Tuesday, August 27, 2013
Recent Reads: American Diplomacy, 1900-1950
I recently finished George F. Kennan's short book, American Diplomacy, 1900-1950, which was based on a series of lectures he delivered at the University of Chicago. It is not particularly good history due to its episodic treatment of events, but Kennan was more interested in analyzing the events he discusses in terms of extracting diplomatic lessons for the post-World War II world. The lessons learned are: 1. Wars should be waged only as a last resort and when the national interests requires it. 2. Governments should not make diplomatic promises or make threats it does not keep. 3. The United States should follow a realist policy and avoid highly charged emotional rhetoric and moral justifications for intervention. 4. The United States needs to remain actively involved in diplomacy at all times and not periodically. 5. Strategic objectives should be determined by long range national interests and not election cycles. Number two caught my eye. In American Diplomacy, Kennan spends a chapter on how John Hay's celebrated Open Door in China policy was a big mistake precisely because we did not live up to the words or ask others to as well. Japan noticed this and increasingly encroached on Chinese sovereignty. Because our interest in China waxed and waned (see #4 above), it exacerbated our relationship with Japan. This, of course, bore its ugly fruit on December 7, 1941. One can see that in terms of 1950, the architect of containment was arguing against both American firsters and their neo-isolationist allies, and those who wanted to roll back the Iron Curtain through force of arms. Still, while I think Kennan was wrong to completely eliminate morality from American foreign policy, there are some lessons in American Diplomacy that worth revisiting in 2013.