zenpundit.com » george kennan

Archive for the ‘george kennan’ Category

Infinity Journal: Can Grand Strategy be Mastered?

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

[Mark Safranski / “zen“]

The new edition of Infinity Journal is out and they have a most interesting article by Dr. Lukas Milevski, a promising young scholar best known for his recent book The Evolution of Modern Grand Strategic Thought.

Can Grand Strategy be Mastered?

….The first conceptualization of grand strategy, broadening the concept to include all instruments of national power and not simply the military, may arguably be quite useful. Policy-makers and strategists all should understand how military power fits in with non-military power, and vice versa, to achieve desired effects. They must understand the assumptions which implicitly underpin each form of power and how they integrate and contradict among themselves. As Lawrence Freedman argued in 1992, “[t]he view that strategy is bound up with the role of force in international life must be qualified, because if force is but one form of power then strategy must address the relationship between this form and others, including authority.”[ix]

The use of non-military power against an adversary in war is clearly not simple diplomacy, but also is not encompassed within classical definitions of strategy. Grand strategy may or may not be an appropriate term for it; in recent decades the British have labeled it the comprehensive approach. Yet, given how many authors have paid lip service to the variety of forms of power inherent in this interpretation of grand strategy, the amount of attention actually dedicated to the non-military forms of power has been startlingly low. As Everett Carl Dolman suggested in a somewhat blasé manner, “[a] worthy grand strategist will consider all pertinent means individually and in concert to achieve the continuing health and advantage of the state.”[x] Yet one may reasonably ask, ‘but how?’ To make connections among categories and among distinct fields and disciplines is one of the primary purposes of theory, yet this has simply not been done in the grand strategic literature even when this task is implicit and inherent in the definition of the concept itself.[xi] Furthermore, without the achievement of this difficult scholarly work, grand strategic theory which adheres to this form of the concept will never fulfill Clausewitz’s appreciation of theory.

….In principle, grand strategy, conceived along the lines of incorporating multiple instruments beyond the military, can indeed be mastered. However, there is no theory yet which may guide those who desire to master grand strategy in this manner. Practice in the world of action may, of course, still take place without theory—or at least academic theory. Yet without proper guidance, chaos among the various military and non-military instruments is inevitable. They will not work properly together; they may even achieve contradictory effects; and so forth. The comprehensive approach, as practiced in Afghanistan and Iraq, has not been particularly successful.
The second conceptualization of grand strategy, as being placed above policy in a hierarchy of ideas and duties, along with the subsidiary characteristic of enduring over lengthy periods of time, is less transferable to the world of action. Each aspect of this second understanding of grand strategy contributes individually to limiting the transferability of the concept.

Read the whole thing here.

Milevski is a grand strategy skeptic and as such he raises fair questions in his article regarding grand strategy as an actionable thing that some enterprising official, politician or military officer could master. Though he does not raise it explicitly, Milevski’s argument reflects a longstanding debate on whether grand strategy is even a thing one can do or is merely a retrospective historical explanation. Aiding Milevski is that while there has been much learned commentary on grand strategy by eminent scholars or practitioners like Kennan and Kissinger, conceptually it is a muddle with competing definitions and lacking a coherent accepted theory. Much like obscenity, we seem to know grand strategy when we see it (Containment! Bismarck!) but can’t really explain why it happened here and not there.

The two competing definitions Milevski raises complement one another but they are not the same. The first is what is sometimes in America called a whole-of-government approach to conflict and Milevski admits this version of grand strategy is one that could potentially be mastered, albeit there is no pathway to do so. The reason for this is that is that grand strategy requires a fairly robust centralization of political power to be realized. To do grand strategy, it helps if you are Otto von Bismarck, Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, Pericles, Peter the Great or some similar figure. Middle level bureaucrats in democratic polities might conceive or suggest grand strategies but unless they convincingly sell their idea to the ruling elite and then the elite to the public (Dean Acheson, for example, “scaring the hell out of the country”) it won’t become actionable policies, diplomatic agreements or military operations. This is possible but rarely happens without an existential strategic threat or at least the perception of a serious one.

