For more than sixty years, George F. Kennan’s American Diplomacy has been a standard work on American foreign policy. Drawing on his considerable diplomatic experience and expertise, Kennan offers an overview and critique of the foreign policy of an emerging great power whose claims to rightness often spill over into self-righteousness, whose ambitions conflict with power realities, whose judgmentalism precludes the interests of other states, and whose domestic politics frequently prevent prudent policies and result in overstretch. Keenly aware of the dangers of military intervention and the negative effects of domestic politics on foreign policy, Kennan identifies troubling inconsistencies in the areas between actions and ideals—even when the strategies in question turned out to be decided successes.
In this expanded sixtieth-anniversary edition, a substantial new introduction by John J. Mearsheimer, one of America’s leading political realists, provides new understandings of Kennan’s work and explores its continued resonance. As America grapples with its new role as one power among many—rather than as the “indispensable nation” that sees “further into the future”—Kennan’s perceptive analysis of the past is all the more relevant. Today, as then, the pressing issue of how to wield power with prudence and responsibility remains, and Kennan’s cautions about the cost of hubris are still timely. Refreshingly candid, American Diplomacy cuts to the heart of policy issues that continue to be hotly debated today.
“These celebrated lectures, delivered at the University of Chicago in 1950, were for many years the most widely read account of American diplomacy in the first half of the twentieth century.”—Foreign Affairs, Significant Books of the Last 75 Years
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By George F. Kennan
The University of Chicago PressCopyright © 2012 The University of Chicago
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Chapter OneThe War with Spain
I WOULD LIKE first to say a word about the concept of these six lectures. This concept stems from no abstract interest in history for history's sake. It stems from a preoccupation with the problems of foreign policy we have before us today.
A half-century ago people in this country had a sense of security vis-à-vis their world environment such as I suppose no people had ever had since the days of the Roman Empire. Today that pattern is almost reversed—our national consciousness is dominated at present by a sense of insecurity greater even than that of many of the peoples of western Europe who stand closer to, and in a position far more vulnerable to, those things that are the main source of our concern. Now, much of that change may be, and doubtless is, subjective—a reflection of the fact that in 1900 we exaggerated the security of our position and had an overweening confidence in our strength and our ability to solve problems, whereas today we exaggerate our dangers and have a tendency to rate our own abilities less than they actually are. But the fact remains that much of this change is also objectively real; in 1900 the political and military realities were truly such that we had relatively little to fear in the immediate sense, whereas today we have before us a situation which, I am frank to admit, seems to me dangerous and problematical in the extreme.
What has caused this metamorphosis? How did a country so secure become a country so insecure? How much of this deterioration can be said to be "our fault"? How much of it is attributable to our failure to see clearly, or to take into account, the realities of the world around us?
What lessons, in other words, does the record of the external relations of the United States over the last fifty years hold for us, the generation of 1951, pressed and hemmed in as we are by a thousand troubles and dangers, surrounded by a world part of which seems to be actually committed to our destruction and another part to have lost confidence either in ourselves or in itself, or in both?
These are the questions which have taken me back, in the past few months, to a review of some of our decisions of national policy in these fifty years. I certainly cannot hold out to you the hope that this series of lectures will answer all these questions, or will answer any one of them in a manner beyond controversy.
But what we can hope, I think, is that it will be useful to turn again to certain of the major phases of national policy over this period and to look at them once more in the light of what seem in retrospect to have been their alternatives and their consequences. We have good reason for doing this. Not only is there much that should be visible to us now that was not visible to people as little as ten years ago; but I would hope that we might bring to such an inquiry a new sort of seriousness—a seriousness induced by our recollection of the vast destruction and the sacrifices we have witnessed in our lifetimes, a seriousness more thoughtful and sadder than most people would have been able to bring to these problems in the days before the two tragic world wars.
What I would like to talk about first is the Spanish-American War.
Today, standing at the end rather than the beginning of this half-century, some of us see certain fundamental elements on which we suspect that American security has rested. We can see that our security has been dependent throughout much of our history on the position of Britain; that Canada, in particular, has been a useful and indispensable hostage to good relations between our country and the British Empire; and that Britain's position, in turn, has depended on the maintenance of a balance of power on the European Continent. Thus it was essential to us, as it was to Britain, that no single Continental land power should come to dominate the entire Eurasian land mass. Our interest has lain rather in the maintenance of some sort of stable balance among the powers of the interior, in order that none of them should effect the subjugation of the others, conquer the seafaring fringes of the land mass, become a great sea power as well as land power, shatter the position of England, and enter—as in these circumstances it certainly would—on an overseas expansion hostile to ourselves and supported by the immense resources of the interior of Europe and Asia. Seeing these things, we can understand that we have had a stake in the prosperity and independence of the peripheral powers of Europe and Asia: those countries whose gazes were oriented outward, across the seas, rather than inward to the conquest of power on land.
