Locklin on science

George Kennan, a quick review

Posted in Book reviews by Scott Locklin on March 17, 2022

George Kennan for those of you who don’t remember is the guy who came up with the geopolitical strategy we used to deal with the postwar Soviet Union; that of containment. He was a genius and most of you probably owe your non-radioactive birth to Kennan’s work. He wrote the most famous and influential email in known history, “the long telegram,” which formed the basis for our postwar strategy and conduct.


One of my favorite books for autobiography is the Kennan Diaries, which I first read around 2014 when it came out. The media were hyperventilating about what an awful racist Kennan was in his diaries, which is of course a good signal that he wrote interesting things of substance. Actually reading the thing, his prejudices were of a normal and level headed nature for a man of his era (the diaries started in 1916). What would have been truly bizarre is a man of 1916 being able to pass 2014’s political correctness strictures, let alone the ever expanding whirlwind of increasingly hysterical and absurd admonitions adhered to by modern Eloi.

Of course, the real reason for the hyperventillation was it’s basically 800 pages of the most qualified foreign policy expert on the subject of Russia in recent history telling us that the 2014 trajectory of US policy in eastern Europe will very likely lead to a disastrous war in Europe. Don’t mind that, boys and girls; look at all his fearsome racisms. Kennan is obviously a terrible man and just like Hitler so you don’t have to listen to anything he says.

Kennan was the type of guy who wouldn’t let a subhuman Ellis island type like me stand on his lawn, and I’m pretty sure had I been a contemporary of his I would have cordially despised him as a neurotic protestant prig. None the less he was a perceptive genius, and the type of man who made America a great country in his day. Of middle class origins, he felt out of place among the Ivy League types he was around most of his life. He was also tormented by the idea that his mother died giving birth to him and his diaries are filled with self-doubt and agony, in large part because of this. He was a career diplomat working in Germany in the 1920s, then later in the Soviet Union, Lisbon (an important time; he negotiated the treaty for use of the Azores) then back to the Soviet Union, where he wrote his Long Telegram. Again, this is effectively the most important email ever written, as it set the entire Cold War policy. And they hadn’t even invented email yet.

He wasn’t a big fan of Russia or Russians, which is as it should be for a diplomat serving in Russia. In fact he wasn’t a big fan of Americans either; Kennan was a consummate outsider. This sort of remove from normal society everywhere made him able to do the one thing a skilled diplomat should be able to do: analytically empathize with the people he was conducting diplomacy with. To the point he could get inside their heads and understand their motivations and emotional infrastructure. Because he was an outsider he could explain this to other people, rather than simply experiencing it. This was deathly important in dealing with the postwar Soviet state which was quite mysterious to most people in those days. Ultimately the Soviet state was insecure about the motivations of other countries and psychologically and militarily needed a buffer zone. It’s all hammer and tongs history and psychology: Russia is a land power which has been constantly surrounded by enemies and invaders since it got its start. The exact neurosis one might expect if you had a shot at Mackinder’s world island and you weren’t Germany.

Kennan supposed a strengthening of US institutions combined with containment of the Soviet threat would eventually result in the Soviet system collapsing on its own, which is exactly what happened. While he thought the Soviets weren’t an expansionist military threat, he was worried about communist subversion of Western Europe, so he recommended strengthening European institutions through a sort of soft colonialism: the Marshall Plan, in hopes of returning Europe to a normal balance of powers. He also suggested reuniting Germany early on, which probably would have been a good idea, especially as it was supposed to be a sort of demilitarized non-aligned Austria or Finland, keeping the Soviets from paranoid thinking.

He eventually made a neurotic blunder in a press conference in 1952, and his influence from then on was of soft power in the foreign policy establishment back in the US and Western countries (with a brief stint in Yugoslavia). He was consistently against war and military interventions (other than WW-2 and Korea) and was one of the early opponents of the Vietnam war, both gulf wars and the war in Kosovo, which he saw as a disaster which laid the basis for present day Russian problems with the West. He was also against the expansion of NATO (he was against NATO in the first place; prescient) McCarthyism, Nixon, Eisenhower’s handling of the Suez crisis, Reagan, US engagement with Solidarity and a whole lot of other things which one might take issue with, but which for all I know he might have been right about after all.

