A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.
By Michael Hirsh for FOREIGN POLICY
Even at the advanced age of 94, George Kennan was still arguing that the Cold War hadn’t been inevitable—that it could have been avoided or, at least, ameliorated. A decade after that 44-year conflict ended, Kennan, the somewhat dovish father of the United States’ Cold War containment strategy, contended in a letter to his more hawkish biographer, John Lewis Gaddis, that while Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin was alive, an early way out might have been possible.
The so-called Stalin Note from March 1952—an offer from Moscow to hold talks over the shape of post-World War II Europe—showed that the United States had ignored the possibilities of peace accomplished through “negotiation, and especially real negotiation, in distinction from public posturing (italics original),” Kennan wrote in 1999.
Those words still resonate today. Because public posturing is mostly what we’re seeing as the United States finds itself spiraling toward a new kind of cold war with both China and Russia. Yet almost no debate or discussion about these policies is taking place in Washington. Especially when it comes to the challenge from China—which has replaced the Soviet Union as the major geopolitical threat to the United States—politicians on both sides of the aisle see political gain in out-hawking each other by calling for a tougher stance against Beijing. What is emerging as a result is a long-term struggle for global power and influence that could easily outlast the first Cold War. This, despite President Joe Biden’s insistence after a November 2022 summit meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping that “there need not be a new Cold War.” When Secretary of State Antony Blinken makes his first visit to Beijing in a few weeks, it will be an attempt to repair diplomatic relations that have been all but suspended since former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan last year.
The Kennan-Gaddis letters appear in the new biography Kennan: A Life Between Worlds, by Frank Costigliola. That exchange is absent from Gaddis’s magisterial 2011 work, George F. Kennan: An American Life. The new book, based on access to Kennan’s private papers and other sources, reveals just how passionately Kennan sought to ease the Cold War as it grew into a global game of military brinkmanship, as well as his post-Cold War opposition to the rapid eastward expansion of NATO’s borders. Shortly before Russian President Vladimir Putin took power, Kennan predicted this policy would inflame nationalist and anti-Western attitudes in Russia and “restore the atmosphere of the Cold War.”
Gaddis’s account of Kennan’s life “had slight sympathy for, and devoted scant attention to, Kennan’s efforts to tone down the Cold War,” writes Costigliola, a historian at the University of Connecticut. The true story of Kennan’s career “demands that we rethink the Cold War as an era of possibilities for dialogue and diplomacy, not the inevitable series of confrontations and crises we came to see.”
A fresh look at Kennan’s views is warranted more today than ever. The great diplomat, one of the most influential strategists in U.S. history, did not promise that negotiations would provide a way out of the Cold War—only that Washington would never know unless it tried. Washington didn’t try very hard back then, and it doesn’t appear to be trying very hard now, despite new opportunities that may be presenting themselves. “Kennan’s lesson for us, in understanding the Cold War of the twentieth century and in defusing the explosive tensions of the twenty-first century, is that seemingly intractable conflicts may be more susceptible to settlement than it may at first appear,” Costigliola writes.
Although Putin has placed Russia beyond the pale of rapprochement for the present with his murderous invasion of Ukraine, China still appears to be open for diplomatic business. In a way that is perhaps analogous to Stalin in 1952, Xi and his newly appointed foreign minister, Qin Gang, may be hinting at ways to step back from what has been, for the first two years of the Biden administration, a harsh atmosphere of confrontation on both sides. In his annual new year’s message, broadcast on Dec. 31, Xi appeared to somewhat moderate his formerly truculent tone toward Taiwan. Qin, in a Washington Post op-ed giving his farewell as China’s ambassador to Washington, said that the Sino-American relationship “should not be a zero-sum game in which one side out-competes the other or one nation thrives at the expense of the other.” He added that he leaves his post “more convinced that the door to China-U.S. relations will remain open and cannot be closed.” In recent weeks Beijing also moved Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian, known for his anti-U.S. rhetoric, into a less prominent role.
Unlike the Soviet Union, which surrounded itself with cooperative, tightly controlled governments, China today finds itself virtually surrounded by U.S. allies or Westernized states that are a counterbalance to its growing military power. The Biden administration has already laid down a tough policy approach to China, including helping arm Australia and Japan; forming the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Japan, India, and Australia; and orchestrating an unprecedented decoupling of high-tech trade with China, including a frankly protectionist industrial policy aimed at boosting U.S. competitiveness.
Kennan might well have approved of this approach—while at the same time urging serious negotiations from such a position of strength, said Melvyn Leffler, a historian of the Cold War at the University of Virginia, in a phone interview. When Kennan proposed containment of the USSR in his famous “X” article in Foreign Affairs in 1947, he urged a robust response to Soviet aggression “designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world.” Only later did he propose negotiations.
