Sunday, October 17, 2010

Where Realism Trumps Idealism

I’ve mentioned George F. Kennan (1904-2005!) once before here. I learned to respect the man, and his approach to international relations, while I was in college. He was a realist and disdained any kind of initiatives in foreign affairs motivated by convictions of national superiority. He would have put thumbs down to nation building or regime change. In an interview in 1999, with the New York Review of Books, he said:
This whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the rest of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious and undesirable. I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights. I submit that governments should deal with other governments as such, and should avoid unnecessary involvement, particularly personal involvement, with their leaders.
“Free markets” might be added to that list. The problem is that treating huge human collectives as if they were inferior or moved by evil motives, while appealing to our own public, also suggest that we are somehow superior in every conceivable way. Realism in international relations seems very rough, but it hides within itself the virtue of humility. Yes. We must look out for our own interest and defend ourselves when we’re attacked. Beyond that? Full stop. Beyond that nothing.

Our policies are productive not of spreading enlightenment but of Quislings. The next step is to accuse our Quislings of corruption, which will inevitably happen if the charade goes on too long. Eventually we’ll see the Quislings toppled by local forces that stuck to the hardest but only rule people can obey when attacked from the outside. Never serve the enemy. Better to starve. This comes to mind, needless to say, as I read today that Sunni forces bought with our money in Iraq are now changing coats again, and in Afghanistan we’re watching the Taliban engaged in reclaiming power by infiltration.

Kennan was the U.S. Ambassador to the Soviet Union in 1952 and to Yugoslavia in the period 1961-1963. He came from Milwaukee, WI, and his long life provided him a very long view of history.

I found the quote above as part of Wikipedia’s article of Kennan here.


  1. Baldy comment:
    Yes, yes, and yes to what you have presented here.

  2. Kennan has always been a favorit of mine, every since I first read of him in college, studying history and international relations. What I liked especially is his matter-of-fact way of presenting thing, cleanly and without the edge I always felt with Kissenger.

    Nice write up and, I must say, rather quite considering the articles you mention reading before writing this. I too read them and though.... "Oh my," and "How predictable."