Now we see these things, or think we see them. But they were scarcely yet visible to the Americans of 1898, for those Americans had forgotten a great deal that had been known to their forefathers of a hundred years before. They had become so accustomed to their security that they had forgotten that it had any foundations at all outside our continent. They mistook our sheltered position behind the British fleet and British Continental diplomacy for the results of superior American wisdom and virtue in refraining from interfering in the sordid differences of the Old World. And they were oblivious to the first portents of the changes that were destined to shatter that pattern of security in the course of the ensuing half-century.
There were, of course, exceptions. Brooks Adams, Henry's brother, probably came closer than any American of his day to a sort of an intellectual premonition of what the future had in store for us. But even he caught only a portion of it. He saw the increasing vulnerability of England—the increasing "eccentricity," as he called it, of her economic position, her growing economic dependence on the United States—and, conversely, the growing strategic dependence of the United States on England. He sensed the ultimate importance of the distinction between sea power and land power. Vaguely, he felt the danger of political collaboration between Russia and Germany and China. But his thinking was distorted by the materialism of the time: by the overestimation of economics, of trade, as factors in human events and by the corresponding underestimation of psychological and political reactions—of such things as fear, ambition, insecurity, jealousy, and perhaps even boredom—as prime movers of events.
Mahan, too, was charting new paths at that time in the analysis of international realities—paths which led in the direction of a more profound appraisal of the sources of American security. And there were others who might be mentioned. But altogether they comprised only a tiny coterie of persons. Their efforts were not even followed up by others at the time or in the years that immediately ensued. Those efforts remained suspended, as it were, in the mid-air of history—an isolated spurt of intellectual activity against a background of general torpor and smugness in American thinking about foreign affairs. And all of them—all of these deeper and more observant minds of the turn of the century—stopped short of the projection of their inquiry onto the theater of European Continental rivalries where, as it happened, the events most fateful to American security were destined to occur and where we stood in the greatest need of profound analysis and careful identification of the elements of American interest.
It is plain, for this reason, that the incident I am talking about today—our brief war with Spain in 1898—occurred against a background of public and governmental thinking in this country which was not marked by any great awareness of the global framework of our security. This being the case, it was fortunate that both the situation out of which the war arose and, for the most part, the events and consequences of the war itself were largely local and domestic in their importance. As we proceed with these lectures and advance into the twentieth century, we shall see the global implications of our predicaments and actions growing apace with the passage of the years, until in the case of World War II they are positively overwhelming. But at the time of the Spanish-American War they were hardly present at all—the taking of the Philippines was the closest we came to them. And if a war so colorless from the standpoint of our world relationships is worth discussing at all this afternoon, it is because it forms a sort of preface to our examination of the diplomacy of this half-century, a simple, almost quaint, illustration of some of our national reactions and ways of doing business, and a revelation of the distance we were destined to have to come if we were ever to be a power capable of coping with the responsibilities of world leadership.
Our war with Spain, as you will recall, grew out of a situation in Cuba. It was one of those dreadful, tragic, hopeless situations which seem to mark the decline or exhaustion of a colonial relationship. We have seen other such situations since, and some of them not so long ago. Spanish rule on the island was challenged by Cuban insurgents, poorly organized, poorly disciplined, but operating on the classical principles of guerrilla forces everywhere and enjoying all the advantages of guerrillas operating on the home territory against an unpopular foreign enemy. The Spanish attempts to suppress the insurrection were inefficient, cruel, and only partly successful. The situation had been long developing; it had been growing sporadically for decades. President Grant had summed it up very well in a presidential message, over two decades earlier, in 1875:
Each party seems quite capable of working great injury and damage to the other, as well as to all the relations and interests dependent on the existence of peace in the island; but they seem incapable of reaching any adjustment, and both have thus far failed of achieving any success whereby one party shall possess and control the island to the exclusion of the other. Under these circumstances, the agency of others, either by mediation or intervention, seems to be the only alternative which must sooner or later be invoked for the termination of the strife.
There had been some improvement, to be sure, in the two decades between 1875 and 1895. But in that latter year insurrection broke out again, this time on a bloodier and more tragic scale than ever before. And in the years 1896 and 1897 it brought increasing concern and dismay to the government, the press, and the public in our country.