Milevski is less enchanted, as are Clausewitzians generally, with the second version of grand strategy that posits a great idea or theme floating above policy, guiding it over very long periods of time such as decades or centuries. Objectively, it is hard to come up with a rationale why this could not be happening more often because it doesn’t though we can point to examples where nations or empires have followed a principle consistently in peace or war for a very long period of time; for example, Britain seeking to prevent any power from dominating continental Europe or China’s tributary system for managing dangerous barbarian tribes and neighboring states. Subjectively, Clausewitzians simply don’t like “grand strategy” violating the hierarchy Clausewitz set forth to explain the relationship between politics/politik, policy and strategy in war. Milevski spends time on this objection specifically.

I’m less troubled by the contradiction than Dr. Milevski, though it’s worth considering that in theory the two different versions of grand strategy could be different phenomena instead of competing definitions of one. Much of the first version of grand strategy could also be termed “statecraft” and the second is something like John Boyd’s theme of vitality and growth or at a minimum, an aspirational security paradigm. It’s more of a vision or an opportunistic operating principle than a well honed strategy  or clearly defined end-state. It is open-ended to permit maximum political flexibility and accommodate many, at times competing, policies. The second version of grand strategy is not at all strategy in the sense applied to a theater of combat for concrete objectives; it is more political, more gestalt.

John Brennan & Jay Forrester, George Kennan & Isaac Luria

Friday, December 12th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — a little something on torture and our knowledge of causality, also man the microcosm in diplo-politics ]

With John Brennan talking about the “unknowable” causality between what I choose to call torture and what I am content to call the elicitation of actionable intelligence (upper panel, below) — not that I claim any originality to either of those phrasings — I was forced to remind myself of Jay Forrester‘s comments on causality (lower panel) — comments which amount to a warning against simplistic thinking and easy explanations:

SPEC unknowables

The human psyche is indeed “complex”, and perhaps more inscrutable than the term “complexity” itself suggests.


But that was not all: Director Brennan also entered into my own preferred realms of anthropology, psychology and theology, and spoke to the divided nature of our humanity:

But we are not a perfect institution. We’re made up of individuals. And as human beings, we are imperfect beings.

That in turn overlapped with another DoubleQuote I was formulating at the time, this one juxtaposing a comment about George Kennan with the Ari, Rabbi Isaac Luria‘s concepts of the Shattering of the Vessels and the Repair of the World.

Kennan’s chapter heading (as quoted by Joseph Epstein in the upper panel, below) refers to the microcosm:

SPEC cracked vessels

It seems only appropriate to me to note that the Ari provides us with its macrocosmic equivalent — and also, under the name Tikkun Olam (repair of the world), a sense of what is now required of us.

New Book Review up at PRAGATI: George F. Kennan: an American Life

Thursday, February 16th, 2012


PRAGATI – the Indian National Interest Review has published my review of John Lewis Gaddis’ biography George F. Kennan: An American Life 

The creative art of strategy 

….Into the breach strides eminent diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis, offering a magisterial 784 page biography, a quarter- century in the making, George F. Kennan: An American Life. Gaddis, a noted historian of the Cold War and critic of revisionist interpretations of American foreign policy, has produced his magnum opus, distilling not only the essence of Kennan’s career, but the origins of his grand strategic worldview that were part and parcel the self-critical and lonely isolation that made Kennan such an acute observer of foreign societies and a myopic student of his own.

Gaddis, who is a co-founder of the elite Grand Strategy Program at Yale University, had such a long intellectual association with his subject, having been appointed Kennan’s biographer in 1982, that one wonders on theories of strategy at times where George Kennan ends and John Lewis Gaddis begins. Giving Kennan the supreme compliment among strategists, that he possessed in the years of the Long Telegram and the Policy Planning Staff, Clausewitz’s Coup d’oeil, Gaddis does not shy away from explaining Kennan’s human imperfections to the reader that made the diplomat a study in contradictions….

Read the rest here.

K2: Kissinger on Kennan

Monday, November 14th, 2011


George F. Kennan: An American Life by John Lewis Gaddis

Former SECSTATE and grand old man of the American foreign policy establishment, Dr. Henry Kissinger, had an outstanding NYT review of the new biography of George Kennan, the father of Containment, by eminent diplomatic historian John Lewis Gaddis:

The Age of Kennan

….George Kennan’s thought suffused American foreign policy on both sides of the intellectual and ideological dividing lines for nearly half a century. Yet the highest position he ever held was ambassador to Moscow for five months in 1952 and to Yugoslavia for two years in the early 1960s. In Washington, he never rose above director of policy planning at the State Department, a position he occupied from 1947 to 1950. Yet his precepts helped shape both the foreign policy of the cold war as well as the arguments of its opponents after he renounced – early on – the application of his maxims.

