In Defense of Particularism in American Foreign Policy

I’ve just finished reading John Lewis Gaddis’s terrific biography of George Frost Kennan, a towering figure in American foreign policy after World War II whom Henry Kissinger described as “one of the most important, complex, moving, challenging and exasperating American public servants.” Apart from recommending the book, which I do without hesitation to anyone with an interest in world affairs, I wanted to talk about how Gaddis’ distillation of Kennan’s ideas helped me clarify some of my own thinking on the conduct of foreign policy.

Nowadays, discussions of grand strategy in U.S. foreign policy are usually framed as a battle between realism, which emphasizes power and encourages statesmen to focus shrewdly on their national self-interest, and liberal institutionalism, which emphasizes cooperation and encourages statesmen to build institutions that facilitate it. Kennan–who was not trained as an academic and apparently didn’t care much for formal theories of international relations–saw the same terrain from a different perspective, and I think his map may be the more useful one.

For Kennan, the crucial divide lay between universalists and particularists. Gaddis spells out this theme most clearly in his discussion of Kennan’s thinking about how the United States ought to respond to the successes of Communist revolutionaries in China in 1947. Mao’s gains posed an early test of the recently pronounced Truman doctrine, which had seemed to pledge the United States to do all it could to prevent Communist advances anywhere in the world. While Kennan was dismayed by that doctrine’s absolutist language, it overlapped with the containment strategy he had begun to advocate as a response to the global ambitions and aggressive nature he saw in the Soviet Union.

Even so, and despite loud calls in the U.S. to do whatever was necessary to defend Chiang’s regime, Kennan convinced Truman to provide only a bare minimum of support to the Nationalists. According to Gaddis (p. 299), Kennan had thought that

Americans had clung too long to the idea of remaking China, an end far beyond their means. The [State Department’s] Policy Planning Staff [which Kennan headed] should determine what parts of East Asia are ‘absolutely vital to our security,’ and the United States should then ensure that these remain ‘in hands which we can control or rely on.’

Kennan framed this recommendation within the need to choose between universal and particularist approaches in foreign policy. Universalism sought to apply the same principles everywhere. It favored procedures embodied in the United Nations and in other international organizations. It smoothed over the national peculiarities and conflicting ideologies that confused and irritated so many Americans. Its appeal lay in its promise to ‘relieve us of the necessity of dealing with the world as it is.’ Particularism, in contrast, questioned ‘legalistic concepts.’ It assumed appetites for power that only ‘counter-force’ could control. It valued alliances, but only if based on communities of interest, not on the ‘abstract formalism’ of obligations that might preclude pursuing national defense and global stability. Universalism entangled interests in cumbersome parliamentarism. Particularism encouraged purposefulness, coordination, and economy of effort–qualities the nation would need ‘if we are to be sure of accomplishing our purposes.’

Kennan’s recommendation on China seemed to contradict his own grand strategy, but this contradiction reflected his deeper beliefs about the importance of particularism. He understood that a Communist victory in China would be a setback for the U.S., but he didn’t think it would be a disaster, and he believed that even massive American assistance was unlikely to stop the Communists from winning.

In this history, I hear echoes of contemporary debates over the “responsibility to protect” (R2P) doctrine and whether or not the U.S. should intervene militarily in Syria to stop the mass atrocities occurring there. As in the arguments over China policy in the 1940s, universalists often make the case for intervention in Syria on both moral and strategic grounds. Mass atrocities are morally abhorrent, of course, but acting to stop or prevent them is also an essential function of America’s role as the producer and defender of a liberal global order, a universalist might argue, just as stopping Communism in its tracks was during the Cold War. In a recent call for more forceful U.S. action against Syria, Anne Marie Slaughter, a successor of Kennan’s as director of the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, made just such a case. She wrote:

If you believe, as I do, that R2P is a foundation for increased peace and respect for human rights over the long term, that each time it is invoked successfully to authorize the prevention of genocide, crimes against humanity, grave and systematic war crimes, and ethnic cleansing as much as the protection of civilians from such atrocities once they are occurring, it becomes a stronger deterrent against the commission of those acts in the first place…If the U.S. says it stands behind R2P but then does nothing in a case where it applies, not only will dictators around the world draw their own conclusions, but belief in the U.S. commitment to other international norms and obligations also weakens, just at a time when the U.S. grand strategy is to expand and strengthen an effective international order. The credibility of the U.S. commitment to its own proclaimed values will also take yet another critical hit with every young person in the Middle East fighting for liberty, democracy, and justice.