Read about what an awful person he was in the vile New Republic and less vile New York Times reviews (the latter written by the evil presstitute Fareed Zakaria, in keeping with his bland “centrism” brand in service to our lizard overlords) who condemn him for his antediluvian views while noticing he was right about everything else. The times piece at least acknowledges his bigotries and cranky outsiderness are what made him such an adept diplomat. One need not wonder what would happen to such an outsider genius in current year State Department staffing which puts evil imbeciles such as Victoria Nuland-Kagan and Anthony Blinken in the highest roles.

Noted retard-sayer-finder and humanoid roach Taylor Lorenz finds story which may be the epitaph for the dollar as reserve currency

I’m perpetually halfway through Kennan’s Around the Cragged Hill -a sort of personal statement of values of Kennan late in life. As far as I can tell from a partial reading, it’s a restatement of a PG-13 version of his values as implied in his diaries. One of the more interesting ideas he comes up with is a “Council of State” made up of distinguished Americans, able to choose problems to work on, and unable to make use of any classified information. The idea looks a bit like the founding fathers version of the US Senate (appointments by governors) mooshed together with various ad-hoc committees of experts he’s been involved with. Other observations: excessive military planning can have political consequences, “unconditional surrender” and wars of annihilation have many downsides from a political point of view, some people are dumb and would be best off as domestic servants, socialism and Marxism don’t work very well IRL, we should pay more attention to the environment, technology isn’t an unalloyed good and should be regulated (also cars suck), mild nationalism isn’t too shabby as a social organizing principle (preferably with his sort of bemused affection with clear views of national failings), American sanctimony over “human rights” is both hypocritical and absurd (again bemused affection), sex is a demonic force which should be suppressed rather than used to sell soap, the word “democracy” as used by US officials is an absurdity, Christianity is both reasonable and good, narcissism leads us to bad places, and NPCism is a great danger to the common good. It’s an interesting book in that it is a personal statement of a wise and good man in his winter years. It may be of particular interest to current year wingnats in that it is a very mild and modest sort of reaction to current year depredations (the current year of 1993 or so anyway). It represents a sort of radically conservative ….. moderation. Kennan was always a moderate, middle of the road man, quite unlike current year Jacobin imbecile “diplomats” blathering nonsense on twitter between mouthfulls of lobster risotto. Kennan had a deep desire for order; something that came of experience in a relatively chaotic time in American history. Worthy of consideration for those who would upend the current order.

I’m sure he’s written other interesting books. You’re also probably better off listening to his Reith Lectures on Russia than listening to anything made current year (other than possibly Mearsheimer; a man who is heir to Kennan’s devotion to realism in foreign policy). Anything by Kennan is worth a look to those disappointed in US foreign policy; it will give you an idea of what a society of adults can produce in the way of diplomats and wise foreign policy thinkers rather than disembodied ninnyhammers who think tic-toc influencers are worthy of briefing on American foreign policy.

28 Responses

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  1. Altitude Zero said, on March 17, 2022 at 6:48 pm

    Kennan was wrong about some things, right about others, but he was always an adult, which makes him a rare commodity indeed in today’s world. He should be read by young people today if only as an example of how actual grown men think and act in the world of diplomacy. And of course, he was ded-bang right about what NATO expansion east would lead to…

  2. Andrei Radulescu-Banu said, on March 17, 2022 at 9:19 pm

    Had no idea he was against all wars except WW2 and Korean. “Even a broken clock is correct twice a day”.

    Sorry, I could not resist it.

    And he was against NATO, with all the Soviet aggression occupying one third of Europe and threatening another third?

  3. Maggette said, on March 17, 2022 at 9:49 pm

    So, as a German I basically have to thank him for the Marshall plan, solid institutions and hence probably the “Wirtschaftswunder”. I will certainly read his work. Thanks for the tip.

    Other than that: my wife is Belarusian with Russian parents and spent lots of here childhood in Russia. Also spent a lot of time in Ukraine. Most Americans don’t speak Russian. Hence they believe the shit on the Internet.

    The common narrative that Putin is somehow a geostrategic genius and that Nato expansion somehow is the reason for his aggression in Tchechnia, Ingushetia, Kasachstan, Georgia and Ukraine is quite a stretch and bores the crap out of me. He joined the Shanghai 5? Why isn’t that a threat to us? He really does nothing about Chinese landgrabbing in his front yard. The aggressive clashes between Chinese and disgruntled Russian workforce obviously wasn’t a reason to defend his hemisphere. A hypothesis isn’t automatically right just because it infuriates the people at NYT.

    Putin is a corrupt criminal, highly incompetent and a serious political and economical desaster for Russia. That’s it. Why?

