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George Kennan Is Still the Russia Expert America Needs

The architect of Washington’s Cold War strategy offers President-elect Trump the best guide for managing Moscow.



A quarter-century after the fall of the Soviet Union, Moscow and Washington are in a confrontation with growing echoes of the Cold War, a conflict that was supposed to have been consigned to history’s dustbin. Even more troubling is that neither side has offered much of a framework for managing — let alone resolving — the new geopolitical standoff. The result has been an escalating conflict, with no clear end in sight.

Donald Trump is right to want to break with the policies of his predecessors that are in part responsible for the dismal state of relations today. But the president-elect’s assorted statements and tweets on Russia — his emphasis on the importance of better personal relations between himself and President Vladimir Putin, and his willingness to negotiate over everything from counterterrorism cooperation in Syria to sanctions imposed for Russia’s annexation of Crimea and incursions in Ukraine to the status of NATO — does not yet amount to a Russia strategy. While Trump is clear about his desire to improve relations, he has not defined where exactly he’d be willing to concede and where he’d push back against the Kremlin, nor has he laid out an overarching vision for U.S. relations, not only with Russia, but with Europe as a whole.

For inspiration, the incoming U.S. administration would be wise to look to the last successful example — the Cold War strategy that culminated in the peaceful dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991. And that means looking to its founder, George F. Kennan.

In the late 1940s, as U.S.-Soviet confrontation heated up, Kennan — who served as deputy to the U.S. ambassador in Moscow, and later as ambassador himself — offered a comprehensive plan for managing that rivalry in two famous papers: a 1946 diplomatic cable known as the “Long Telegram” and “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” an essay pseudonymously published in Foreign Affairs in 1947, better known as the “X Article.” Kennan’s analysis, which included the injunction to “confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interest of a peaceful and stable world,” became the basis for President Harry S. Truman’s containment doctrine.

Kennan’s containment strategy began from a careful and sophisticated analysis of the Russian leadership, whom he considered to be both pragmatic and opportunistic, and motivated by an expansionist ideology that could be checked by real-world constraints and costs. “If the adversary has sufficient force and makes clear his readiness to use it, he rarely has to do so,” wrote Kennan in 1946, so that “If situations are properly handled there need be no prestige-engaging showdowns.”

In the hands of more hawkish Cold Warriors, Kennan’s containment concept became an excuse for policies he never endorsed: the costly nuclear arms race, the war in Vietnam, and the chess match in the Middle East and Latin America, all justified in the name of competing with the Soviet aggressor. Kennan’s notion of containing Soviet expansionism via counterforce gave rise to a “domino theory” championed by Truman, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and subsequent administrations, under which third-world combatants became proxies for Moscow and Washington. Superpower involvement in intrastate and regional conflicts increased the likelihood of escalation to a direct U.S.-Soviet conflict, and even nuclear war. Kennan’s contemporary Paul Nitze, who also played a major role in shaping U.S.-Soviet policy, viewed the strategy as a battle of will and numbers, and argued for overwhelming the Soviets with superior military capabilities and deployments across the world.

But Kennan was horrified by such militarized interpretations of containment. For deterrence to work, Kennan argued, the West needed to convey a clear and compelling threat without a threatening or bullying tone, which he worried Russians might perceive as weakness, or which might push the Kremlin into a domestic political corner where it was forced to escalate. “Like almost any other government,” Kennan warned in his 1947 essay, “The Source of Soviet Conduct,” the Kremlin “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.” He counseled that the Russians were “keen judges of human psychology … highly conscious that loss of temper and of self-control is never a source of strength in political affairs,” and would be “quick to exploit such evidences of weakness.” Simply put, Kennan believed that Moscow could and should be deterred without resorting to high-risk arms races or proxy conflicts.