After reading about his approach to China, it’s easy to imagine Kennan responding to this universalist argument by asking: “Yes, but how likely are we to succeed, and at what cost?”

To universalists, that kind of equivocation may seem immoral. Kennan, whom Gaddis portrays as a religious person and a philosopher, was not insensitive to these concerns. His rejection of universalism was not meant as a rejection of moral thinking. Instead, Kennan’s commitment to particularism was informed by his judgment that stark views about right and wrong were poor guides to foreign policy-making.

Could governments behave as individuals should? His preliminary conclusion, sketched out in his diary, was that politics, whether within or among nations, would always be a struggle for power. It could never in itself be a moral act…Foreign policy was not, therefore, a contest of good versus evil. To condemn negotiations as appeasement, Kennan told a Princeton University audience early in October [1953], was to end a Hollywood movie with the villain shot. To entrust diplomacy to lawyers was to relegate power, ‘like sex, to a realm in which we see it only occasionally, and then in highly sublimated and presentable form.’ Both approaches ignored the fact that most international conflicts were ‘jams that people have gotten themselves into.’ Trying to resolve them through rigid standards risked making things worse.” (p. 492)

As a frequent critic of the U.S. government’s attempts to provoke and promote democratic revolutions elsewhere–here and here are some blogged examples–I was particularly interested in how Kennan’s commitment to particularism was evidenced in his frustration with policies aimed at supporting the “liberation” Communist-ruled countries during the Cold War. In Kennan’s view,

“[A policy seeking ‘liberation’ in Communist-ruled countries] is not consistent with our international obligations. It is not consistent with a common membership with other countries in the United Nations. It is not consistent with the maintenance of formal diplomatic relations with another country. It is replete with possibilities for misunderstanding and bitterness. To the extent that it might be successful, it would involve us in heavy responsibilities. Finally the prospects for success would be very small indeed; since the problem of civil disobedience is not a great problem to the modern police dictatorship.” (p. 479)

Those concerns may sound cold, but Kennan was not indifferent to the liberationists’ cause. In fact, his views on the subject were also informed by a conviction that democracy would prevail in the end without active American support. According to Gaddis (p. 495), Kennan believed that

Democracy had the advantage over Communism in this respect, because it did not rely on violence to reshape society. Its outlook was ‘more closely attuned to the real nature of man…[so] we can afford to be patient and even occasionally to suffer reverses, placing our confidence in the longer and deeper workings of history.’

Like Churchill, who famously remarked that “democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried,” Kennan saw many faults in Western society in the 20th century, but he saw the available alternatives as even worse. Nevertheless, he firmly believed that any gains realized by pushing for liberation were not worth the entanglements, lost opportunities, and even wars that might result, especially when war could be nuclear.

Kennan saw himself as more of a “prophet” (his word) than a theorist or practitioner, and his views on “liberation” illustrate how he often thought about international relations on time scales that most people either don’t consider or consider a luxury. His containment policy was founded on the prescient expectation that the Soviet Union’s internal flaws would eventually lead to its own disintegration, but he did not expect to live long enough to see that happen.

When contemplating the plight of actual people suffering under actual dictatorships, the idea that democracy will eventually prevail can seem a little too convenient, like it’s just a way to absolve us of any responsibility for the injustices of the here and now. Is it really more convenient, though, than the belief that righteousness is always right? Where Kennan’s view is materially convenient, implying that we can achieve the desired result through inaction, the liberationist’s view is morally convenient, presuming that well-intentioned actions will always bring good results.

And there’s the matter of the historical record. Long-term trends clearly support Kennan’s expectation that democracy would keep expanding, albeit fitfully and with many reversals. More important, these advances have usually come either without direct U.S. support, or in places where U.S. involvement was incidental to the eventual outcome. The events that precipitated the collapse of the USSR and the end of Communist rule in Eastern Europe mostly caught the U.S. by surprise, and the U.S. response to them was generally modest and ambivalent.

