Jul 16, 2019 in Research
Ideas of Kennan and American Foreign Policy


Being one of the most famous and influential American figures of the 20th century, George Frost Kennan left behind a vast and diversified intellectual heritage, which is extremely important for understanding the inner world of American foreign policy, its dominant socio-cultural and historical dynamics. This is particularly relevant in the context of contemporary international relations, when the United States became the only superpower in the modern world, which role and function cause growing concern both within the country and the international community. On the one hand, Kennan was the initiator of a new US foreign policy toward the Soviet Union, which was called containment policy. On the other hand, the views of Kennan for the development of Soviet-American relations are often contradicted to the official position of Washington. The basic meaning of Kennan’s policy of containment consisted in not going to the unilateral concessions to the Kremlin and Stalin's leadership and opposing attempts to expand its sphere of influence. Kennan’s idea of containment towards the Soviet Union became the foundation for further development of American foreign policy, which was based on the principles of containment, deterrence, intervention, and creation of the liberal order. 

Kennan's Idea of Containment

While working at the American Embassy in Moscow, Kennan was a staunch opponent of searching any compromise with the Soviet government and considered the possibility of mutually beneficial cooperation between the USSR and the US to be unpromising. After witnessing the judicial and extra-judicial terror, the apogee of which occurred in the period after the assassination of Kirov, he had a very negative attitude to the system of government headed by Stalin which was formed in the Soviet Union. At variance with the declared rate of the US leadership, Kennan acted as a hardliner against Moscow and condemned Roosevelt for his tolerance towards the Soviet leaders. He did not deny that the US military and technical assistance for the Lend-Lease Act was crucial to the Soviet Union to defeat the common enemy. However, Kennan demanded to significantly limit its scope during the Warsaw Uprising. He believed that Roosevelt's policy of cooperation with the Soviet Union was shortsighted. It led to the establishment of equality between the two nations at the end of the Second World War and the emergence of illusion of the US unilateral interest in cooperation with the USSR. 


Later, Kennan expected that the volume of claims from Moscow would inevitably expand. At the same time, he argued that it was possible to prevent this expansion. It was needed to distinguish between the USSR and the West spheres of influence. Partly, this proposal contained visible outlines of some ideas that soon formed the basis of the strategy of containment. 


Kennan sent a so-called long telegram to the US State Department, the essence of which was later stated in his article “Sources of Soviet Conduct” in the magazine Foreign Affairs. The article concluded about the senselessness of the policy towards Moscow, which was held under the presidency of Roosevelt. In the relationship with the Soviet government, Kennan proposed to follow a policy of containment of the USSR expansionist tendencies by contrasting indomitable strength of the United States across the world. Thus, on the question about the prospects of Soviet-American relations, telegram gave seductively simple answer: the Soviet side was blamed for all existing contradictions. Within a short period of time, several thousands of people, who were responsible for making foreign policy decisions, have examined the telegram. It was sent to the members of the State Department, senior officers of the armed forces, as well as the U.S. diplomatic missions in other countries. As a result, Kennan’s telegram became the document that has defined the production of the foreign policy of the United States against the Soviet Union, formed the basis of Truman Doctrine, and ultimately led to the creation of the North Atlantic Alliance.

Truman Policy

Kennan was the first one who formulated the key idea of Harry Truman administration: not to provoke the Soviet Union, but to demonstrate firmness and to defend vision of the United States, even if it is contrary to the opinion of Moscow. London informed the United States that due to the financial difficulties, Britain would not be able to continue providing the assistance to Greece and Turkey. The US government was convinced that the political vacuum in the event of removal of Britain from the Eastern Mediterranean would be taken by the Soviet Union. The situation seemed alarming because of the situation in Greece, where the royal government could not defeat the Communists. The possible victory of the Greek communists seemed the beginning of the revolutionary wave that could engulf Italy and France, where the Communist Party had a big impact. As a result, the US President Harry Truman asked Congress for provision of emergency support to Greece and Turkey. In justifying the request, Truman referred to the need to stem the tide of world communism by economic methods. This was the essence of his doctrine. In the president's speech, Truman used the terminology and argument of Kennan’s long telegram. Since Truman’s speech, the concept of containment was officially adopted as the basis of the US foreign policy. 


One of the goals of the Truman Doctrine was the creation of states under the control of the United States around the Soviet Union, which would become a powerful barrier to spreading the Soviet interest in the world. Governments of these countries had to obey the United States. In exchange, they received substantial financial support from the American leadership. This submission was provided through the establishment of financial and political control by the US administration. Poverty and famine that prevailed in these countries after the Second World War were the main reasons for cooperation with the United States. 

Marshal Plan 

An extension of the Truman Doctrine was the creation of the Marshall Plan. It was a project of financial assistance to European countries, according to which the United States granted preferential loans in Europe as delivery of finished products. European countries allowed the US companies to create their own production area. Marshall Plan occupied an important place in the strategy of the United States in the early post-war period and was a historical stage in the development of the US foreign policy. It has found the successful continuation in other programs of economic aid, which mechanism is used to this day. 


In 1950s, the Marshall Plan was the core of the European policy and contributed to the continuation of the implementation of the objectives that were laid down in the Truman Doctrine. It served as the first important step in Atlantic integration where the United States strongly occupied a dominant role, and the further development of the European and Atlantic integration.

