By Cornell Overfield
Seventy years ago this July, Foreign Affairs published what was arguably the twentieth century’s most consequential essay on international affairs. The "Sources of Soviet Conduct", by Mr. X (George F. Kennan) elaborated upon his famous Long Telegram of 1946 to lay the intellectual foundation for America’s Cold War grand strategy of containment. In these articles, Kennan, a lifelong expert on Russian history and literature, perceptively analyzed the psychology, goals and flaws of the Soviet system, and argued that a careful application of pressure to counter Moscow's aggressive ambitions would forestall war until such time as the regime collapsed from its own contradictions.
In his memoirs, Otto von Bismarck, considered the prototypical grand strategist, describes statecraft as the art of grasping for the hem of God's garment as He guides the history of nations. By contrast, most American statesmen, strategists, politicians and pundits tend to grasp futilely after the even more elusive skirts of Grand Strategy. Since 1991, many have tried their hand at a tripartite challenge that has rarely been accomplished in modern history: to diagnose accurately the nation’s position on the world stage, to build a national consensus on the primary threat to that position, and to articulate guidelines on addressing that threat.
In this year's July edition of Foreign Affairs, Senator Tim Kaine (VA-D) became the latest statesman to try his hand at the challenge of crafting an American grand strategy for the post-Cold War world. Not surprisingly he failed, both as historian and as grand strategist.
As a loyal member of the legislative branch, Kaine begins by lamenting America's post-1991 "executive-driven, reactive" foreign policy. The United States, he asserts, should seek to recapture the spirit of 1946 and 1947, when three inspired speeches - by Winston Churchill, President Harry Truman and General George C. Marshall - introduced the Iron Curtain, the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan to the American people and the world, and laid the rhetorical foundation for America's Cold War grand strategy. This narrative certainly makes political sense for Senator Kaine - it praises a Democratic president and employs the Marshall Plan, that salve for any struggling economy, whether domestic or foreign. Evidently Senator Kaine does not realize that the grand strategy guiding U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War was not the Truman Doctrine, but containment, which was articulated not by Churchill, Truman and Marshall, but by Kennan, Dean Acheson and Paul Nitze, none of whom are mentioned in Kaine’s article. Truman's rhetorical pledge to defend democracy against any threat anywhere and at any time was simply that - lofty rhetoric. Indeed vague, universal pronouncements like the Truman Doctrine are the very negation of strategy, which must be directed against a specific threat and conducted in a limited fashion. In this case, Kennan envisioned containment as a grand strategy which would impede the spread of communism rather than necessarily defend all democracies.
This knowledge gap produces two more mistakes in Kaine's account. First, he holds the Truman Doctrine up as a framework that kept America's presidents from reactive, seat-of-their-pants decision making. In reality, the imperatives of containment entailed much reactive and hasty diplomacy, for instance during the Suez Crisis, the gradual slide into Vietnam, and President Jimmy Carter's reaction to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Second, Kaine's states that "too often, in attempting to thwart real or perceived Soviet influence, the United States threw its weight behind authoritarian regimes—thus turning a doctrine meant to promote its best values into one focused on checking its adversary," illustrating how poorly he understands American grand strategy during the Cold War. Kennan certainly understood the value of promoting democratic values as a psychological weapon against the Soviet bloc, but his (and America’s) first priority was not to spread democracy, but to apply counter-pressure against Moscow's attempted advances. Indeed, some key players in the containment of the USSR were other communist powers, such as Yugoslavia, and China, while others, such as South Korea, Greece, Turkey, the Philippines and South Vietnam featured dictators, military juntas, or highly flawed democracies.
Kaine's essay also fails to promulgate any meaningful grand strategy. Returning to the three necessary components of a grand strategy, the first - a reasonably accurate assessment of a country's global position - is the least difficult to achieve; the second - building a consensus on the primary threat is harder absent a clear danger such as the USSR; the third - articulating guidelines for dealing with the threat – is devilishly difficult. A grand strategy’s prescriptions must be flexible but clear, so that when crises confront diplomats and policymakers with painful choices, they can determine whether, when, and where sacrifice of secondary interests is necessary to defend and advance vital national interests. In his day, Kennan was able to proceed to third base – today, we are still hung up on the second challenge.
Ask a panel of foreign policy experts what America's greatest threat is today, and you are likely to get at least as many answers as panelists; including China, Russia, terrorism, climate change, populism, genocide, cyber security, globalization, artificial intelligence or the national debt. Yet, the lack of consensus does not stop anyone from racing to third base without first tagging first and second base. The results are either threat-specific grand strategies which fail to gain national traction, or else laundry lists which seek to build a grand strategy by simultaneously addressing every threat at once, and hence, none of them adequately. Senator Kaine's attempt falls into the second category.
The final third of his essay reads like a litany of causes which the United States should fight for (and causes are inherently less conducive than threats to grand strategy), with the common theme of Americans simply striving to be the best versions of themselves. Hence, the causes are impeccable, from sheltering allies through U.S. deterrence to promoting democracy and human rights, and there is no reason why the United States cannot pursue them all to some degree. However, Senator Kaine never takes the crucial step of even suggesting a framework for the relative importance of these causes, let alone which one is America's first priority.
The utter inadequacy of Kaine’s and others’ stabs at strategic thinking is appalling, but not surprising. Wise, well-articulated grand strategies are historical oddities, which are the exception in diplomacy rather than the norm. Assuming the State Department survives the Trump Administration, America's diplomats will continue to juggle both advocacy for human rights and democracy with a defense of America's strategic and economic interests and commitments. Given the diversity of the current threat environment, it seems unlikely that any dominant threat to the United States will emerge in the near future. Until one does, those who grasp after the hem of Grand Strategy do so in vain.
Cornell Overfield is a senior at the University of Pennsylvania where he studies International Relations and History