[defrosted into unnatural long life by Lynn C. Rees]
Pity the American nerd.
His brow furrows.
The American nerd suffers from chronic contradiction. While he sees finely diced reality within his area of expertise in exquisite, even excruciating, detail, he sees the wider world only in the broadest shades of bright, shining ideals, his specialized fixations writ large.
The corners of his mouth turn up ever so slightly. A measured smile. Careful.
Summoned by Hints of Greater Things to Come, shimmering Just Beyond Reach, the American nerd’s policies are lovingly handcrafted, calibrated to finely exploit his own Unique Domain Knowledge.
He lightly scratches and then strokes his chin. Thoughtful. Ever thoughtful.
In waking slumber, the American nerd makes the world anew. He renews it in the image of the vision of visions. His vision. Worthy of his vision.
Defacing the American nerd’s finest intents is a flaw: his vision, in its beauty, is compromised. It’s blemished by the limited, blighted, and unworthy means available to attain it.
His frown deepens.
The American nerd must ally with his natural enemy, that which he hates, the average American. Without such a alliance of mutual assured distaste, his nerd dreams are doomed to stay nerd dreams, unrealized.
His eyes chill. Frustrated.
The average American remains stubbornly unimpressed by the pure aesthetic of the American nerd’s vision. Their vulgar pastimes remain firmly rooted in this world, not the brave shiny world of pure mind. The average American is captured in unheroic mediocrity. Creatures of inertia: give them normalcy, plasma screen TVs, and cheeseburgers and they are satisfied. Convenient after nerd dreams are realized, supremely inconvenient before.
His frown reaches new lows. Unconsciously, his fists tighten.
The American nerd disapproves of “normalcy”, mentally inserting the air quotes himself.
His eyes brighten. His gaze grows distant, looking to better futures.
Higher things call the American nerd. Higher things even than plasma screens and cheeseburgers.
George Frost Kennan is typical of the American nerd. A U.S. State Department nerd, specializing in Russia, he writes two papers. Their calibrated nuance helps club America into its Cold War strategy of containment. He became a Nerd Immortal, a gauge other American nerds stretch to fit as they measure their own nerdity and nerditry.
In metric units.
For Kennan himself, immortality failed to measure up. A sentence had been taken out of nuance. Kennan wrote:
In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.
He bitterly accused his readers of only reading:
In these circumstances it is clear thatthe main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that oflong-term, patient but firm and vigilantcontainment of Russian expansive tendencies.
Kennan still complained decades later.
DAVID GERGEN: [Y]ou came into our consciousness for many Americans in 1947 when you were the author of so-called containment policy with regard to the Soviet Union, and yet you write in your book as a consistent theme that that, that that policy proposal that you made was misunderstood in our own government.
GEORGE KENNAN: Well, it certainly was, and it’s my own fault that it was. It all came down to one sentence in the “X” Article where I said that wherever these people, meaning the Soviet leadership, confronted us with dangerous hostility anywhere in the world, we should do everything possible to contain it and not let them expand any further. I should have explained that I didn’t suspect them of any desire to launch an attack on us. This was right after the war, and it was absurd to suppose that they were going to turn around and attack the United States. I didn’t think I needed to explain that, but I obviously should have done it.
DAVID GERGEN: Well, you intended then to have political containment–
GEORGE KENNAN: Exactly.
DAVID GERGEN: –of the Soviet Union, not military containment.
GEORGE KENNAN: Exactly. And I was moved to this largely by what was happening in, in Western Europe, but also what I have been able to observe, serving in Moscow until 1946, through the final two years of the war–
DAVID GERGEN: Right.
GEORGE KENNAN: –and then brought home, because I had seen us make one concession after another to the Soviet leadership, which I didn’t think it was necessary for us to make, and we were really misleading them because we catered so to them that we gave them the false idea of their own prestige.
DAVID GERGEN: Right. But you as a Soviet expert, as an authority who had lived there, found that you could not convince your own government.
GEORGE KENNAN: No, I couldn’t. I could–I found it easy to convince them that this was a very dangerous group of men. But I couldn’t persuade them that their aspirations were political.
DAVID GERGEN: And not military?
GEORGE KENNAN: And not military. They were not like Hitler.
Kennan had an altogether more nerdish strategy in mind. He saw the face off with Soviet Russia as the opportunity for nerds to triumph in American life. A few examples of the heroic America that Kennan wished to use the threat of Soviet Russia to summon into being.
From the “Long Telegram“:
(3) Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is point at which domestic and foreign policies meets. Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués. If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit–Moscow cannot help profiting by them in its foreign policies.
(4) We must formulate and put forward for other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of sort of world we would like to see than we have put forward in past. It is not enough to urge people to develop political processes similar to our own. Many foreign peoples, in Europe at least, are tired and frightened by experiences of past, and are less interested in abstract freedom than in security. They are seeking guidance rather than responsibilities. We should be better able than Russians to give them this. And unless we do, Russians certainly will.