Likewise with the Arab Spring. The wave of uprisings that swept the Arab world in 2011 started in Tunisia, where the U.S. had done virtually nothing to promote democracy. It soon spread to Egypt and Bahrain, where U.S. support for military “deep states” vastly outweighed its material and verbal commitments to opposition groups, and to Libya, where the U.S. had actually warmed to the dictator in recent years in response to his decision to give up weapons of mass destruction. In other words, theses revolutions were hardly American-made; if anything, they occurred in spite of American indifference and support for the status quo. In this sense, the Arab Spring supports Kennan’s expectation that American intervention is hardly a prerequisite for democratic revolution, and that democracy will advance on its own through the “longer and deeper workings of history.”

If universal principles aren’t the way to go, how, then, should foreign policy be conducted? For most of his adult life, Kennan owned and worked a small farm in southern Pennsylvania, and he often did the yardwork at his home in Princeton, too. It’s not surprising, then, that he may have best expressed his commitment to particularism and penchant for thinking on long time scales in a horticultural metaphor that envisioned a patient, process-oriented approach as the best way to strike a balance between moral ambitions and animal interests. This metaphor was offered up during a series of four lectures Kennan delivered at Princeton in 1954–lectures that became the book Realities of American Foreign Policy, and I think Gaddis’ summation of those lectures (pp. 494-495) it makes a proper coda to this post.

Americans could no longer afford economic advances that depleted natural resources and devastated natural beauty, Kennan insisted. Nor could they tolerate dependency, for critical raw materials, on unreliable foreign governments. Nor could they tear their democracy apart internally because threats to democracy existed externally. Nor could they entrust defenses against such dangers to the first use of nuclear weapons, for what would be left after a nuclear war had taken place? These were all single policies, pursued without regard to how each related to the others, or to the larger ends the state was supposed to serve. They neglected ‘the essential unity’ of national problems, thus demonstrating the ‘danger implicit in any attempt to compartmentalize our thinking about foreign policy.’

That lack of coordination ill-suited the separate ‘planes of international reality’ upon which the United States had to compete. The first was a ‘sane and rational one, in which we felt comfortable, in which we were surrounded by people to whom we were accustomed and on whose reactions we could at least depend.’ The second was ‘a nightmarish one, where we were like a hunted beast, oblivious of everything but survival; straining every nerve and muscle in the effort to remain alive.’ Within the first arena, traditional conceptions of morality applied; ‘We could still be guided…by the American dream.’ Within the second, ‘there was only the law of the jungle; and we had to do violence to our own traditional principles–or many of us felt we did–to fit ourselves for the relentless struggle.’ The great question, then, was whether the two could ever be brought into a coherent relationship with one another.

They could, Kennan suggested, through a kind of geopolitical horticulture. ‘We must be gardeners and not mechanics in our approach to world affairs.’ International life was an organic process, not a static system. Americans had inherited it, not designed it. Their preferred standards of behavior, therefore, could hardly govern it. But it should be possible ‘to take these forces for what they are and to induce them to work with us and for us by influencing the environmental stimuli to which they are subjected.’ That would have to be done ‘gently and patiently, with understanding and sympathy, not trying to force growth by mechanical means, not tearing the plants up by the roots when they fail to behave as we wish them to. The forces of nature will generally be on the side of him who understands them best and respects them most scrupulously.’

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3 Comments

  1. For the two or three of you who might be wondering: I think this is as close as I’m going to get to writing a follow-up to my “What Should a Liberal American Foreign Policy Look Like, Part I” post.

    Reply
  2. In other words an argument in favor of humility. (Which I’m always in favor of.) Or an argument why outrage is not a sound basis for policymaking. The universalist is outraged that he has to consider violating his principles, or choosing between them; the particularist accepts (with humility) that she lives in the real world, where there are no absolutes, and therefore sometimes has to violate or choose between her principles. The dictator vs. the democrat: authority vs. consensus. The vein you strike with this antagonism runs deep.

    Reply

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