A brilliant analyst of long-term trends and a singularly gifted prose stylist, Kennan, as a relatively junior Foreign Service officer, served in the entourages of Secretaries of State George C. Marshall and Dean Acheson. His fluency in German and Russian, as well as his knowledge of those countries’ histories and literary traditions, combined with a commanding, if contradictory, personality. Kennan was austere yet could also be convivial, playing his guitar at embassy events; pious but given to love affairs (in the management of which he later instructed his son in writing); endlessly introspective and ultimately remote. He was, a critic once charged, “an impressionist, a poet, not an earthling.”

For all these qualities – and perhaps because of them – Kennan was never vouchsafed the opportunity actually to execute his sensitive and farsighted visions at the highest levels of government. And he blighted his career in government by a tendency to recoil from the implications of his own views. The debate in America between idealism and realism, which continues to this day, played itself out inside Kennan’s soul. Though he often expressed doubt about the ability of his fellow Americans to grasp the complexity of his perceptions, he also reflected in his own person a very American ambivalence about the nature and purpose of foreign policy.

John Lewis Gaddis was George Kennan’s official biographer, a relationship that can contradict and complicate the task of a historian to tell us “like it really was” by growing too close and protective of the subject. On the other hand, Kennan’s unusual longevity and undimmed intellectual brilliance into his tenth decade permitted Gaddis a kind of extensive engagement with Kennan that was exceedingly rare among biographers.

I will be reading this book. Incidentally, Kennan’s own writings, notably his memoirs and his analysis of a totalitarian Soviet regime, Russia and the West under Lenin and Stalin are classics in the field of modern American diplomatic history, alongside books like Dean Acheson’s Present at the Creation. They are still very much worth the time to read.

The Gaddis biography will stir renewed interest and wistful nostalgia for Kennan at a time when the American elite’s capacity to construct or articulate persuasive grand strategies have become deeply suspect. Kennan himself would have shared the popular pessimism, having nursed it himself long before such a mood became fashionable.


Cheryl Rofer weighs in on Kennan at Nuclear Diner

….Although the telegram and article did not deal explicitly with nuclear weapons, they were the basis for the strategy of containing, rather than rolling back, the Soviet Union and thus the arguments in the 1950s against attempting to eliminate the Soviet nuclear capability and in the 1960s against the same sort of move against China. Similar arguments continue today with regard to Iran.  

 Kissinger writes a sketch of Kennan himself and adds some of his own thoughts on diplomacy. The historical context of Kennan’s insights that he presents is worth contemplating in relation to today’s situation. How much of Cold War thinking can be carried into today’s thinking on international affairs, and how should it be slowly abandoned for ideas that fit this newer world better?

Addendum II.

Some fisking of Henry the K. by our friends the Meatballs:

Kissinger refers to Dean Acheson as “the greatest secretary of state of the postwar period.”  False modesty or a ghostwriter?  Gotta be one or the other, but we are leaning towards the former because no Kissinger Associates staffer would risk the repercussions from making a call like that.

Kissinger – the great Balance of Power practitioner – admired that Kennan (at least at times) shared his Metternich-influenced approach:

Stable orders require elements of both power and morality. In a world without equilibrium, the stronger will encounter no restraint, and the weak will find no means of vindication.


It requires constant recalibration; it is as much an artistic and philosophical as a political enterprise. It implies a willingness to manage nuance and to live with ambiguity. The practitioners of the art must learn to put the attainable in the service of the ultimate and accept the element of compromise inherent in the endeavor. Bismarck defined statesmanship as the art of the possible. Kennan, as a public servant, was exalted above most others for a penetrating analysis that treated each element of international order separately, yet his career was stymied by his periodic rebellion against the need for a reconciliation that could incorporate each element only imperfectly

R2P is a Doctrine Designed to Strike Down the Hand that Wields It

Saturday, September 3rd, 2011

There has been much ado about Dr. Anne-Marie Slaughter’s ennunciation of “Responsibility to Protect” as a justification for the Obama administration’s unusually executed intervention (or assistance to primarily British and French intervention) in Libya in support of rebels seeking to oust their lunatic dictator, Colonel Moammar Gaddafi. In “R2P” the Obama administration, intentionally or not, has found it’s own Bush Doctrine, and unsurprisingly, the magnitude of such claims – essentially a declaration of jihad against what is left of the Westphalian state system by progressive elite intellectuals – are beginning to draw fire for implications that stretch far beyond Libya.