The relevance of Kennan’s strategy did not end with the Cold War. The major debate today over U.S. policy toward Russia centers on the Kremlin’s motives for its actions — whether it is acting primarily out of insecurity (fear of NATO encirclement, U.S. meddling in the post-Soviet neighborhood, perhaps even regime change in Russia itself) or whether it is simply exploiting Western weakness to restore its regional dominance and global influence. The great benefit of Kennan’s strategy is that it doesn’t require that debate to be settled — it encourages both engagement with the Kremlin, and the projection of strength needed to deter Russian aggression.

Above all, Trump should keep in mind Kennan’s emphasis on credibility and self-control. And to that end, Washington should take care not to overstretch its deterrent capabilities. For example, NATO can only deter Russian threats to the territorial integrity, political stability, or financial security of member states in the Baltic and Black Sea regions if it defines clear red lines and how it will respond when those lines are crossed. It is vital that the incoming presidential administration affirm its commitment to NATO’s Article 5, which mandates a collective response in case of an armed attack on any member state. Similarly, the United States itself can deter Russian cyberattacks, but only if it is clear and consistent in defining what constitutes such an attack, and if Moscow believes that the U.S. response will be certain and unacceptably severe.

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By contrast, despite Western condemnation of Russian actions in Ukraine, partial isolation from international forums, and economic sanctions, Russia has not been deterred. This is because Moscow judges the benefits of blocking Kiev’s moves towards the European Union and NATO to be far greater than the limited costs, given the political and military constraints, that Ukraine and the West are capable of imposing in response.

While Kennan called for counterforce as a deterrent, he warned against applying Western power to try to change the Russian government itself. Such an approach would not only overreach in terms of the West’s actual capacity to influence events within Russia, but would certainly galvanize support among proud Russians for continued confrontation with the West. Instead, Kennan advised his own government to “formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of [the] sort of world we would like to see than we have put forward in past.” Many Europeans, he added, “are tired and frightened by experiences of [the] past, and are less interested in abstract freedom than in security.” Far from a dated reference to the aftermath of World War II, Kennan’s words capture a renewed sense of vulnerability to internal and external threats in Europe — and the United States — today, and underscore the continued necessity of U.S. leadership.

In that sense, the West’s response to Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, Moscow’s apparent interference in European and American politics, and the Kremlin’s media activities around the globe, needs to go beyond determining how to defend NATO allies militarily. The new U.S. administration’s central challenge — and the challenge facing the West as a whole — is whether it can provide the positive vision that was integral to Kennan’s containment strategy, especially in addressing persistent problems like education, health care, infrastructure, and employment. If Washington demonstrates vision and resolve to address its own most pressing challenges, Americans can have far greater influence on developments in Russia than they ever could through direct confrontation. Containment, as Kennan himself thought of it, was as much about reaffirming and broadcasting the vision at the heart of Western power and prosperity, as it was about devising a direct response to Russian power.

Indeed, the Cold War ended to a great degree because Russians came to view the United States as a successful and prosperous society, whose model they hoped to emulate and whose partnership they desired to manage global challenges. By contrast, today’s deterioration in relations has been deepened by American failures in Iraq and Afghanistan and the lingering consequences of the global financial crisis of 2008, which shattered Russians’ faith in the American model for economic development.

Having embraced the frustration of ordinary citizens with American democracy’s broken institutions, can President-elect Trump now restore their confidence?

“Surely,” Kennan wrote, “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.”

Today’s U.S.-Russia confrontation may not exactly be a new Cold War, but Kennan’s insights are as relevant as they were 70 years ago. If the incoming Trump administration is to benefit from Kennan’s insights today, it will not only need to define the means by which it will defend U.S. interests and allies, but also put forward a vision for solving common challenges and building prosperity. The current conflict, like the Cold War, will end not when one side has pummeled the other into exhaustion or bowed to the other’s interests, but when both are convinced that a brighter future is within reach.

Photo credit: WARREN K. LEFFLER/U.S. News & World Report via Library of Congress

Matthew Rojansky is the director of the Wilson Center’s Kennan Institute. He is an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the U.S. executive secretary of the Dartmouth Conference, a track-two U.S.-Russian conflict resolution initiative begun in 1960.

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