What Would Kennan Say to Obama?

tags: Barack Obama, grand strategy, George Kennan



Frank Costigliola is a professor of history at the University of Connecticut and the editor of The Kennan Diaries.

“I don’t really even need George Kennan right now,” Barack Obama volunteered to David Remnick in a recent interview. Obama got it wrong. He, and we as a nation, do need Mr. Kennan now, as much as at the dawn of the Cold War.

Mr. Kennan’s diary and other writings offer timely advice about balancing United States policy in the era after the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and managing Iran. Though Mr. Kennan is most famous for predicting in 1947 that containment would lead to the eventual breakup of the Soviet Union, his strategic thinking ranged far wider.

Whether planning policy at the State Department or writing history at the Institute for Advanced Study, Mr. Kennan stood out as an intellectual who thought otherwise — indeed as a thinker whose thought was often wise. Like the Founders, he believed the wisest foreign policy limited military intervention abroad while affording the broadest scope for hard-headed diplomacy. He saved his most candid advice for his diary, which he kept for 88 years.

Along with the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, Mr. Kennan insisted that the challenge facing the United States was containing not only rival nations and threatening ideologies, but also America’s own outsized ambitions and self-righteous assertions of virtue. Both men understood that however loud the claims of American exceptionalism, Americans could escape neither original sin nor its secular manifestation, the will to power....




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