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George Kennan’s Ambivalence Toward the UN


WASHINGTON — As one of the great strategic thinkers, historians and essayists of the cold war era and the author of the doctrine of containment, which informed American foreign policy for most of that period, George F. Kennan had a realist view of the United Nations, driven by national interest.

George Kennan, the subject of a new biography by John Lewis Gaddis. In the book, Kennan's opinions on the UN are both contradictory and insightful.

The wide attention and praise for John Lewis Gaddis’s new biography, “George F. Kennan – An American Life,” offers insights on Kennan’s perspectives on the UN, which he was skeptical about throughout his career.

In January 1945, even before the end of World War II, he hoped that “plans for the United Nations would be set aside as quickly as possible.” (The UN officially began operating in October 1945.) Kennan thought that the US, in its pursuit of a workable world order, was starting from the wrong end. Speaking later on the topic at the National War College in 1946 in Washington D.C., he insisted that great power clashes did not take place within agreed frameworks of international law.

Indeed, totalitarian states were never restrained by law, moral inhibitions or domestic opinion, he said, in their use of a long list but consciously incomplete list of instruments against democracies. Asking himself whether democratic nations could respond short of all-out war, Kennan offered only suggestions for remedies, including sustained efforts that have psychological or economic impacts and other pressures and “the cultivation of solidarity with other like-minded nations.”

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In that respect, the UN, he said in a partial shift in his views, had been more helpful than he expected, because it provided a way to “connect power with morality.”

Particularized vs. universalistic approach

Kennan’s thinking about the UN was best summarized while he was director of the US State Department’s Policy Planning Staff in 1948, just three years after the UN was born. In his capacity as director, he described in a policy paper what he saw as a major conflict running through US policy between “universalistic” — as embodied in the UN — and “particularized” approaches to international problems.

For Kennan, universalism provided a set of rules and procedures applicable to all countries, a method that tended to rule out political solutions for dealing with the peculiarities of people and countries. And though universalism had, he wrote, a strong appeal to US public opinion, it held a “strong vein of escapism,” relieving the country of the necessity of dealing with the world as it is.

Universalism, he argued, would reduce “foreign policy to the familiar terms of parliamentary procedure and majority decision.” Instead of making political choices relevant to a given situation, he wrote, universalism would make foreign policy decisions on the basis of moral principle, whereas the particularized approach, which he favored, is “skeptical of any scheme for compressing international affairs into legalistic concepts.”

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Power of alliances

In other words, for Kennan, foreign policy could not take a general approach to solving conflicts and tensions. His preference for particularized methods, he wrote, considers that “the thirst for power is still dominant among so many peoples that it cannot be assuaged or controlled by anything but counter-force.”

Alliances, he noted, are a suitable form of counterforce, but to be effective they must be based on real community of interest and outlook. The particularized approach, Kennan posited in his 1948 policy planning staff paper, “distrusts the theory of national sovereignty as it expresses itself today in international organization.”

The US, Kennan’s paper said, carried out a dual policy, combining elements of both the universalistic and particularized approaches, whereas the functional bureaus, like the Bureau of International Organization Affairs, responsible for US policies in the UN, sometimes vied with geographic bureaus and their particularized approach. This dynamic reflected bureaucratic tensions and the inability of the IOA bureau, in particular, to deal with issues through a worldwide perspective — hence the value of the policy planning staff.

Kennan thought that the US should base its policies and priorities on close relations with countries of common political background and traditions. He argued, for instance, in 1948 that instead of beginning its foreign policy thinking with the area of close US political and economic relations, the US had begun at the periphery on the universalistic principle of the UN and tried to work inward.

For Kennan, a “central foundation” of the European Recovery Plan was the idea that a European union and the cultivation of a closer association with Britain and Canada would, if properly established, shore up international organizations that were based on universalism “before they collapse of their own weight.”

The nuclear threat, China and the UN

Kennan was deeply disturbed by the advent of atomic weapons and the prospect of nuclear war. US Secretary of State Jimmy Byrnes visited Moscow in late 1945 and left with what he thought was an agreement that both countries would participate in a UN effort to control the atomic bomb. But in 1946 Kennan had reservations about the Baruch Plan being proposed by the US for the UN to manage nuclear weapons, asserting in one essay that only the UN could handle the bomb as “just rot.”

Kennan continued to question the fundamental approach of the UN in his well-received 1951 book, “American Diplomacy, 1900-1950.” There, he wrote that the “legalistic-moralistic” approach to foreign policy had encouraged “toothless treaties … and had caused hopes to be invested in, and time to be wasted on, the League of Nations and the United Nations.”

