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Kennan, George. American Diplomacy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1985. 187 pp.

Theories of international relations can be broadly divided into two schools, realist and moralist. Without doubt, George Kennan belongs to the former. In American Diplomacy, Kennan comments on US foreign policy during the first fifty years of the 20th century and concludes that relations between states cannot be subject to naïve moral or legal outlooks. Kennan argues that since 1898, this mentality has driven US policy aims: the American public wanted unambiguous enemies and allies, unconditional surrender, and total victory. American politics became subject to short-term public opinion instead of long-term studied policy. Kennan believed that foreign policy should be conducted after a careful analysis of risks, benefits, pitfalls, and opportunities.

Half a century on, Kennan’s voice has not yet been heard. The National Security Strategy (NSS) outlined by President George W. Bush still speaks in moral platitudes. The United States intends to “champion aspirations for human dignity” and “rid the world of evil.” It will work to “build a world of justice” and “promote free markets.” Kennan would argue that this is exactly the trend that marked the foreign policy debates of 1898 and thereafter. American idealism pushes the country into positions that are dangerous, ill-advised, and unnecessary for the security of the country. Worse, Kennan argues, is that the US is unable to truly follow up on its verbal promises, as in the case of the Open Door policy for China. Many a time, the United States would call upon its allies, pressuring them to make similar promises, but eventually not accepting any responsibility towards the fulfillment of the stated goals. The problem of couching the world in moral and legal platitudes—Kennan’s examples are the demands for total victory in 1918 and 1942—is that it obfuscates a truer analysis of power relations. It often also leads the US to abandoning its own stated position, such as in 1898 with the acquiring of colonies and in 1899 with Hippisley’s formula. Therefore, pronouncements like the NSS only rouse resentment and distrust of the United States, sometimes even among allies. However, one could argue that the US did follow up on its promises in 1942 and in the war aims of 1918 if not the shadowy dealings of Woodrow Wilson at Versailles.

Kennan was a strong critic of Iraq, primarily for the reason that he did not think that President Bush understood what would be expected of the United States in the long run. He warned that the second Gulf War was in no way similar to the first, and his warning has borne true: the US-led UN mission in 1991 were international heroes, while American actions today are the source for increasing terror according to reports, and the international community has taken a line not dissimilar from during Vietnam.

What Kennan really traces is the vulgarization of diplomacy. From being an esoteric art practiced by members of homo politicus, foreign policy and diplomacy began to be decided by public opinions and pressures. Kennan disregards the human factor in international dealings—when nations interact, fundamentally, it is people who interact. It is, therefore, sadly unavoidable in a democratic age of mass culture to maintain diplomacy within the confines of the Old Boys’ Club. As anti-intellectual as foreign policy, not just American, may seem, its formulation responds to the needs of people however they may be—insecure, religious, or otherwise.

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