People in the strategic studies, IR and national security communities have a parlor game of wistfully reminiscing about the moral clarity of Containment and the wisdom of George Kennan. They have been issuing tendentiously self-important “Mr. Z” papers for so long that they failed to notice that if anyone has really written the 21st Century’s answer to Kennan’s X article, it was Anne-Marie Slaughter’s battle cry in the pages of The Atlantic.

George Kennan did not become the “Father of Containment” because he thought strategically about foreign policy in terms of brutal realism. Nor because he was a stern anti-Communist. Or because he had a deep and reflective understanding of Russian history and Leninism, whose nuances were the sources of Soviet conduct. No, Kennan became the Father of Containment because he encapsulated all of those things precisely at the moment when America’s key decision makers, facing the Soviet threat, were willing to embrace a persuasive explanatory narrative, a grand strategy that could harmonize policy with domestic politics.

Slaughter’s idea is not powerful because it is philosophically or legally airtight – it isn’t – but because R2P resonates deeply both with immediate state interests and emotionally with the generational worldview of what Milovan Djilas might have termed a Western “New Class”.

While it is easy to read R2P simply as a useful political cover for Obama administration policy in Libya, as it functioned as such in the short term, that is a mistaken view, and one that I think badly underestimates Anne-Marie Slaughter. Here is Slaughter’s core assertion, where she turns most of modern diplomatic history and international law as it is understood and practiced bilaterally and multilaterally by sovereign states in the real world (vice academics and IGO/NGO bureaucrats) on it’s head:

If we really do look at the world in terms of governments and societies and the relationship between them, and do recognize that both governments and their citizens have rights as subjects of international law and have agency as actors in international politics, then what exactly is the international community “intervening” in?

…For the first time, international law and the great powers of international politics have recognized both the rights of citizens and a specific relationship between the government and its citizens: a relationship of protection. The nature of sovereignty itself is thus changed: legitimate governments are defined not only by their control of a territory and a population but also by how they exercise that control. If they fail in that obligation, the international community has the responsibility to protect those citizens.

Slaughter is a revolutionary who aspires to a world that would functionally resemble the Holy Roman Empire, writ large, with a diffusion of power away from legal process of  state institutions to the networking informalities of the larger social class from whom a majority of state and IGO officials are drawn, as a global community. In terms of policy advocacy, this is a brilliantly adept move to marry state and class interests with stark moral justifications, regardless of how the argument might be nibbled to death in an arcane academic debate.

As with Kennan’s X Article, which faced a sustained critique from Walter Lippmann who realized that Containment implied irrevocable changes in the American system, R2P has attracted criticism. Some examples:

Joshua Foust –Why sovereignty matters

Much as advocates of the “Responsibility to Protect,” or R2P, like to say that sovereignty is irrelevant to the relationship of a society to its government (which Slaughter explicitly argues), it is that very sovereignty which also creates the moral and legal justification to intervene. For example, the societies of the United States and NATO did not vote to intervene in Libya – their governments did.

Foreign Affairs – The Folly of Protection

….RtoP, responding to the sense that these domestic harms warranted international response, solidified the Security Council’s claims to wider discretion. Yet it also restricted its ability to sanction intervention to the four situations listed in the RtoP document — genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity — and thus precluded, for example, intervention in cases of civil disorder and coups. Although the resolution authorizing force against Libya will certainly further entrench the principle of RtoP, it will not completely resolve the tension between RtoP — in itself only a General Assembly recommendation — and the UN Charter itself, which, according to the letter of the law, limits action to “international” threats.

