past. And I am hopeful that they will bring to their participation in political life many positive contributions of one sort or another.

R.U.: One of the striking aspects of the present situation is the degree to which Russians whom I would have characterized as liberal—indeed, scholars from the institutes with whom we all interacted for many many years—have taken a very hard line against NATO and NATO enlargement and against NATO’s intervention in Kosovo, and I wonder whether they have taken that line because it really represents what they feel and think, or whether this is another example of posturing, of aiming at domestic opinion in Russia. There is great animosity toward NATO on the part of many people whom I would characterize as liberal. There are few who have the courage to say that NATO does not threaten Russia and that the ethnic cleansing and the events in Kosovo are so egregious that they deserve NATO involvement.

G.K.: If I understand your position correctly, I am afraid that on this point you and I have a real disagreement. I have never seen the evidence that the recent NATO enlargement (that brought the Poles, the Czechs, and the Hungarians into the alliance) was necessary or desirable. We are now being pressed by some advocates of expansion to admit the Baltic countries. I think this would be highly unfortunate. I agree that NATO, as we now know it, has no intention of attacking Russia. But NATO remains, in concept and in much of its substance, a military alliance. If there is any country at all against which it is conceived as being directed, that is Russia. And that surely is the way the Poles and others in that part of the world perceive it.

These are sensitive borders—these borders between Russia and the Baltic countries. I will not go into the history of Russia’s relations with those Baltic peoples, other than to ask you to remember that they were included in the Russian empire for nearly two hundred years in the two centuries before World War I, and much of their advance into modern life was achieved during that time. And then, for a period of almost another two decades, they were quite independent, and this was accepted by the world community and, with the exception of the Communists, by most of the Russians themselves. It took Hitler to virtually compel the Russian government to take them over in 1939, and then to put an end to their independence in 1940. And the later entry of Russian forces onto their territory occurred (and this we should remember) in the process of pushing the German army out of that region—a process which had our most complete and enthusiastic approval.

In other words, the Russian relationship to the Baltic peoples has had many ups and downs. They have been a part of Russia longer than they have been a part of anything else. For a time they were fully independent. I never doubted or challenged the desirability of their independence. I never ceased to advocate it in the years when they didn’t have it. But I don’t think that it would be a good thing for NATO to try to complicate that historic relationship by taking these countries into what the Russians are bound to see as an anti-Russian military alliance.

R.U.: What do you think the relationship between Russia and the former Soviet republics will look like say a decade or so from now?

G.K.: Oh, I don’t think it will be too troubled. After all, the Russians, under Yeltsin, took the lead in pushing them into independence ten years ago. He left them no alternative but to accept it. Why should the present Russian government wish to reverse it? By and large, Russia has been better off without them.

Of course, there are the problems of Russian minorities in two or three of those countries. In the case of Ukraine, in particular, there was the thoughtless tossing into that country, upon the collapse of Russian communism, of the totally un-Ukrainian Crimean peninsula, together with one of the three greatest Russian naval bases. For that we, too, must accept a share of the blame. But even in this case, all the recent Russian aspirations have been limited to the alleviation of the effects of these blunders; they have not taken the form of any encroachments upon Ukrainian independence.

R.U.: Now, what has the United States done that’s right and what have we done that’s wrong in dealing with the problem of Russia since the end of the cold war?

G.K.: Well, it certainly has been a record of well-meaning. I think we were mistaken in believing that a certain amount of money placed in the hands of the present Russian government would improve things significantly. A large portion of it has, after all, ended up in the pockets of various individuals. We should not have put money into that country unless and until there were real institutional guarantees against its misuse for purposes we never intended.

R.U.: How do you assess Yeltsin?

G.K.: Well, you ask me what our government has done wrong in its relations with Russia. One thing that falls at once to my mind, in that category, has been the overpersonalizing of the relationship—treating it as though it all stood or fell with the fate of one or another individual, Yeltsin or Gorbachev or whoever. I might point out that this is a weakness in our diplomacy that goes far beyond Russia. We seem to love to deal with individual statesmen rather than with their governments. Of all these so-called world leaders whom we have cultivated, some were real dictators, some were not. But we seem to have treated them all as though that was precisely what we expected them to be, and, in a sense, wanted them to be. Hence all the summit meetings, with the immense wastages of money and of people’s time that they have involved. I submit that governments should deal with other governments as such, and should avoid unnecessary involvement, particularly personal involvement, with their leaders. The leaders, ours included, come and go; governments remain; and for this reason relations among governments are, in the long term, perhaps less glamorous, but more dependable.

