American diplomat George F. Kennan’s containment doctrine, which provided the strategic foundation for the West’s victory over Soviet Communism in the Cold War, turns 70 this year. That, I suppose, is reason enough to take a look back at what surely must be counted among the most successful geopolitical concepts in modern history.
But there are at least two other good reasons for revisiting the remarkable cluster of ideas that made their first public appearance in the journal Foreign Affairs in July 1947, triggering a spirited public debate over U.S. relations with our wartime ally, the Soviet Union, and the shape of the postwar international order, that was to last for many months.
The first is that the Cold War is a completely foreign country to most Americans, especially those younger than 40. Even those of us considerably older than 40, who lived through a significant portion of that mammoth, all-consuming conflict, seem to have consigned the struggle to the deep backwaters of memory.
But the most compelling reason for revisiting containment, with its spectacularly trenchant insights into the Russian psyche, is that it illuminates both the wellsprings and objectives of Vladimir Putin’s increasingly menacing foreign policy. Taken together, Tsar Vladimir’s policies toward the U.S., and indeed, the world at large, bear an eerie resemblance to those pursued by Stalin and his successors. Kennan helps us understand why, and more important, what to do about it.
According to a large and growing chorus of Russian foreign policy experts, the “Putin doctrine” has ominous ramifications for the United States, the West, and the Russian people themselves. Among its chief tenets are these:
1. The recovery of a significant portion of the vast political, economic, and military assets lost by the Soviet Union when it dissolved in 1991. The annexation of Crimea in 2014 and Moscow’s support for the insurgency in eastern Ukraine mark the beginning of an ambitious expansionist program, not its end. “Like Stalin, “writes Princeton historian Stephan Kotkin, “Putin views all nominally independent border states … as weapons in the hands of Western powers intent on wielding them against Russia.”
2. The re-establishment of anti-Western “sphere of influence” around Russia’s periphery, resulting in Moscow’s domination of such countries as Kazakhstan, Belarus, Ukraine, Georgia, and the Baltic states.
3. Establishing Russia as a key power player in the Middle East, with a view to checking the initiatives of the United States and its allies there.
4. The energetic use of sophisticated social media and information warfare techniques in an “active measures” campaign to de-stabilize relations between members of the Western alliance, and shape political developments within their societies in a manner congenial to Russian interests. Without question the most prominent active measures campaign to date has been the effort to shape the U.S. presidential election of 2016, but experts writing in national security journals and blogs have identified a long list of others.
5. A relentless build-up of state power in Russia itself, driven by Putin’s imperial ambitions abroad. A sophisticated domestic propaganda apparatus presents Moscow’s sharp spike in military spending, and the neutering of democracy at home, as necessary to check dire external threats to Russia’s welfare posed by the United States and the West. According to Leon Aron of the American Enterprise Institute, Moscow persistently hammers away at the theme that the “only plausible protection from these foreign dangers … is the courageous leadership of the current regime.” Aron calls this rationale “the besieged fortress strategy.”
Were he alive today, very little of the Putin doctrine would come as a surprise to George Kennan (1904-2005). In February 1946, the State Department in Washington, struggling to comprehend Soviet resistance to the establishment of international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and its crackdown on political activity in Eastern Europe, cabled the U.S. Embassy in Moscow, asking for an analysis of the Soviet worldview and its ramifications for American policy. As number two man in the embassy and its premier expert on Russia, it fell to Kennan to respond.
And respond he did! First, he dashed off the most famous cable in the history of American diplomacy, a 5,500-word masterpiece Kennan later self-deprecatingly referred to an “an outrageous encumberment of the telegraphic process.” And then, when a consensus had emerged within the Truman administration that Kennan’s “long telegram” should serve as the bedrock upon which to anchor the American strategy to counter Soviet expansionism, an article in Foreign Affairs introduced containment to the American public at large. “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” was published under the pseudonym “X” in July 1947, but Kennan’s lapidary prose style soon exposed the identity of the author, who by that point had been promoted to serve as director of the State Department’s new Policy Planning Staff.
Kennan argued that Moscow’s intransigence resulted not from any provocative action on the part of the Western powers, but from deep-seated insecurities that had resided in the souls of Russia’s leaders for hundreds of years. Since the 16th century, the Russians had gradually absorbed neighboring polities in order to diminish the opportunities for foreign invasion of their homelands.
At the “bottom of the Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs,” he wrote in the cable, “is a traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity… They have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between the Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned the truth about the world within. And they learned to seek security only in the patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts or compromises with it.”
Much like the Tsars, Stalin and his Politburo had to treat the outside world as hostile, because the supposedly malign intentions of foreigners provided the only excuse “for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for the cruelties” they felt bound to inflict, “for sacrifices they felt bound to demand.”
Kennan posited that Marxist-Leninist doctrine only reinforced Russian leaders’ abiding hostility to Western institutions, especially individual liberty and free markets, for they undermined the state’s monopoly on both material and human resources.
Given that the Kremlin’s “political action is like a fluid stream” that seeks to fill “every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power,” he wrote in The Sources of Soviet Conduct, American policy should be centered on “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies,” and on the “adroit … application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy.”
The most effective form of counter-force, at least as Kennan saw it, wasn’t military confrontation—that was to be avoided at all costs, and probably could be avoided, because of the superior military and economic strength, as well as the political dynamism, of America and her allies. Rather, it was political, economic, and moral force: The broad objective of American policy should be the strengthening of Western values and institutions wherever U.S. vital interests were threatened by Soviet power directly, or by communist subversion from within.
If the open societies were patient, if they resisted Moscow’s efforts to expand with discipline and restraint, Kennan counseled, the Soviet system would in time be discredited in the eyes of those who lived under its domination, and collapse of its own weight.
Containment provided the strategic underpinnings for both the Truman Doctrine of 1947, which called for providing military and economic assistance to any country threatened by communist power, and the Marshall Plan, which funneled about $12 billion in U.S. funds to Western European governments to help them rebuild their war-ravaged economies, and marginalize indigenous communist parties, which enjoyed considerable strength in Italy, France, and elsewhere immediately after the war.
It continued to serve as a guiding principle of U.S. policy toward both the Soviet Union and communist-led “wars of national liberation” in places like Korea and Vietnam, until the Soviet empire began to unravel in the mid ’80s. In 1991, the Soviet Union did indeed implode, largely under its own weight, just as Kennan had predicted it would.
Might Tsar Vladimir’s regime in Moscow suffer the same fate? Some professional Russia watchers have already predicted as much. A viable avenue of approach to hastening Putin’s demise might very well reside in resuscitating a strategic doctrine first promulgated by a lanky patrician diplomat from Milwaukee 70 years ago.
Whether the author of The Art of the Deal will see the wisdom in adopting containment, of course, is very much an open question.