The passing of George Kennan evoked a spate of reflections on his life and work, none more insightful than this recent column by James Carroll. Here’s a sample:
How we remember the past determines the shape of the future. If Kennan’s life reminds us that there was nothing inevitable about the militarized confrontation of the Cold War, it can also help us see an alternative to the belligerent course now being set by Washington. Here is what a Kennan-like preference for political and diplomatic responses over military ones would mean today:
An aggressive movement away from US dependence on nuclear weapons, which is the best way to check proliferation.
Avoiding the militarization of conflict with China, which can needlessly lead to a new Cold War, complete with a rekindled arms race, only now rushing into space.
A prompt end to the war in Iraq, the first step of which is a withdrawal of American forces, paired with a renunciation of all US military bases in the Middle East.
Depriving terrorists of their raison d’etre by defusing Arab and Islamic resentment of American intrusions in the Middle East.
Meeting the gravest threat to national security, which is the global degradation of the environment, by renewing structures of international cooperation.
Bush administration policies run in an exactly opposite direction from the way shown by the life of George Kennan.
As with communism in the early days of the Cold War, we have made a transcendent enemy for ourselves with ”terrorism,” imagining a globally organized, ideologically driven threat that far exceeds what actually exists. We have made an idol of a particular notion of ”freedom,” forgetting again that freedom from hunger and disease is what the vast majority of humans long for. Once more, we fail to see the ways in which American-style freedom includes dehumanized elements (violence, prurience, greed) that others might properly resist.
In Iraq, we reenact the perverse American script that saves by destroying. In Korea, once again (Secretary Condoleezza Rice resplendent in a military bunker), we imagine that saber rattling helps. As for international institutions like the United Nations and the World Bank, we express our contempt by appointing as representatives their sworn enemies.
George F. Kennan was a good man. Despite himself, he helped launch his nation down a dangerous road. In regretting that, he spent his life calling for another way. The ultimate ”realist,” he legitimized the idealist’s dream. War is not the answer. America can honor this prophet by heeding him at last.