Examples Of Containment Strategy

The division of Europe that was caused by controversy of the capitalist and socialist forces immediately affected the fate of Germany. For the Western countries, its occupation zone became the front line of containment policy. It became obvious that the success of this policy depended on the Germans. The US insisted on the inclusion of West Germany in the scope of the Marshall Plan. The Western countries began to achieve economic stabilization in Germany, thus creating a strong state that was based on the three Western zones of occupation. As a result of blocking leading to the west of Berlin, the blockade began. It meant the first open Soviet confrontation with its former allies. The blockade of Berlin led to a new change in the political arena. At the same time, the Democrats regained control of both houses of Congress. Elections showed fracture that occurred in the attitudes of Americans. They established themselves in the idea that the US was a line of defense in Europe and Asia, and expressed a preference for the line to force a confrontation with the Soviet Union, which was initiated by Truman.


The tactics of containment does not work if the interest of the enemy to achieve a particular purpose is greater than self-interest. A classic example is the Cuban Missile Crisis, in which the Soviet Union has provoked the United States. Moscow retreated only when it became clear that Washington was ready to defend its core interests by all means. Another example is the Vietnam War. The superior forces of the United States were forced to retreat because the North Vietnamese and Vietcong were ready to sacrifice much more than the Americans with the support of South Vietnam. These examples show asymmetric balance of interests, which often deprives the effectiveness of containment tactics. As a result, the major powers are losing a little war.


The Korean War was the first conflict in the history, which could escalate into a nuclear war. However, it has not escalated because of the desire of the Soviet Union to avoid a collision with the United States and give it the opportunity to get stuck in a prolonged confrontation with the enemy. In comparison with the Soviet Union, the US leaders in the last years of Truman authority were in a more favorable position in the sense that their policy was based on a clear concept of containment. In fact, the Korean War did not only reveal the limitations of containment, but also demonstrated the lack of a clear idea of the scope of the US strategic liability. 


By the end of the 1940s, the United States has successfully implemented its advantages of the first economic power in the world. This period was a time of hegemonic dominance of the United States. After several centuries of domination of isolationism, there was a time of the predominance of the American philosophy of internationalism (interventionism). This principle of American foreign policy was founded on the idea of moral predestination of the United States as the world's first state, which was based on the idea of freedom to perform the noble mission of protection of freedom and democracy. The United States was ready to go to the costs for the execution of this mission, justifying their need to protect American ideals, the national interests, and people. As a result, the US Senate adopted the so-called Vandenberg Resolution. According to it, the participation of the United States in regional and other collective agreements which were based on the provision of long-term and collective mutual assistance in matters affecting national security was allowed. The adoption of this resolution meant the abandonment of the isolationist in foreign policy and the commitment to the creation of permanent units with the United States. 

Deterrence and Creation of Economic Liberal Order

With the adoption of the containment strategy, the time has come to abandon isolationism and enter the arena of Europe in order to establish a qualitatively new system of international relations, the guarantor of which was the United States. Therefore, the United States threw its unparalleled economic and military power, opening of the world economy, the creation of multilateral international institutions and the world market, and proclaimed a policy of world leadership. Thus, the main long-term goal of the United States was the establishment of liberal economic and political order. Washington had to prevent the expansion of the Soviet influence in Europe and gain a foothold in the Western Europe. 


A distinctive feature of containment policy was the setting for the simultaneous formation of a variety of different tools in the fight against the forces of socialism, the most important of which was American military power, primarily nuclear, which performed the function of deterrence of the Soviet Union and the assurance of efficiency at lower pressure levels. In political terms, the US military force is considered as the state's ability to influence the international scene through the destruction, coercion, intimidation or armed resistance activities of other states. The state must have the means, which is the military force, upon which it could achieve the objectives of its policy in spite of other states.


Among the common justifications for the use of military force by the state, there is the concept of national interests. In a world of uncertainty and hostility, statesman has no other choice but to put the US interests over the interests of other countries or the interests of the international system as a whole. Thus, national interests are synonymous with national egoism, penetrating all other foreign policy issues.  One important justification of the central role of military force in international relations is the situation that provides political pressure over the whole range of problems faced by the state in times of peace and wartime. Deterrence is one of the key positions of foreign and military policy of Washington. In this case, military power is used to create threat of unacceptable damage in order to keep it from actions that could be committed, but which implementation is not in the interest of intimidating side.


Key principles of Kennan’s strategy consisted in the withdrawal of the organic expansionism that was inherent to the Soviet leaders and encouraged them to external expansion, spreading their sphere of influence in the new areas of the world. Accordingly, the only adequate response to these aspirations of the Soviet Union was containment of Moscow that meant holding the Soviet Union strictly within the zones of influence that it had managed to acquire. To counter the Soviet expansionism, American diplomacy must take an active role in international politics.  


Faced with a rapidly developing process of revolutionary changes in the world, the leaders of the United States elected a strategic foreign policy, which was aimed at dismantling the existing balance of forces, ousting the Soviet Union, and the establishment of global hegemony of the United States. This policy received the name of containment of communism and turned into the official foreign policy of Truman Administration, and found its most famous expression in the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan. In theory, the strategy of containment was based on geopolitical theses, postulating traditional fighting of continental and maritime powers. Ideologically, containment was based on anti-communism and anti-Sovietism. The extension of the concept of containment was defined by Washington's desire to use a complex method of pressure on the USSR, which included military, economic, and ideological methods. This strategy found its realization in the US response to Cuban Missile Crisis, Berlin Blockade, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. This principle caused the elaboration of the four central pillars of the US foreign policy: interventionism, containment, intimidation, and creation of economic liberal order. 



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