>>>>An Interview with George Kennan<<<<

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Aug 10, 1999, 3:00:00 AM8/10/99
New York Review of Books
The US and the World: An Interview with George Kennan
RICHARD ULLMAN August 12, 1999

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

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

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

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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