(5) Finally we must have courage and self-confidence to cling to our own methods and conceptions of human society. After [all], the greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism, is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.
From “The Sources of Soviet Conduct“:
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 problem 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.
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.
These deft heroics were to be carried out with a rapier wit and “adroit” acrobatics which, perhaps unintentionally, capture the United States Kennan wants, enemy to the United States he has:
Soviet diplomacy [is] at once easier and more difficult to deal with than the diplomacy of individual aggressive leaders like Napoleon and Hitler. On the one hand it is more sensitive to contrary force, more ready to yield on individual sectors of the diplomatic front when that force is felt to be too strong, and thus more rational in the logic and rhetoric of power. On the other hand it cannot be easily defeated or discouraged by a single victory on the part of its opponents. And the patient persistence by which it is animated means that it can be effectively countered not by sporadic acts which represent the momentary whims of democratic opinion but only be intelligent long-range policies on the part of Russia’s adversaries — policies no less steady in their purpose, and no less variegated and resourceful in their application, than those of the Soviet Union itself.
In these circumstances it is clear that the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of 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.
Kennan was looking for a nation of Wile E. Coyotes. Unfortunately, anathema to his careful and nuanced policy, he found a nation of Shar-peis. Shar-peis are a laid-back breed, often lapsing into pure passivity. Yet they were bred for fighting. They had to be sorely provoked and even drugged to become vicious fighting dogs.
The average American is more Shar-pei than Kennan’s desired Wile E. Coyote. They must be goaded into brawls through careful, consistent provocation. The average American’s preferred lifestyle is normalcy. They prefer the uninterrupted life of quiet bourgeois pleasure to jittering bohemian thrills. Yet, poked persistently enough, they awake, raging in sudden flashes of extreme effort that rattle the Earth.
Americans don’t see the world in blacks and whites. But they don’t see it in infinite subtle grays either. The world view of the average American is painted in primary colors, in broad sweeping strokes. There’s room for distinction but not too much distinction. There has to be a readily digestible end, sought after with readily digestible means. And, hopefully, whatever strategy gets adopted achieves results quickly, with a clear, definite ending reached in discrete blocks of thirty minutes or an hour or two or, if you insist, a single season. If it dares to transgress those time limits, progress made must be progress demonstrable. Prolonged dramatic tension merely feeds the ancestral urge to return, once again, to triumphant normalcy.
In Kennan’s vision of containment, America rediscovered moral fiber at home while State Department Brahmins frustrated the Russians abroad through ever cleverer ways of saying “No.” across the negotiating table. The Russians would be morally hemmed in by American virtue on one side and politically hemmed in by frowning American diplomats on the other side.
Kennan’s containment was dead on arrival.
He called for a Great End that all Americans could rally ’round. Yet he expected to pursue his Great End with a non-existent means: a subtle, nuanced American public and a subtle, nuanced American political class. Both species are so breathtakingly rare that they constantly flirt between fiction and extinction. The United States had neither the historical tradition, culture, politics, or personnel to carry out Kennan’s policy mirage. America would continue to be a flawed, fractious, rather obtuse world power whose foreign policy was forever subject to the fits and starts of the its political cycle.
Kennan was a fatally flawed strategist. He accurately diagnosed the strategic goal of any American strategy. He failed to propose a strategic implementation that could be executed by real Americans living in a real America operating in a real world. Strategy reconciles power to desire. Kennan ignored its first law: quality and quantity of what is desired shouldn’t chronically contradict the quality and quantity of the power available to pursue that desire. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 31:
In disquisitions of every kind there are certain primary truths or first principles upon which all subsequent reasonings must depend. These contain an internal evidence, which antecedent to all reflection or combination commands the assent of the mind. Where it produces not this effect, it must proceed either from some defect or disorder in the organs of perception, or from the influence of some strong interest, or passion, or prejudice…Of the same nature are these other maxims in ethics and politics, that there cannot be an effect without a cause; that the means ought to be proportioned to the end; that every power ought to be commensurate with its object; that there ought to be no limitation of a power destined to effect a purpose, which is itself incapable of limitation.
Hamilton would know. He too was a American nerd whose entire system of strategy was implemented in a way he considered maladjusted, far inferior to the purity of his original vision. Strategy is the product of a political cycle: its nature inevitably be marked by the settling sediments of the political bric-a-brac of its age. In a republic, one man’s vision rarely escapes into national strategy unscathed by the hands of other men. The baby is doomed to deformity, an unavoidable side effect of the birthing and delivery process.
It may be that authoritarian regimes offer the possibility, however remote, that One Great Man can exercise a Great Grand Strategy, untrammeled by objections from lesser men. That may be one reason why both Hamilton and Kennan, in their worst moments, were strongly attracted to authoritarian possibilities at home and abroad. Authoritarian dreams are unrealizable in a system that attempts to approximate, however inaccurately, however implausibly, the desires of its citizens. Operating in a free state means, inescapably, that you have to execute a strategy with the citizens you have, not the citizens you want. And that will always rub the American nerd the wrong way.