Dan Trombly –The upending of sovereignty and Responsibility to Protect Ya Neck

Beauchamp, along with Slaughter, have revealed R2P for what it actually is: a doctrine based on regime change and the destruction of the foundations of international order wherever practically possible. After all, are intervening powers really fulfilling their responsibility if they fail to effect regime change after intervening? This is exactly why I believe R2P is far more insidious than many of its advocates would have us believe or intend in practice. It is essentially mandating a responsibility, wherever possible, to seek the sanction, coercion, or overthrow of regimes which fail to meet a liberal conception of acceptable state behavior. Even if R2P is never applied against a major power, it is hard to see why such behavior would not be met with just as much suspicion as humanitarian intervention and previous Western regime change operations were. Indeed, a full treatment will reveal there is immense pressure for R2P to initiate the more fundamental, and more universal, impulse to revert to the potential ruthlessness inherent in international anarchy.

Understandably, such critiques of R2P are primarily concerned with sovereignty as it relates to interstate relations and the historical predisposition for great powers to meddle in the affairs of weaker countries, usually with far less forthrightness than the Athenians displayed at Melos. It must be said, that small countries often  are their own worst enemies in terms of frequently providing pretexts for foreign intervention due to epic incompetence in self-governance and a maniacal delight in atavistic bloodshed. Slaughter is not offering up a staw man in relation to democide and genocide being critical problems with which the international community is poorly equipped and politically unwilling to counter.

But R2P is a two edged sword – the sovereignty of all states diminished universally, in legal principle, to the authority of international rule-making about the domestic use of force is likewise diminished in it’s ability to legislate it’s own internal affairs, laws being  nothing but sovereign  promises of state enforcement. Once the camel’s nose is legitimated by being formally accepted as having a place in the tent, the rest of the camel is merely a question of degree.

And time.

As Containment required an NSC-68 to put policy flesh on the bones of doctrine, R2P will require the imposition of policy mechanisms that will change the political community of the United States, moving it away from democratic accountability to the electorate toward “legal”, administrative, accountability under international law; a process of harmonizing US policies to an amorphous, transnational, elite consensus, manifested in supranational and international bodies. Or decided privately and quietly, ratifying decisions later as a mere formality in a rubber-stamping process that is opaque to everyone outside of the ruling group.

Who is to say that there is not, somewhere in the intellectual ether, an R2P for the the environment, to protect the life of the unborn, to mandate strict control of small arms, or safeguard the political rights of minorities by strictly regulating speech? Or whatever might be invented to suit the needs of the moment?

When we arrest a bank robber, we do not feel a need to put law enforcement and the judiciary on a different systemic basis in order to try them. Finding legal pretexts for intervention to stop genocide does not require a substantial revision of international law, merely political will. R2P could become an excellent tool for elites to institute their policy preferences without securing democratic consent and that aspect, to oligarchical elites is a feature, not a bug.

R2P will come back to haunt us sooner than we think.


Doug Mataconis at Outside the Beltway links here in a round-up and commentary about R2P posts popping up in the wake of the Slaughter piece:

The “Responsibility To Protect” Doctrine After Libya

….It’s understandable that the advocates of R2P don’t necessarily want to have Libya held up as an example of their doctrine in action. Leaving aside the obvious contrasts with the situation in Syria and other places in the world, it is by no means clear that post-Gaddafi Libya will be that much better than what preceded it. The rebels themselves are hardly united around anything other than wanting to get rid of Gaddafi and, now that they’ve done that, the possibility of the nation sliding into civil and tribal warfare is readily apparent. Moreover, the links between the rebels and elements of al Qaeda that originated in both Afghanistan and post-Saddam Iraq are well-known. If bringing down Gaddafi means the creation of a safe haven for al Qaeda inspired terrorism on the doorstep of Europe, then we will all surely come to regret the events of the past five months. Finally, with the rebels themselves now engaging in atrocities, one wonders what has happened to the United Nations mission to protect civilians, which didn’t distinguish between attacks by Gaddafi forces or attacks by rebels.

….Finally, there’s the danger that the doctrine poses to American domestic institutions. If Libya is any guide, then R2P interventions, of whatever kind, would likely be decided by international bodies of “experts” rather than the democratically elected representatives of the American people. American sailors and soldiers will be sent off into danger without the American people being consulted. That’s not what the Constitution contemplates, and if we allow it to happen it will be yet another nail in the coffin of liberty.

Read the rest here.

Switch to our mobile site