    Russians are all over the place in Maths and Physics Olympics. I own a lot of books on science and technology. I don’t think I own a single one where not at least one Russian giant is cited or has some theorem or algorithm named after him. Chess champions and exile Russians who found stuff like Google.
    So a highly skilled workforce. And still a cheap workforce. Land. Agricultural land and forests. And of course all natural resources you can dream of. Oil, Gas, Coal, Copper, Nickel…

    And still the country has a GDP smaller than Italy. For a decade the median income stagnated somewhere close to Chechoslovakia, Hungary or Greece. A Harvard complexity index of a 3rd work nation. Add the immense corruption and dead journalists all over the place.

    He destroyed a country that basically a 3 year old could have lead to glory. Instead he built a Palace.

    About 20% of Russia has family in Ukraine. Even more have friends there. Because of that if Ukraine would turn to the west and becomes the new (relative) success story like the baltikum…Propaganda won’t stop these news.

    If you speak russian you get something between confused, scared and amused if you hear Putin talk.

    I say: without Nato that fucker would have eaten the baltics already.

    • Altitude Zero said, on March 18, 2022 at 12:25 am

      Personally, I agree with you about NATO – during the Cold War. But after the fall of Communism, it became the equivalent of a sports car with the keys left in it, inviting every crack-brained “idealist” with dreams of remaking the world to take it for a spin. NATO should have been disbanded twenty years ago, at the very least. Besides, it’s not just Putin – even Yeltsin warned Clinton that Russia would not tolerate NATO on their borders. We should have seen this coming, and while Putin is most certainly responsible for the invasion, even half-decent diplomacy on our part could have prevented this entire situation. Kennan was wrong about a lot. But he was right about NATO expansion, and he wasn’t the only one – and you don’t have to be a Putin apologist to see it.

    • Scott Locklin said, on March 18, 2022 at 1:27 pm

      If you read Kennan’s writings, this has nothing to do with putl0r. Any Russian leader, even that pathetic drunkard Yeltsin would have considered Ukraine entering a hostile military alliance an act of war. This entire thing could have been avoided with…. you know …. diplomacy. Instead the US state department is staffed with childish jacobin imbeciles.

    • Sprewell said, on March 20, 2022 at 6:49 pm

      > Putin is a corrupt criminal, highly incompetent and a serious political and economical desaster for Russia… you get something between confused, scared and amused if you hear Putin talk.

      Sounds pretty good compared to Biden, who is all those things and senile.

      • Walt said, on March 25, 2022 at 5:37 pm

        This is what worries me. How do the Russians perceive Biden, his son, Victoria Nuland/Kagan, and Sullivan? I bet not well. What if he has concluded we’re ideological nutcases and has his finger on the Big Red Button?

        God help us.

  4. chiral3 said, on March 17, 2022 at 11:04 pm

    The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War. Good book about what we did knowing what was collected in high altitude water vapor in 1949.

  5. averros said, on March 17, 2022 at 11:45 pm

    I am Russian. I despise KGB and KGB men, and every single Bolshevik. But I can also see and understand the reality. And the reality is very simple: during Putin’s years Russia came a long way. From a totally demoralized nearly starving remnants of the USSR run by an alcoholic clown and jihadists running wild to a stable and decently prosperous country which is the major exporter in a number of markets. Per capita PPP GDP grew 3x during his reign. If he wasn’t Russian he’d be hailed as one of the greatest statesmen of our age.

    And to drive it home, there’s Ukraine which started in exactly the same position (it actually was more industrialized than the rest of the USSR). Before the war is was still an economic basket case. The difference? It has a name. Ukraine had no one like Putin – somebody in position of power willing to put a lid on rampant xenophobia and to suppress robber barons (aka oligarchs).

    As for your contention that Putin & Co are corrupt, duh. I have news: every single government out there is just a glorified band of thieves, and as far as corruption and thievery go, Putin is just a minor pickpocket compared to Western crime lords. These people steal by trillions and murder by millions. “Legally” of course, because they OWN both the law and the propaganda machine which would have Goebbels green with envy.

    • averros said, on March 17, 2022 at 11:47 pm

      That was a reply to Maggette, not sure why it got moved:)

      • maggette said, on March 18, 2022 at 8:28 am

        Somehow Russians are always insulted whenever I criticize Putin.

        I see the “reality” as well…but come to a different conclusion.