Reflecting further amid some despondency at the time of the 1956 Suez Canal crisis and the revolt against the Soviet-backed regime in Hungary, Kennan found that on most foreign policy issues, his views had been correct, particularly the idea of containment, which suggested that the Soviet Union would eventually lose control of its satellites as a result of differences between and among them.

As he noted, he had “opposed deferring to the United Nations rather than to allies with ‘a traditional stake in our future.’”

Yet, Kennan favored admitting Communist China to the UN when such a move was politically incorrect in the US. In an August 1950 memo to Secretary of State Dean Acheson on the conflict in Korea, which had broken out in June, Kennan called for the US to seek a full settlement with the Soviet Union that would terminate hostilities, admit China to the UN and allow a plebiscite to determine the future of Taiwan.

Acheson thought the memo was “beautifully expressed, sometimes contradictory … [with] mingled flashes of prophetic insight [and] suggestions … of total impracticality.” Kennan mentioned the China plan to another official, John Foster Dulles(who later became secretary of state), only to read in the press that Dulles found him “a very dangerous man: that he was advocating the admission of the Chinese Communists to the United Nations, and a cessation of US military action at the 38th parallel.”

The issue of China’s joining the UN was not the only area where Kennan clashed with Dulles’s opinions on the world body, as Kennan’s contradictory policy suggestions continued to play out. Just days before the inauguration of Dwight D. Eisenhower as president and Dulles’s assumption of his new post as secretary of state in 1953, Kennan, testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, denounced the concept put forward by Dulles and others in the Republican Party of the “liberation” of the Soviet bloc.

He found the concept of liberation, he said “ … not consistent with our international obligations,” adding that “It is not consistent with a common membership with other countries in the United Nations….” It’s evident that Kennan did not hesitate to invoke universalistic perspectives in support of his views.

Kennan signing one of his own books, which included prize-winning memoirs. MERRITT BOOKSTORE

Still contradictory on the UN

The UN continued to figure occasionally in Kennan’s life and writing. In the 1960s, he re-entered State Department service as President John F. Kennedy’s ambassador to Yugoslavia. In that role, he accompanied President Josip Tito of Yugoslavia on a visit to the US, which included an address to the UN General Assembly. Demonstrators against Tito at his hotel in New York led Kennan to report to Kennedy that, if New York was to continue to serve as the host city for the UN, it would have to take better care of its foreign guests.

Yet in 1968, Kennan ruminated to his sister, Jeannette, that if the next administration were to offer him a position like under secretary of state or ambassador to the UN, he might take it.

Kennan eventually realized that a global interest was part of our national interest. In a PBS interview late in his life on April 18, 1996, David Gergen, the political consultant, asked Kennan what is the US’ national interest in the years ahead. In striking contrast to the particularized approach that drove his early thinking, Kennan spoke presciently about the possibility of a “global national interest” in the environment, a concern that ran through his diary and other personal writings after he left the government in the 1960s.

“It’s not just one person’s, one country’s problem,” he wrote. “It’s a universal problem today.”

Nevertheless, his skepticism about the UN remained. In the Gergen interview he still found the UN “wrongly constructed” and argued that the “international community is poorly put together.”

If Kennan – a foreign policy realist of grand strategy hardly prone to global focus on concerns – recognized the emergence of “global national interest” in the environment 15 years ago, then surely our foreign policy leaders today can acknowledge a global national interest in addressing increasing worldwide communicable-disease threats, responding to the power of violence by nonstate actors in such terrorists acts as the Sept. 11, 2011, attacks and the piracy off the coast of Somalia and in moving from freely functioning financial markets to managed financial markets.

And surely, at some point, Kennan’s global national interest thinking would encompass newer ideas like the Responsibility to Protect, to ensure the safety of people within their own borders against war crimes. Whether this would be soon enough to lead to a broad global national interest in assertive action to stop the violence in Syria say, is far from clear.

The issue is not so much whether the UN is “wrongly constructed,” as Kennan argued with Gergen, but whether our increasingly shared global national interests can adequately motivate countries and people to improve the UN’s effectiveness in dealing with these challenges.

This is an opinion essay.

We welcome your comments on this article.  What are your thoughts?

A. Edward Elmendorf, who lives in Washington, is a former president and chief executive of the United Nations Association of the USA. He is a member of UNA’s Leo Nevas Human Rights Task Force and spent most of his career, before retiring, at the World Bank.

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