Strictly speaking, of course, it would have been possible for us to have said that it was none of our business and to have let things take their course. Our national security, as we think of it today, was not threatened. But American property interests were damaged; the activities of American filibusterers and arms salesmen, on behalf of the insurgents, caused a lot of trouble to our government. And, above all, American public opinion was deeply shocked by the tales of violence and misery from the island. Our sensibilities were not yet jaded by the immense horrors and cruelties of the twentieth century. The sufferings of the Cuban people shocked our sensibilities, aroused our indignation. They gave American statesmen the conviction that a continuation of this situation in Cuba would be intolerable to our interests in the long run and that, if Spain did not succeed in putting an end to it, we should have to intervene in some way ourselves.
In the fall of 1897 things looked up a bit. A new and more moderate government came into power in Spain. This government showed a greater disposition to clear up the unhappy problems on the island than had its predecessor. In his message to Congress in December, 1897, President McKinley noted this improvement and recommended that we give the new Spanish government a chance. "I shall not impugn its sincerity," he said, "nor should impatience be suffered to embarrass it in the task it has undertaken." Certain difficulties, he said, had already been cleared up; there was reason to hope that, with patience on our part and continued good will on the part of the Spanish government, further progress might be made. Thus the year 1898 began with a renewed hope that the plight of the Cuban people might get better instead of worse.
Unfortunately, two things happened during the winter which changed the situation quite drastically. First, the Spanish minister in Washington wrote an indiscreet letter in which he spoke slightingly of President McKinley, calling him "a bidder for the admiration of the crowd" and "a would-be politician ... who tries to leave a door open behind himself while keeping on good terms with the jingoes of his party." This letter leaked; it was published in the New York papers, causing much indignation and resentment. And a few days later the American public was profoundly shocked and outraged to hear that the battleship "Maine" had been sunk in Havana harbor with the loss of 266 American lives.
Now, looked at in retrospect, neither of these incidents seems to have been an adequate cause, in itself, for war. The Spanish government could not help its minister's indiscretion—even diplomats are constantly being indiscreet, this sort of thing happens in the best of families. It promptly removed him from his job and disavowed his offensive statements. And, as for the "Maine," there has never been any evidence that the Spanish government had anything to do with the sinking of the vessel or would have been anything but horrified at the suggestion that it should have anything to do with it. Spanish authorities, as well as our own consul-general in Havana, had begged us not to send the vessel there at that time for the very reason that they were afraid this might lead to trouble. The Spanish government did everything in its power to mitigate the effects of the catastrophe, welcomed investigation, and eventually offered to submit the whole question of responsibility to international arbitration—an offer we never accepted.
Nevertheless, it seems to be the judgment of history that these two incidents so affected American opinion that war became inevitable with the sinking of the "Maine." From that time on no peaceful solution was really given serious consideration in the American government. This is particularly significant and unfortunate, because during the nine weeks that intervened between the sinking of the "Maine" and the opening of hostilities the Spanish government came very far in the direction of meeting our demands and desires. It came so far that by April 10 (eleven days before hostilities began) our minister in Madrid—a wise and moderate man who had worked hard to prevent the outbreak of war—was able to report that, if the President could get from Congress authority to deal with the matter at his own discretion, he could have a final settlement before August 1 on one of the following bases: autonomy acceptable to the insurgents, independence, or cession to the United States. On the same day, the queen of Spain ordered a complete armistice on the island, and the Spanish minister in Washington promised to our government the early promulgation of a system of autonomy "such that no motive or pretext is left for claiming any fuller measure thereof."
These are of course isolated snatches out of a long and involved correspondence between the two governments. I cite them only to indicate that on paper, at least, the Spanish government was coming around very rapidly in those early days of April, 1898, to the sort of attitude and action we had been demanding of them. Yet, despite all that, one finds no evidence that the United States government was in any way influenced by these last-minute concessions. It made no move to prevent feeling and action in Congress from proceeding along a line that was plainly directed toward an early outbreak of hostilities.
Now, it is true that, as people then saw it, many of these Spanish concessions came too late and were not fully dependable. It is also true that the insurgents were by this time in no frame of mind, and in no state of discipline, to collaborate in any way with the Spanish authorities. But one does not get the impression that these were the things which dictated the decision of our government to go to war. This decision seems rather attributable to the state of American opinion, to the fact that it was a year of congressional elections, to the unabashed and really fantastic warmongering of a section of the American press, and to the political pressures which were freely and bluntly exerted on the President from various political quarters. (It is an interesting fact, incidentally, that financial and business circles, allegedly the instigators of wars, had no part in this and generally frowned on the idea of our involvement in the hostilities.)
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Table of ContentsIntroduction
Charles R. Walgreen Foundation Lectures I. The War with Spain
II. Mr. Hippisley and the Open Door
III. America and the Orient
IV. World War I
V. World War II
VI. Diplomacy in the Modern World
The Sources of Soviet Conduct
America and the Russian Future
I. Reflections on the Walgreen Lectures
II. American Diplomacy and the Military