"Impervious to the Logic of Reason"
While I was in the U.S. one of the most influential men of the 20th century, George F. Kennan, passed away. He was 101 years old. I am certain that many others have already blogged about the importance of this man and the impact of his life on U.S. foreign policy, but I would be remiss if I failed to comment here.
In 1946 Kennan was quoted as saying that the Soviet Union was "impervious to the logic of reason, but highly sensitive to the logic of force." Statements like this, coupled with the "long telegram
" and the 1947 adaptation of the telegram for publication as "The Sources of Soviet Conduct
" (aka "the X article, as that how he signed it) in which Kennan developed and detailed his containment theory thrust him into the spotlight of international diplomacy.
The Cold War may be over (I reserve the right to comment on that topic later), but Kennan's 1947 piece still rings true today, and is just as applicable to the struggle against Islamic radicals as it was against communism. Read the following excerpt of the X piece and substitute Islam or Islamo-fascists for Russia/Soviets/Soviet Union etc: But in actuality the possibilities for American policy are by no means limited to holding the line and hoping for the best. 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.
Indeed, last year on the occasion of his 100th birthday, Foreign Policy published "Everything I needed to know about fighting terrorism I learned from George F. Kennan." In reading this article one gains a better sense of the true insight and import of Kennan's thoughts and words. While describing the struggle against communism, he boiled down the larger issue of the struggle of American ideology against fascist or repressive ideologically anti-American regimes. To wit:
Like the Soviets before them, Islamic militants are a product of both ideology and circumstance. Although the militants can trace their ideas to strains of puritanical Islam from the 14th century and to the Wahhabi and Salafi movements of the 18th and 19th centuries, much of their pathology is unrelated to religion. Al Qaeda is, to a large extent, a symptom of social dislocation.
The benefits of economic globalization have largely bypassed Arab countries, even as it has exposed them as never before to outside influences. In oil-rich states, elites have used their wealth and power to maintain authoritarian rule and avoid economic and political reform. It is no surprise that the citizens of these countries view the outside world through the prism of exploitation. Meanwhile, the pervasive exposure to Western mass culture has served both to attract and alienate these societies. It's an old story: The more modern and dynamic society undermines the traditional society's values, practices, and allegiances. The recurring response to such an existential crisis is a surge in millenarian beliefs and an inclination toward nihilism. As has been the case in countless struggles before, terrorism is the quintessential weapon of the weak against the strong.
These conditions, however, need not be permanent. Hard as it may be to penetrate the anti-American sentiment prevalent in the Muslim world, the United States must undertake a strategy of engagement similar to what Kennan proposed for the Russian people. The two worlds are not as far apart as many think. A 2003 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press reveals that citizens in Muslim countries place a high value on freedom of expression and the press, multiparty political systems, and equal treatment under the law.
As was the case in the Cold War the current struggle with militant Islam has the potential to be long and dangerous. We are already seeing Cold War type flare-ups with "client states"- our fighting men and women are engaging our enemies and their surrogates daily in Iraq and Afghanistan, and Americans at home live under the shadow of fear of another 9-11 style attack. Do not get me wrong, I do not hold that Kennan's ideas and words alone are enough for us to defeat the Islamo-fascists. While there are parallels and comparisons between the Cold War and the current battle, they are not exactly the same- the lack of a nation state readily identifiable as the enemy is only the most obvious of the discrepancies. These issues aside, however, there is much of the nearly 60 year old theory that is applicable today.
In closing I turn once again to Kennan's words, and ask that you read radical Islam into them:
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.
Go in peace, Mr. Kennan.