        I give you that Putin was important for Russia during his first and maybe second term. Stopping oligarch cleptocrats and moving natgas and oil exploratiation/exploitation back under government control was the right move. He basically set Russia up for success. Like Norway did with Equinor.

        But after that he lost track and betrayed his people.

        “Per capita PPP GDP grew 3x during his reign.”
        In USD and inflation adjusted it didn’t. An since Russia imports every refined product that is what matters. And even if!!! Thats almost a quarter century or reign!! A 3 year old could do that. And he didn’t.


        “If he wasn’t Russian he’d be hailed as one of the greatest statesmen of our age.”
        Why? The west hates Den XiaoPing and Lee Kuan Yee (NYT called him the “Asian Hitler”) but still aknowledges their economic success and competency. Nobody admires Putin, because he did nothing but hurt his country. He is a dufus. That what he is.

        Again: given the potential in natural resources and huge advantage in human capital (well trained AND cheap workforce) you are calling :
        – a GDP smaller than Italy
        – a median income worse the Hungary, Checoslovakia, Poland, the Baltics and only slightly ahead of failed states like Greece
        a success? For over a decade now? Come on! That’s total incompetency!

        Russia should feeel more like Norway….not like Argentinia.

        “Putin is just a minor pickpocket”

        I really doubt that? My former Chancelor does not own a Palace.
        The main difference here ist, and that is an undeniable fact, other nations have functional institutions. There might be corruption. But at least these corrupt bastards improved the living standards for their minions!!!

        But that’s very Russian of you. If you are Russian you now the original.

        • Scott Locklin said, on March 18, 2022 at 1:31 pm

          You might have a look at the books Casino Moscow and Godfather of the Kremlin for recent history, and why Putin is viewed in a positive light by most Russians. They’re not about Putin at all; just what came before him.

          The GDP numbers are basically false due to pressure on the ruble; purchasing power parity, the Russians are basically living like Turks (2x the per capita of Brazil) which is about what one might expect for a central Asian regional power.

          • maggette said, on March 18, 2022 at 2:43 pm

            I agree that the numbers are a bit skewed.

            • maggette said, on March 18, 2022 at 2:57 pm

              I don’t know what I expect of an central asian country.

              I just now, that somebody who sits on enourmous human capital and all the resources in the world (literally) should perfrom better. And it is obviously not the Russians. It’s the leadership.

              • Scott Locklin said, on March 18, 2022 at 3:02 pm

                It’s also 10 years of rapacious oligarchs running wild and shooting each other in the streets (aka the above books), and the US putting the screws to them even when they try to behave like a normal country because that’s what they’re trained to do. It’s really wild stuff and almost nobody in the West knows about it.

                • Bill said, on March 19, 2022 at 4:41 am

                  It’s pretty telling that the best criticism of Russia/Putin most westerners can come up with is: ‘they don’t have as much money as us’. It’s like being deprived of middle class consumer frivolities is a crime against humanity. Ukrainians, of course, who are considerably poorer, fall back to noting that Russians are admixed with Finnic and Turkic people. Apparently this is bad, or something.

                  Anyway, I don’t know what people expect out of the Russian economy. It has a slowly shrinking workforce, legacy of communism and disastrous 90s. Still, they are close to Polish PPP GDP per head, all while needing to divert resources from capital formation into military industries, to maintain deterrence. They do a decent job with the hand they got, Russian cities are generally clean, generally safe, if a little run down. Yeah everyone’s broke, but it’s not a bad place to live. None of the BS social insanity USA has.

                  • maggette said, on March 20, 2022 at 9:06 am

                    You are taking my post out of context.
                    My point is:
                    – the general position amongst “everything what mainstream media says id wrong by default” dufuses is: Putin is a tough guy who knows what he is doing and with his geostrategical foresight he acted as he was forced by Nato to do
                    – I called bullshit. As an clear indicator that he is not competentin any shape or form is the absolute failure on the economic side of things given THE HUGE ADVANTAGES RUSSIA HAS OVER ALMOST ANY COUNTRY IN THE WORLD.

                    So by no means it was “The only argument”. How did you come to that conclusion?

                    And if you read my post, I critizie Putin and his elite and inner circle. I don’t say anything against Russia. I am married to a russian wife. Don’t give me that “westerner” crap. I work and live with Russians, Baltics amd Ukrainians. I visit the country regulary.

                    The disastorus communism was more than 20 years ago.

                    It is so funny. Americans sitting in there comfortable free world. complaining about “state terrorism”, the downfall of America and “censcorship” because they got banned on twitter. ROFL.