R.U.: How would you conduct these relationships?

G.K.: I would urge a far greater detachment, on our government’s part, from their domestic affairs. I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights. Let me stress: I am speaking of governments, not private parties. If others in our country want to advocate democracy or human rights (whatever those terms mean), that’s perfectly all right. But I don’t think any such questions should enter into our diplomatic relations with other countries. If others want to advocate changes in their conditions, fine—no objection. But not the State Department or the White House. They have more important things to do.

Least of all should they allow such matters to affect our relations with China. The Chinese, to my opinion, are the French of Asia. The two peoples are similar in a number of respects. They are both proud people. Both are conscious of being the bearers of a great cultural tradition. They don’t really, in either case, like foreigners; or at least they don’t particularly appreciate the presence of foreigners in their midst. They like to be left alone. Our policy, in any case, should in my opinion be to treat them with the most exquisite courtesy and respect on the official level, but not expect too much of them. I see no reason, in particular, for all these ups and downs in our perceived relations with China. What do we expect of the Chinese? They are not going to love us, no matter what we do. They are not going to become like us. And it really is in ill grace for us to be talking down to them and saying, by implication, that “you ought to learn to govern yourselves as we do.” For goodness’ sake, can’t we get away from that sort of nonsense? Let people be what they are, and treat them accordingly.

R.U.: Of course, American administrations often feel compelled to take rhetorical stands because of congressional opinion.

G.K.: Well, we pay the price for it. That’s all I can say. I think that the executive branch of government has been just as bad, if not worse, than the Congress in this respect. But this whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious, and undesirable. If you think that our life here at home has meritorious aspects worthy of emulation by peoples elsewhere, the best way to recommend them is, as John Quincy Adams maintained, not by preaching at others but by the force of example. I could not agree more.

R.U.: But are there not occasions—such as mass murder in Rwanda and ethnic cleansing in Kosovo—when violations of human rights are so horrendous that standing by and doing nothing places us in the position of virtual accomplices of a murderous regime? What would you urge as US policy in instances when we clearly have the resources and the power to prevent or right enormous wrongs with minimal harm to ourselves, and where we would be accompanied in intervening by a number of other states that collectively make up the evolving international system?

G.K.: I hope you will forgive me, Dick, but Istand somewhat aghast at your question, because it seems to me to imply that we should not simply engage in a brief humanitarian intervention—which might be feasible—but should seriously consider taking over, and this for an indefinite time, a good part of the powers of government in a number of non-European countries, and to run things there in our own way rather than in ways that are traditional to their societies. You think, I gather, that we have the resources to do that. This, Igreatly doubt. Neither dollars nor bayonets could secure success. It would take a lasting commitment on the part of people and government to make even a beginning at this task, and for this I can see no reason or possibility. We had, as a rule, nothing to do with the origins of the ways in which regimes in other continents oppress elements in their own populations; and I see no reason why we should be held responsible for these unpleasant customs and see ourselves as guilty if they continue to be observed.

Europe, naturally, is another matter. Yes, of course, we cannot stand aside and profess to have no interest in such abominations as the Holocaust or Milosevic’s efforts to deport or destroy the entire Muslim population of Kosovo. Such undertakings strike at the roots of a European civilization of which we are still largely a part. Our participation in NATO would alone preclude any tendency on our part to take a wholly detached posture toward these developments.

But even here there are limits to what others should be encouraged to expect of us and what we should expect of ourselves. The resources on which we would have to draw in any greatly expanded involvement in Kosovo would be bound to become increasingly competitive with domestic requirements. And any participation by our armed forces in serious combat in that region would be something for which neither our public opinion nor congressional opinion is adequately prepared. And beyond that there is the fact that Kosovo is only one part of the problem of the Balkan region as a whole; and this is clearly a problem for the Europeans themselves. They, not we, would be the ones who had to live with any long-term solutions to the problem. We cannot solve it for them, and should not try to do so.

