I am catching up this summer with some of those big books that have been silently taunting me from my bookshelf this year. The first book I tackled was George F. Kennan: An American Life. My short verdict on this book is that it quite justifiably won the Pulitzer Prize this past year. It is magisterial. One can hardly imagine another biography of Kennan ever needing to be written. What follows is not my judgment of the book, then, but rather some thoughts I had while reading it that might be of interest to readers of this blog:
1. The career of George Kennan really underlines the importance of area studies. Kennan did not graduate from a public policy school master’s program. (Indeed, he learned most of what he knew of “strategy” in the process of developing the first curriculum for the National War College.) Instead, Kennan spent several years learning the Russian language and studying Russian politics, history and literature. The U.S. government, for its part, was wise enough to give him those years. Kennan was never a generalist. He was the U.S. government’s foremost specialist on the Soviet Union, and from that position, he crafted his strategy for countering communism. That having been said …
2. … Whenever Kennan wrote or spoke about areas of the globe that were not Eastern Europe or Russia, he was often out of his depth. People remember Kennan getting Vietnam right, but they forget him getting most everything else about Asia wrong. As much as #1 should encourage those of us with an area studies background, #2 should serve as a warning.
3. Kennan got a lot wrong, in fact. Holy cow did he ever get stuff wrong. (So have a little more sympathy for those of us not as smart as Kennan, eh?) What did he get more wrong, more often, than anything else? His own country. It figures that one of the fathers of realism never really understood domestic politics in his own country or how it shaped foreign policy. Kennan was also perpetually pessimistic about the United States and Americans, failing to see the strengths of our society that helped us to win the Cold War.
4. Those worrying about the militarization of U.S. foreign policy today, myself included, should take note that Kennan too worried about this. But he was smart enough to know as well that the task of the diplomat is a lot easier “when you have a quiet little armed force in the background.” (p. 241)
5. Style matters. Gaddis really drives this point home. Kennan’s successes as both diplomat and historian can partly be explained by his ability to write and speak clearly. The ability to effectively communicate in the English language is so very, very important, yet many would-be policy professionals I meet cannot speak or write effectively.
6. The way Kennan thought about his own life and sin as well as human nature reflects the more liberal Calvinist traditions in the United States. I would have loved to have read Gaddis wrestle more with Kennan’s faith. One very positive review of the book argued that a professional biographer — Gaddis is an historian — would not have so glossed over Kennan’s infidelities. I wish he had spent more time on them as well, not because I think they matter in terms of Kennan’s career but because the way he dealt with them seems to reflect how he viewed his faith and his own sin.
7. On p. 409, Robert Oppenheimer gives George Kennan some very good advice that any think tank scholar should follow. (No, I’m not telling you. Buy the book.)
8. I see a lot of value in quantitative methods as applied to political science, international relations, and security studies, but in my heart and head, I’m with Kennan: “…politics could never resemble physics because people were unpredictable. The only useful preparation for diplomacy came from history, as well as ‘from the more subtle and revealing expressions of man’s nature’ found in art and literature. Students should be reading ‘their Bible and their Shakespeare, their Plutarch and their Gibbon, perhaps even their Latin and their Greek.'”*
What am I now reading? This biography of Bismarck.
*None of that stuff will win you tenure.