                    “They do a decent job with the hand they go”
                    No. They got dealed a royal flush. And Putin still managed to fuck it up. Period. Gas, Oil, fertile land, forrests, Iron, Nickel, Uranium, Gold, Diamonds…..and a well educated work force. You compare it to Poland (and by the way, the median income is almost 20% higher in Poland!) ? Russia should be approaching the US in economic power.

                    “Yeah everyone’s broke, but it’s not a bad place to live..”
                    Unless you have a business and somebody else with connections wants it. Unless you have an opinion you dare to express. Unless you are of Caucasian origin. Unless you life in rural Russia…

                    • NoPie said, on March 20, 2022 at 11:33 am

                      I agree. Saying that NATO should not have expanded eastwards, basically means we should not have let the USSR to break up. Without NATO the Baltic countries and Eastern Europe would have been like Belarus today.

                      Speaking Russian now only helps to understand how strong propaganda is in Russia now.

                    • Altitude Zero said, on March 22, 2022 at 2:31 pm

                      I can see why some eastern European countries wanted to join NATO, but if the idea of joining NATO is to prevent a Russian invasion, and it ends up causing a Russian invasion (or providing the pretext for one – we won’t quibble), that kind of defeats the purpose, doesn’t it ?- at least from the standpoint of the country invaded.

                    • Frank said, on March 22, 2022 at 3:22 pm

                      I suppose when you say “Russia should be approaching the US in terms of economic power” you mis-typed and meant to say “Russia should be approaching China in terms of economic power”. The US’s economic power peaked in the 50s/60s and was a direct result of ww2 and the Bretton Woods agreement. That ended a few days ago when the Saudis decided to accept Yuan for oil. Or perhaps it ended further back when China overtook the US as #1 economy.

                      In any case, I don’t see Western life as particularly rich. Freedoms are overexaggerated. You can hardly say a thing in the West without some clown trying to ‘cancel’ you in unenlightened moral outrage. Food is garbage, people walk around in designer rags that cost 0.3c to produce and 50000c to buy. It goes on.

        • Walt said, on March 25, 2022 at 5:40 pm

          Somehow Russians are always insulted whenever I criticize Putin.

          This is just storge – it’s what you’re supposed to feel towards your magistrate or father of your nation on some level if you’re ethnic Russian, even if he’s a sonofabitch.

          Your name is maggette but you have a wife. Could you explain that for us?

  6. iuliAyahoocom said, on March 18, 2022 at 12:22 pm

    He should have lived in Romania: squeezed between Germany and Russia. We are tired of them both, as we have paid to both of them. At least now we pay only for NATO.

  7. Igor Bukanov said, on March 18, 2022 at 7:42 pm

    In 1995 long before even the first NATO expansion and when nobody knew about Putin in the famous interview [1] Chechen leader Dzhokhar Dudaev said that Russia would take Crimea and the would be a bloody war with Ukraine. As former Soviet General Dudaev knew what he was talking about.

    So the notion that it was NATO expansion that triggered the war really misses the point.

    Among multiple hypothesis about the causes of the war my favorite but very speculative was that Armenia lost the war to Azerbaijan. The latter used modern weapons supplied by Turkey. And Russia realized that in few years if Ukraine would continue to receive all those weapons it would not have a chance to attack Ukraine and Ukraine can get Donbas back.

    [1] https://ichkeria.net/2022/02/23/le-parole-di-dudaev-sullucraina/?fbclid=IwAR3THv26TdFZMTy9me1WJJo0DjO6vFUFbY93Mr_png7_8LUV8aFwZo40gdE

  8. […] on Science looks at US diplomat George Kennan’s career and principles, noting he predicted much of the mess we’re […]

  9. Altitude Zero said, on March 22, 2022 at 11:35 am

    As I have said elsewhere, I can actually see both sides in this conflict. Given what Stalin did in Ukraine in the 1930’s, I can easily see why Ukraine does not want to be ruled from Moscow, and given the Nazi invasion on the USSR, and what happened in the immediate aftermath of the Cold War, I can see why Russia does not want Ukraine in NATO. A deal would not seem to be too hard to work out here, and had “outside parties” (ahem) not in terfered, it probably would have been.

  10. Max Dama said, on May 26, 2022 at 1:55 pm

    Hi Scott,

    Long time no see, hope you are well. After reading this post I picked up Kennan Diaries and The Wise Men. They were good, thanks for the recommendation.


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