Similarly, today, Leffler said, Kennan “would be talking about the power relationships that are arrayed all around China at this time.” And rather than worrying about China’s strategic alignment with Russia—even though Xi plans to visit Moscow this year—Kennan would likely be focused on the two countries’ different interests, which remain profound. In particular, Leffler said, Russia and China are still vying for influence in Central Asia. Moscow and Beijing also seriously mistrust each other, despite their mutual hostility to U.S. dominance.
These differences are more significant “than the short-term expediency that’s bringing them together now,” Leffler said. “Much of the talk now about Chinese-Russian cooperation resembles the anxieties about Sino-Soviet cooperation during the Cold War, which turned out to be exaggerated.”
Indeed, there is much today’s policymakers could learn from Kennan—in particular his deep understanding of geopolitics and power. Over the years Kennan has gained a reputation as a brilliant strategic and abstract thinker but also as someone who was often naive when it came to practical diplomacy. And yet even Kennan’s detractors during his lifetime agreed that no one in the U.S. national security establishment knew Russia better. Nor was Kennan a knee-jerk liberal dove. After all, in the early years of containment doctrine the columnist Walter Lippmann, in a famous series of articles later collected in a book called The Cold War, fiercely attacked Kennan as a feckless hawk and containment as a strategic “monstrosity,” writing that the strategy would doom the United States to endless intervention overseas. Costigliola concedes that while Kennan “had spent the four years from 1944 to 1948 promoting the Cold War, he devoted the subsequent forty to undoing what he and others had wrought. That’s not a bad record.”
Kennan later came around to Lippmann’s views, arguing that he’d never intended for containment to be seen primarily in a military sense. As early as 1948, Costigliola writes, he began to push for negotiations—a campaign he continued for the rest of his long life. Eight years before his death in 2005 at 101, Kennan marshaled his Russia expertise again when he warned that in extending “NATO’s borders smack up to those of Russia we are making the greatest mistake of the entire post-Cold-War era.”
The reasons for the ultra-nationalism and anti-Western fervor of Putin and his Kremlin supporters are complex and reach back deeply into Russian history. But Kennan may well have been right about the perils of poking the Russian bear too hard for too long. A little-noted U.S. Army study commissioned by the Trump administration nearly five years ago anticipated both Putin’s aggression and popular Russian support for his Ukraine invasion. The study, co-authored by intelligence specialist C. Anthony Pfaff, concluded that “the Russian people share the same sense of geographic insecurity and political humiliation as their government [and] demonstrations of global power and confrontation with the West, especially in Eastern Europe, will only serve to bolster the popularity of any future Russian government.”
This realpolitik sensitivity to other nations’ strategic interests was a constant theme in Kennan’s thinking. In the late 1950s, in a series of radio addresses that Costigliola writes were “arguably more impressive” than Kennan’s famed “long telegram” and “X” article in Foreign Affairs laying out the groundwork for containment, Kennan “shook the very foundations of Cold War regime in Britain, West Germany, and the United States.” He challenged the division of Germany into western and eastern halves, the rigid heart of the Cold War orthodoxy at the time. Kennan proposed that West and East could find a way to negotiate a partial disengagement if the Westerners withdrew from Germany in return for a Soviet military pullback from Eastern Europe. A reunified Germany—one that would remain neutral and only lightly armed—would be a buffer, avoiding the brinkmanship that occurred later in 1958-59 and then again in 1961-62, culminating in the Cuban missile crisis and the threat of Armageddon. Germany would also not remain in NATO—echoing the deal first offered by Stalin in 1952. Kennan proposed keeping some nuclear weapons for deterrence, but he said that tactical nukes would only cement the division of Europe. If nothing was done, he warned, a runaway nuclear arms race would ensue.
Kennan proved to be correct about that, too. But his proposals, the so-called Reith lectures, never went anywhere—especially after Moscow launched Sputnik in 1957, raising the threat of nuclear apocalypse on New York and Washington—and Kennan was accused of Munich-style appeasement. His friend and strategic archrival, Dean Acheson, complained that Kennan “lived part of the time in a world of fantasy” and even, at one point, compared his old diplomatic comrade to a species of ape engaged in “absurd and idle chatter.” Kennan was devastated and lamented that no one in power was “interested in a political settlement with the Russians.” The Soviet collapse a little over three decades later appeared to vindicate Washington’s hard-line strategy, but people also tend to forget just how close the world came to all-out nuclear war in the interim.
Kennan also presciently opposed the Vietnam War. In Senate testimony in 1966 that was so closely followed around the country that it “pre-empted I Love Lucy,” Costigliola writes, Kennan declared that containment did not apply to a civil war in Vietnam that would only damage prestige by attacking “a poor and helpless people.” Quoting John Quincy Adams, he said the U.S. should not go “abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” But as with NATO’s response, by then U.S. policies were entrenched.
