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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Kennan's Advice Still Good

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It is both appropriate and timely to recall the late George Kennan these days. The Russian-U.S. relationship continues to grind its gears between neutral and reverse as successive denials of a new Cold War ring progressively less true in the absence of concerted efforts by the principals to prevent one. Kennan, of course, was the author of the United States' successful containment strategy against the Soviet Union in Cold War I. This uniquely firm yet malleable doctrine produced neither victor nor vanquished, but it helped the world skirt self-annihilation while inducing the ignoble Soviet experiment to prove itself as unworkable as it was unjust.

Kennan called politicians' claims of winning the Cold War "silly and childish," yet myriad examples of the U.S. victory mentality now extend to a Cold War service medal proposed to commemorate the "triumph." But the real reasons for recalling Kennan's legacy lie beyond regret at the myopic triumphalism it has not deterred. Over a half-century ago, Kennan offered prescient counsel for the Russians and Americans of a distant post-Soviet future -- that is, the future we are bungling now -- and several decades later inspired a model Russian-American institution that continues to serve both countries well today.

In his 1951 article "America and the Russian Future," Kennan painted a portrait of the two antagonists at peace. The world might expect "a Russian government which ... would be tolerant, communicative and forthright in its relations with other states and peoples," displaying a mentality that could "dispense with paranoic suspiciousness." With de-ideologized practicality and even good humor, Kennan hoped, "the statesmen of a future Russia could [defend] their national interests as statesmen must, [without] assuming that these can be furthered only at the expense of others." In domestic affairs, Kennan felt that while Russia's business was decidedly its own, the West could surely anticipate "that the exercise of governmental authority will stop short of that fairly plain line beyond which lies totalitarianism."

That today's Russia does not hew close to much of this vision is both obvious and regrettable; yet Russians quick to infer criticism in it should recall that Kennan's projections were those of a friend -- perhaps their best friend in that time and place -- who was both patient and a firm believer in an unquestionable "national greatness" that the Russian people possessed "in high degree."

Americans, for their part, should recall that Kennan was not an interventionist democracy-builder and did not assume that the American dream was also Russia's. He felt private enterprise in the post-Soviet state might or might not develop smoothly, but would "never be a system identical to our own." Similarly, in the arrangement of Russian political life, the West should not expect "the emergence of a liberal-democratic Russia along American patterns." Russian politicians struggling to supplant the institutions and mindset of the Soviet era would not be aided, Kennan maintained, "by doctrinaire and impatient well-wishers in the West who look to them ... to produce in short order a replica of the Western democratic dream."

Kennan implored his fellow Americans to repress their "inveterate tendency to judge others by the extent to which they contrive to be like ourselves," and advised calm forbearance: "Let us not hover nervously over the people who come after [the Soviets], applying litmus papers daily to their political complexions to find out whether they answer to our concept of 'democratic.'"

Fine words, one might object, but the cutthroat maneuvering of 21st-century realpolitik is bound to keep Russians and Americans apart, if not at daggers drawn. Yet another part of Kennan's patrimony, one that inhabits and analyzes this realpolitik, might suggest otherwise. On Monday night in Moscow, the Kennan Institute's Russia/CIS Alumni Association will hold its annual meeting, bringing together an array of past, present and future grantees that Russia and the United States can be proud of: a cosmonaut, poets and novelists, human rights activists, military whistleblowers, distinguished veterans of the Soviet and Russian diplomatic corps, a host of academicians and a clutch of mere mortals like myself, all united by the experience of study and discourse at the Washington research institute (and its Moscow branch) bearing Kennan's name.

These scholars, statesmen and practitioners do not agree on everything and would not be there if they did. Indeed, their diversity, openness and commitment to productive debate and scholarship -- the kind that seeks to inform viewpoints rather than confirm them -- may well be Kennan's most valuable legacy to us all.

Mark H. Teeter teaches English and Russian-American relations in Moscow.