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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Time to Try Humility




And now, with a much-needed word about humility, comes one of the American nation's wisest old men, George F. Kennan - scholar, historian, diplomat and statesman.


Kennan's counsel, in the current New York Review of Books, flies in the face of our current American habit of sounding - to both friends and adversaries - like schoolyard braggarts.


"The indispensable nation," President Bill Clinton and U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright call us, assisting us in our ongoing national pat on the back.


In an interview with Princeton's Richard Ullman, the 95-year-old Kennan, former ambassador to Russia and Yugoslavia, recommends some stocktaking.


"What we ought to do at this point is to try to cut ourselves down to size in the dreams and aspirations we direct to our possibilities for world leadership.


"We are not, really, all that great. We have serious problems within our society these days, and it sometimes seems to me that the best help we could give to others would be to allow them to observe that we are now confronting those problems with a bit more imagination, courage and resolve than has been apparent in the recent past."


The gift for seeing ourselves as others see us is not the first trait that others associate with Americans. Take the fact that we are confident these days that we're seen by all as the benign superpower. On the contrary, Harvard's Samuel Huntington warned in a recent issue of the journal Foreign Affairs that elites in countries representing two-thirds of the world's population - China, Russia, India, the Moslem world and Africa - see the United States as "the single greatest external threat to their societies."


They view us as not a military threat, but a political and cultural one - intrusive, interventionist, hegemonic, hypocritical, engaging in "financial imperialism" and "intellectual colonialism."


One antidote for our lack of self-awareness is reading portrayals of us from abroad - as in the international papers feature of the online magazine Slate.


An example is a mid-July editorial from the Straits Times newspaper of Singapore, urging greater understanding of Russia's plight:


"Russia means to be taken seriously, and the United States owes it that respect. American cockiness over its display of military technology in the [Persian] Gulf and Yugoslavia, and smugness over its longest postwar prosperity streak, can blind it to a need to cultivate its relations with Russia beyond promoting democratization. Russians cannot eat democracy. The United States should snap out of its hubris over Kosovo - or the world could become very dark indeed if Russian hurt turns to mischief making."


A second antidote is to listen to wise old men such as Kennan.


"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. If you think that our life here at home has meritorious aspects worthy of emulation by peoples elsewhere, the best way to recommend them is, as John Quincy Adams maintained, not by preaching at others but by the force of example," he says in the interview.


I first heard Kennan 15 years ago, on the eve of his 80th birthday. He and his wife had traveled by train from Princeton, New Jersey to Grinnell, Iowa to speak at Grinnell College.


Then, as now, he advised "a greater humility in our national outlook. ... We must bear in mind that in the interaction of peoples, as with individuals, the power of example is far greater than the power of precept."


Grinnell students, impressed with the courtly, soft-spoken man with a clipped mustache and statesmanlike demeanor, took to calling Kennan "St. George."


But this saint would not appeal to the soft of heart. He is a very clearheaded pragmatist - a type we see too little of in public life today.


"I would urge a far greater detachment, on our government's part, from [other nations'] domestic affairs," he told Ullman.


Comparing China to France, Kennan said both are proud bearers of a great cultural tradition, and both like to be left alone. We should treat the Chinese "with the most exquisite courtesy and respect on the official level, but not expect too much of them. ... They are not going to love us, no matter what we do. They are not going to become like us."


National humility and a foreign policy that respects our own limits and rests on a deeper understanding of friends and adversaries: Kennan has long counseled such a course. Now would be a very good time to listen.


Geneva Overholser contributed this comment to The Washington Post.