August 2, 2004


X + 9/11: Everything I needed to know about fighting terrorism I learned from George F. Kennan (Robert L. Hutchings, July/August 2004, Foreign Policy)

In his X article, Kennan argued that Soviet power was the product of both ideology and circumstance. Russia's antipathy toward the West was born of historical insecurity. In that context, communism was less a goal than a means—a way for Moscow to maintain control at home and spread its influence abroad. “This means that truth is not a constant but is actually created, for all intents and purposes, by the Soviet leaders themselves,” Kennan wrote. “It is nothing absolute and immutable.” This observation led Kennan to two conclusions: First, the United States was engaged in a long-term struggle, because the Soviet leaders—confident in their ideological infallibility and secure in their belief of ultimate triumph—were in no hurry to achieve their goals. But, Kennan was quick to add, this messianic conviction did not mean the Soviets were necessarily committed to a do-or-die struggle to the end. He did not assume that Soviet ideology was so powerful that it could not be overcome, or that the zealotry of the present generation of leaders would necessarily be passed to the next. If the Western powers remained vigilant, Kennan believed, the Soviet system would inevitably turn inward to deal with its inherent contradictions.

Kennan was not soft on communism. His containment strategy targeted the Soviet regime, whose aggressive impulses had to be kept in check. But he also argued for a strategy of engagement with the Russian people, whom he refused to consider permanent U.S. enemies. Kennan later lamented that containment came to be seen in almost exclusively military terms; what he had in mind was the full range of economic, political, psychological, military, and cultural tools at the United States' disposal.

Today, the United States and its allies again confront a seemingly implacable adversary. The challenge is to address and understand the sources of terrorist conduct, even as we counter the efforts of those who would attack us. Like the Soviets before them, Islamic militants are a product of both ideology and circumstance. Although the militants can trace their ideas to strains of puritanical Islam from the 14th century and to the Wahhabi and Salafi movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, much of their pathology is unrelated to religion. Al Qaeda is, to a large extent, a symptom of social dislocation.

The benefits of economic globalization have largely bypassed Arab countries, even as it has exposed them as never before to outside influences. In oil-rich states, elites have used their wealth and power to maintain authoritarian rule and avoid economic and political reform. It is no surprise that the citizens of these countries view the outside world through the prism of exploitation. Meanwhile, the pervasive exposure to Western mass culture has served both to attract and alienate these societies. It's an old story: The more modern and dynamic society undermines the traditional society's values, practices, and allegiances. The recurring response to such an existential crisis is a surge in millenarian beliefs and an inclination toward nihilism. As has been the case in countless struggles before, terrorism is the quintessential weapon of the weak against the strong.

These conditions, however, need not be permanent. Hard as it may be to penetrate the anti-American sentiment prevalent in the Muslim world, the United States must undertake a strategy of engagement similar to what Kennan proposed for the Russian people.

Mr. Kennan's essay is certainly worth referring back to, though the differences between the USSR and al Qaeda stand out almost as much as the important point that we actually can apply to our current situation, The Sources of Soviet Conduct (George Kennan, July 1947, Foreign Affairs)
Now the outstanding circumstance concerning the Soviet regime is that down to the present day this process of political consolidation has never been completed and the men in the Kremlin have continued to be predominantly absorbed with the struggle to secure and make absolute the power which they seized in November 1917. They have endeavored to secure it primarily against forces at home, within Soviet society itself. But they have also endeavored to secure it against the outside world. For ideology, as we have seen, taught them that the outside world was hostile and that it was their duty eventually to overthrow the political forces beyond their borders. Then powerful hands of Russian history and tradition reached up to sustain them in this feeling. Finally, their own aggressive intransigence with respect to the outside world began to find its own reaction; and they were soon forced, to use another Gibbonesque phrase, "to chastise the contumacy" which they themselves had provoked. It is an undeniable privilege of every man to prove himself right in the thesis that the world is his enemy; for if he reiterates it frequently enough and makes it the background of his conduct he is bound eventually to be right. [...]

Of the original ideology, nothing has been officially junked. Belief is maintained in the basic badness of capitalism, in the inevitability of its destruction, in the obligation of the proletariat to assist in that destruction and to take power into its own hands. But stress has come to be laid primarily on those concepts which relate most specifically to the Soviet regime itself: to its position as the sole truly Socialist regime in a dark and misguided world, and to the relationships of power within it.