The paramount question today is whether Washington’s posture of confrontation is similarly entrenched. One reason both Democrats and Republicans agree on a tough response to China is a mutual sense that they’ve long been duped by Beijing. For most of the last quarter-century, both U.S. political parties were eager to engage China, only to conclude that its leaders were mainly interested in stealing intellectual property and building up China’s economy so as to displace the United States as the world’s leading power. Biden, accordingly, has populated his China advisory team with hawks such as Kurt Campbell and Rush Doshi.
Beyond that bipartisan consensus, there has long been a political bias toward confrontation over negotiation—at least since former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain gave a bad name to appeasement at Munich. The politics of all wars—including cold wars—are such that presidents gain advantage from looking strong and tough-minded. The benefits of such an approach are immediate—a strong, leaderly image for the president and higher poll ratings—while the costs are long term and diffuse: ever-worsening global warming, the slow escalation of an arms race and the even slower unraveling of the international system, the vague but increasing threat of future pandemics. As for a more conciliatory, realpolitik approach, on the other hand, its benefits are long term and diffuse, and its costs immediate: an image of weakness and indecisiveness, which is something no U.S. president likes, especially when he’s fighting a war.
Those questions go to the heart of another recent book about the Cold War, The Kennedy Withdrawal: Camelot and the American Commitment to Vietnam, by University of Virginia historian Marc J. Selverstone, who argues that even presidents who might realize the potential hazard of overreacting can nonetheless be pulled in. In his book, Selverstone dissects one of the last enduring shibboleths of the Cold War: the Camelot myth that President John F. Kennedy would have avoided the quagmire of Vietnam had he lived.
True, Kennedy was, by many accounts, always leery of being pulled into a conflict that he, as a young senator, recognized was essentially a nationalist movement against French colonialism. As Selverstone writes, Kennedy presciently told his Senate colleagues as far back as 1954 that “no amount of American military assistance … can conquer an enemy which is everywhere and at the same time nowhere.” Kennedy, by the time of his assassination, had also adopted much more subtle foreign-policy views and was looking for fresh ways to reduce U.S.-Soviet tensions. Even so, he was still a confirmed Cold Warrior, worried about credibility and ready to “pay any price, bear any burden, meet any hardship, support any friend, oppose any foe to assure the survival and success of liberty,” as Kennedy declared in his inaugural address. Selverstone argues that Kennedy “continued to operate from a worldview that embraced the precepts of domino thinking … and the demonstration of resolve,” and Costigliola notes that Kennedy shied away from embracing Kennan because of the latter’s support for “disengagement.”
But other scholars disagree. Harvard University historian Fredrik Logevall, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Embers of War: The Fall of an Empire and the Making of America’s Vietnam, and a not fully completed two volume biography of Kennedy, said that Kennedy was a far more subtle student of history than former President Lyndon B. Johnson and was skeptical of the domino theory. He believes Kennedy would have found a way to scale down the U.S. presence in an unwinnable war. “I don’t think the Cold War was inevitable, and I don’t believe a major U.S. war in Vietnam was inevitable,” Logevall said in an email.
What about now? Just as Acheson and others argued about the Soviet Union during the Cold War, many policymakers today say that China under Xi seeks only to buy time while it grows stronger vis-a-vis U.S. power—and then strike against Taiwan. Beyond that, Beijing is looking to supplant the United States as the world’s leading power, no matter what it takes, the hawks say. And Xi is marrying his huge, technologically advanced economy with Russia’s resource-rich state in an effort to see this ambition through.
Perhaps. But it is worth noting that while Beijing has backed Putin rhetorically, it has not delivered military or much economic aid to Moscow’s aggression in Ukraine. The China-Russia partnership may well prove to be as flimsy as the Sino-Soviet partnership did in the early Cold War. Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s apparent preference for public posturing over genuine efforts at a realist approach—negotiating a modus vivendi with China and, perhaps someday, a post-Putin Russia—poses serious risks. Once again, NATO is playing a controversial role, with almost no debate in Washington or other Western capitals.
Although the alliance was expressly designed for threats across the “north Atlantic,” to little notice last summer, NATO expanded its focus to what was effectively a new containment policy toward China. At its summit in Madrid, the alliance invited the leaders of Japan, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand to join in for the first time, and NATO’s new “strategic concept” named China as one of its priorities, saying Beijing’s ambitions challenge the West’s “interests, security and values.”
If Biden doesn’t want a new cold war, it would hardly be surprising if Xi thought he did. And yet with Xi on a back foot because of his disastrous COVID shutdown and sagging economy, new possibilities for diplomatic engagement may now exist. “I do not think that Xi sees himself or China in an absolutely existential struggle with the United States over competing ideological systems,” Leffler said. “I do not think Xi thinks that American and Chinese interests are mutually exclusive.” Or as Kennan would put it, according to Costigliola, “sharply opposed positions are just the asking price in the long, necessarily patient process of diplomacy.”
One thing is certain: We won’t know for sure unless serious diplomacy is attempted. Were Kennan alive today, no doubt he would agree.
Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh