The Long Telegram, the triumph of realism and the birth of the Cold War
George Kennan was that relatively rare beast, both a practitioner and a theorist of global politics. He was also an example of that much more common species, those who fail to recognize themselves in their criticisms of others. Kennan is often blamed or credited, depending on point of view, with starting the Cold War. He was certainly instrumental in generating the policy stance that became known as ‘containment’, derived from a view of the USSR as implacably hostile, but also too big to pick a fight with. After his career in the US diplomatic service, he became widely known as a realist analyst of global politics.
Kennan’s famous ‘Long Telegram’, and the subsequent article, published anonymously (ascribed to ‘X’) in the influential journal Foreign Affairs, are sometimes credited with having started the Cold War. This is probably going too far, because the paranoia, expansionism, and reliance on propaganda he identified in the USSR were real enough and would probably have led to conflict in any case. The conflict was arguably inevitable given that the US’s foreign policy community was almost as paranoid, blinded by ideology and expansionist as the Soviet Union.
This mirroring is revealed in Kennan’s own writings. Almost in the same breath, he accuses the Soviets, led at the time by Joseph Stalin, of being entirely reliant on propaganda to generate support, and advocates embarking on an ‘education’ campaign to warn the public about the dangers of communism.
These developments, taken together, are also a good example of theory driving policy. The sociological idea of a ‘self-fulfilling prophecy’ may be applied to both realism and liberalism. In Kennan’s, and the US’s, cases their general outlook provided the basis of his policy recommendations. He believed that the United States of America was a force for good in the world, with no imperialist ambitions, seeking only freedom and justice for itself and all the people of the world. He also believed that international politics is a battle to the death between great powers and their allies and associates. If you believe in a world of aggressive, opportunistic sovereign actors, then it follows that you, too, should be aggressive, opportunistic, and sovereign, and so the wheel turns.
As he changed roles from practitioner to theorist, his views changed. Perhaps his deepening relationship with theory led him to a more objective view of the policies of his own country. Perhaps the policies of the state changed. In any case, he became a critic of the more aggressive behaviour of Secretary of State Dean Acheson.
It might seem incongruous, on the face of it, to say that a more aggressive policy was criticized by a realist scholar, but realism is not a relentlessly bloodthirsty theory, nor is it always intended as a guide to action. Some realists describe a regrettable but inevitable mechanism at work, and seek to work within it. They don’t have to like it to accept it. Many realists advocate a peaceful policy, but one that takes power politics into account. Kennan was one of these.