March 18, 2005

Farewell To Kennan

George Kennan has died. The obituaries will focus, quite rightly, on his famous "X" article, "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," which rolled out on the table a blueprint for "containment" against the Soviet Union. The idea seems obvious enough in retrospect, but back then the character and intentions of Stalin's regime were really quite murky, and Kennan lifted up a big fat lantern to the whole thing. It was impressive, and I'd recommend reading his essay again, even if you already haveā€”it's surprisingly good. And, enjoyably, Kennan was a lovely writer and a marvelous stylist, as in passages like this one:
Thus the future of Soviet power may not be by any means secure as Russian capacity for self-delusion would make it appear to the men of the Kremlin. That they can keep power themselves, they have demonstrated. That they can quietly and easily turn it over to others remains to be proved. Meanwhile, the hardships of their rule and the vicissitudes of international life have taken a heavy toll of the strength and hopes of the great people on whom their power rests.

It is curious to note that the ideological power of Soviet authority is strongest today in areas beyond the frontiers of Russia, beyond the reach of its police power. The phenomenon brings to mind a comparison used by Thomas Mann in his greatest novel Buddenbrooks. Observing that human institutions often show the greatest outward brilliance at a moment when inner decay is in reality farthest advanced, he compared the Buddenbrook family, in the days of its greatest glamour, to one of those stars whose light shines most brightly on this world when in reality it has long since ceased to exist. And who can say with assurance that the strong light still cast by the Kremlin on the dissatisfied peoples of the Western world in not the powerful afterglow of a constellation which is in actuality on the wane.

This cannot be proved. And it cannot be disproved. But the possibility remains (and in the opinion of this writer it is a strong one) that Soviet power, like the capitalist world of its conception, bears within it the seeds of its own decay, and that the sprouting of these seeds is well advanced.
Yeah, it's stuffy and a bit old-fashioned ("in the opinion of this writer," blah blah), and yeah, Buddenbrooks isn't actually Thomas Mann's greatest novel, but whatever, that's grand stuff. And that was in Foreign Affairs! Nowadays, of course, Foreign Affairs articles are mostly pedestrian in tone, even though they don't need to be, since they still discuss the same sweeping themes Kennan discussed, and use the same detail-free abstractions Kennan used. So what ever happened to stylized writing on big foreign policy topics? The really good stylists these days (Hertzberg, Didion, etc.) mostly do quaint "political observations," while all the big foreign policy visionaries (Pollack, Slaughter, etc.) write in that dull and plodding manner. Kennan managed to do both, and while it's not the biggest deal in the world, that sort of thing will be missed.

UPDATE: Dan Drezner has a more substantive obit on Kennan.
-- Brad Plumer 3:25 AM || ||