The first of these concepts is that of the innate antagonism between capitalism and socialism. We have seen how deeply that concept has become imbedded in foundations of Soviet power. It has profound implications for Russia's conduct as a member of international society. It means that there can never be on Moscow's side any sincere assumption of a community of aims between the Soviet Union and powers which are regarded as capitalist. It must invariably be assumed in Moscow that the aims of the capitalist world are antagonistic to the Soviet regime, and therefore to the interest of the peoples it controls. If the Soviet government occasionally sets its signature to documents which would indicate the contrary, this is to be regarded as a tactical maneuver permissible in dealing with the enemy (who is without honor) and should be taken in the spirit of caveat emptor. Basically, the antagonism remains. It is postulated. And from it flow many of the phenomena which we find disturbing in the Kremlin's conduct of foreign policy: the secretiveness, the lack of frankness, the duplicity, the wary suspiciousness, and the basic unfriendliness of purpose. These phenomena are there to stay, for the foreseeable future. There can be variations of degree and of emphasis. When there is something the Russians want from us, one or the other of these features of their policy may be thrust temporarily into the background; and when that happens there will always be Americans who will leap forward with gleeful announcements that "the Russians have changed," and some who will even try to take credit for having brought about such "changes." But we should not be misled by tactical maneuvers. These characteristics of Soviet policy, like the postulate from which they flow, are basic to the internal nature of Soviet power, and will be with us, whether in the foreground or the background, until the internal nature of Soviet power is changed.

This means that we are going to continue for a long time to find the Russians difficult to deal with. It does not mean that they should be considered as embarked upon a do-or-die program to overthrow our society by a given date. The theory of the inevitability of the eventual fall of capitalism has the fortunate connotation that there is no hurry about it. The forces of progress can take their time in preparing the final coup de grace. Meanwhile, what is vital is that the "socialist fatherland" - that oasis of power which has been already won for Socialism in their person of the Soviet Union -- should be cherished and defended by all good communists at home and abroad, its fortunes promoted, its enemies badgered and confounded. The promotion of premature, "adventuristic" revolutionary projects abroad which might embarrass Soviet power in any way would be an inexcusable, even a counterrevolutionary act. The cause of socialism is the support and promotion of Soviet power, as defined in Moscow. [...]

In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies. It is important to note, however, that such a policy has nothing to do with outward histrionics: with threats or blustering or superfluous gestures of outward "toughness." While the Kremlin is basically flexible in its reaction to political realities, it is by no means unamenable to considerations of prestige. Like almost any other government, it can be placed by tactless and threatening gestures in a position where it cannot afford to yield even though this might be dictated by its sense of realism. The Russian leaders are keen judges of human psychology, and as such they are highly conscious that loss of temper and of self-control is never a source of strength in political affairs. They are quick to exploit such evidences of weakness. For these reasons, it is a sine qua non of successful dealing with Russia that the foreign government in question should remain at all times cool and collected and that its demands on Russian policy should be put forward in such a manner as to leave the way open for a compliance not too detrimental to Russian prestige.

In the light of the above, it will be clearly seen that the Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and maneuvers of Soviet policy, but which cannot be charmed or talked out of existence. The Russians look forward to a duel of infinite duration, and they see that already they have scored great successes. It must be borne in mind that there was a time when the Communist Party represented far more of a minority in the sphere of Russian national life than Soviet power today represents in the world community. ...

It is clear that the United States cannot expect in the foreseeable future to enjoy political intimacy with the Soviet regime. It must continue to regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena. It must continue to expect that Soviet policies will reflect no abstract love of peace and stability, no real faith in the possibility of a permanent happy coexistence of the Socialist and capitalist worlds, but rather a cautious, persistent pressure toward the disruption and weakening of all rival influence and rival power.

Balanced against this are the facts that Russia, as opposed to the Western world in general, is still by far the weaker party, that Soviet policy is highly flexible, and that Soviet society may well contain deficiencies which will eventually weaken its own total potential. This would of itself warrant the United States entering with reasonable confidence upon a policy of firm containment, designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counter-force at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.

But in actuality the possibilities for American policy are by no means limited to holding the line and hoping for the best. It is entirely possible for the United States to influence by its actions the internal developments, both within Russia and throughout the international communist movement, by which Russian policy is largely determined. This is not only a question of the modest measure of informational activity which this government can conduct in the Soviet Union and elsewhere, although that, too, is important. It is rather a question of the degree to which the United States can create among the peoples of the world generally the impression of a country which knows what it wants, which is coping successfully with the problems of its internal life and with the responsibilities of a world power, and which has a spiritual vitality capable of holding its own among the major ideological currents of the time. To the extent that such an impression can be created and maintained, the aims of Russian communism must appear sterile and quixotic, the hopes and enthusiasm of Moscow's supporters must wane and added strain must be imposed on the Kremlin's foreign policies. For the palsied decrepitude of the capitalist world is the keystone of communist philosophy. Even the failure of the United States to experience the early economic depression which the ravens of the Red Square have been predicting with such complacent confidence since hostilities ceased would have deep and important repercussions throughout the communist world.

By the same token, exhibitions of indecision, disunity and internal disintegration within this country have an exhilarating effect on the whole communist movement. At each evidence of these tendencies, a thrill of hope and excitement goes through the communist world; a new jauntiness can be noted in the Moscow tread; new groups of foreign supporters climb on to what they can only view as the band wagon of international politics; and Russian pressure increases all along the line in international affairs.