These thoughts, and others like them, cause me to feel that what we ought to do at this point is to try to cut ourselves down to size in the dreams and aspirations we direct to our possibilities for world leadership. We are not, really, all that great. We have serious problems within our society these days; and it sometimes seems to me that the best help we could give to others would be to allow them to observe that we are now confronting those problems with a bit more imagination, courage, and resolve than has been apparent in the recent past.

R.U.: The United States is these days the world’s only superpower. How long will this last?

G.K.: If you measure it only by military statistics alone, it could last, I suppose, for a long time. We have by the tail, after all, in the form of our Pentagon, a vast bureaucratic monster that we don’t know even how to cut down, not to mention to bring fully under control. But purely military power, even in its greatest dimensions of superiority, can produce only short-term successes. Serving in Berlin at the height of Hitler’s military successes, in 1941, I tried to persuade friends in our government that even if Hitler should succeed in achieving military domination over all of Europe, he would not be able to turn this into any sort of complete and long-lasting political preeminence and I gave reasons for this conclusion. And we were talking, then, only about Europe. Applied to the world scene, this is, of course, even more true. I can say without hesitation that this planet is never going to be ruled from any single political center, whatever its military power.

R.U.: It isn’t only our military power that makes us number one. For better or worse, our cultural impact is equally profound. The world flocks to American popular culture.

G.K.: This, alas, appears to be true. We export to anyone who can buy it or steal it the cheapest, silliest, and most disreputable manifestations of our “culture.” No wonder that these effusions become the laughingstock of intelligent and sensitive people the world over. But so long as we find it proper to let millions of our living rooms be filled with this trash every evening, and this largely to the edification of the schoolchildren, I can see that we would cut a poor figure trying to deny it to others beyond our borders. Nor would we be successful. In a computer age, it is available, anyway, for whoever wants to push the button and receive it. And so we must expect, I suppose, to appear to many abroad, despite our military superiority, as the world’s intellectual and spiritual dunce, until we can change the image of ourselves we purvey to others.

R.U.: Let me ask some questions about your own work. You have had a career both as a diplomat and as a historian—an analyst of international politics. Can you imagine having not had the diplomatic experience, yet still being the kind of historian that you were? How did your previous diplomatic experience affect your scholarly work?

G.K.: Well, yes, but this was of course the sort of history that I chose to write. Had I been writing poetry or novels, my diplomatic background might not have been much help to me.

But there was another reason, and even more important, why I got enjoyment and satisfaction from doing this kind of writing. Everybody who tries to write such history should, it seems to me, meet two different demands. The first is that they do all they can to elucidate the facts of any particular incident or chapter in history and to make these accessible to the reader. The bare facts represent the what of history; and they demand of course the highest respect. But beyond them lies the question of the how—of the relation of these facts to the behavior of the personalities involved. How did these actors in any historical drama perceive the facts and how did they relate them to whatever they themselves were doing? Here, in trying to answer this question as a matter of critical analysis—here is where the historian himself enters the picture, because he has to ask himself (and this is partly a matter of being able to identify imaginatively with the people he is writing about) how these historical personages were motivated. What was their own vision of what they were doing and why they were doing it? And what role did this vision play in the outcome? To what extent was it distorted by the subjective astigmatism of their personal emotional lives? And how did their efforts relate, in the light of historical perspective, to the ultimate results of their behavior?

It seems to me that it is in the analysis and description in all this that the diplomatic historian, if he is worth his salt, comes into his own. For the people he is writing about were of course in many ways the creatures of their time—of its customs and its way of looking at things—but they were also human beings; and human beings have not essentially changed very much from generation to generation. If you, as a historian, can show to people of other ages, and in this given instance to our own contemporaries, something that explains why these historical characters reacted as they did—something, as I say, about the how of history as well as the what, then you are telling our contemporary companions something not just about people of another age but also something about themselves. And there you have, for me at least, the fascination and the enjoyment of writing this sort of history. It is more than just an account of what happened in the past; it is an account of how, transposed into a different age with all the different environmental circumstances, we ourselves might have reacted.

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