It would be an exaggeration to say that American behavior unassisted and alone could exercise a power of life and death over the communist movement and bring about the early fall of Soviet power in Russia. But the United States has it in its power to increase enormously the strains under which Soviet policy must operate, to force upon the Kremlin a far greater degree of moderation and circumspection than it has had to observe in recent years, and in this way to promote tendencies which must eventually find their outlet in either the break-up or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power. For no mystical, Messianic movement -- and particularly not that of the Kremlin -- can face frustration indefinitely without eventually adjusting itself in one way or another to the logic of that state of affairs.

Thus the decision will really fall in large measure in this country itself. The issue of Soviet-American relations is in essence a test of the overall worth of the United States as a nation among nations. To avoid destruction the United States need only measure up to its own best traditions and prove itself worthy of preservation as a great nation.

Surely, there was never a fairer test of national quality than this. In the light of these circumstances, the thoughtful observer of Russian-American relations will find no cause for complaint in the Kremlin's challenge to American society. He will rather experience a certain gratitude to a Providence which, by providing the American people with this implacable challenge, has made their entire security as a nation dependent on their pulling themselves together and accepting the responsibilities of moral and political leadership that history plainly intended them to bear.

In everything from the citation to an "official ideology" to the question of how to relate to the government of the USSR to the notion of going over the heads of the leaders to the common people, it is obvious that dealing with a sovereign state was quite different--far easier--than dealing with an amorphous and stateless gang. However, Mr. Kennan's core insight obtains: the internal contradictions of Communism and Islamicism--and all the other isms, for that matter--are such that they can't possibly sustain themselves and our victory is assured so long as we contain them and maintain pressure.

Posted by Orrin Judd at August 2, 2004 6:39 AM

Kennan's extraordinary insight about the nature of the USSR, especially regarding the effect that the internal contradictions would have on that country's secular theology, seems to have been borne out almost to the letter.

Alas, Islamicism is not a secular theology.

And if the vicious cycle is, as V.S. Naipaul noted in Among the Believers, that when Islamic fundamentalism fails, it must necessarily--and thus continually--conclude that it has not been fundamentalist enough, then I fear that we may be yearning for the days when the Soviet Union was the enemy and wonder how long the west's predilection to allow wishful thinking to govern its foreign policy can last.

P.S. Those who found Kennan's analysis that the Soviet's suspicions of the western world had less to do with Communism and more with traditional Russian relationships with foreigners might find this of interest.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at August 2, 2004 8:54 AM

i.e. Those who found cogent Kennan's analysis....

Posted by: Barry Meislin at August 2, 2004 8:58 AM

Since Beijing's governing philosophy, their concept of Communism, seems to be wholly different from Moscow's, with no sense of the inevitability of Communism's triumph over Capitalism, can we trust that China will see itself as having many goals in common with the West ?

Or, are they simply too absorbed in attempting to maintain their hold over their own people to bother with foreign adventures ?


We might indeed see the emergence of an even more fundamentalist movement, but would such a movement be any more successful ?
For one thing, they'd have more problems gaining recruits; for another, how would being more fundamentalist help them ?
They're already willing to kill themselves and anyone else...
What more can they do ?

I guess that they could be willing to set immolating fires...

Posted by: Michael Herdegen at August 2, 2004 10:31 AM

We did engage the Russian people. Jeans, jazz, coke.

But the ME already has that.

Posted by: Sandy P at August 2, 2004 12:50 PM

Sandy: did you mean coke or Coke? Or both? Hmm.

Posted by: old maltese at August 2, 2004 4:48 PM

Russians were at least partly westernized and so at least partly susceptible to analysis in western terms, which is all Kennan was capable of.

Muslims are not like us and their behavior cannot be predicted in our terms, if at all.

The curious thing is that Arabs as well as Europeans were heirs to Greek rationalism -- which, despite what Orrin imagines, is the source of our worldly if not our spiritual might -- yet somehow (don't ask me how) the Arabs were completely immune to it.

There is no obvious reason why the rejection of Christian superstition and induction that led to modern technique around 1600 should not have happened in Islam hundreds of years earlier. But it didn't.

They really are not like us.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 2, 2004 9:08 PM

There is no obvious reason why...

This question has provoked much commentary. In a nutshell, Islam cannot render unto Caesar that which belongs to Caesar, this because Allah is all. Islam is all.

Posted by: Barry Meislin at August 3, 2004 10:50 AM

P.S. However, see:

(via Martin Kramer)

Posted by: Barry Meislin at August 3, 2004 10:51 AM

Could be. I don't have to explain it, just observe that that's how it is.

Posted by: Harry Eagar at August 3, 2004 5:31 PM