AMERICA LOST a unique resource when George Kennan, the originator of America's containment strategy for the Soviet Union, died Thursday at the age of 101. His concept of statecraft, as well as his sensibility, were utterly at odds with the dominant forces in contemporary America, the land to which his forebears emigrated when it was still a British colony.
Kennan was an old-fashioned conservative, not a neo-conservative who would use force to impose an American political gospel around the world. He lamented the cult of economic growth, the paving over of nature, the Vietnam War, and the notion that security emanates from a nuclear arsenal that could never be used. His aim was to find the most frugal means for preserving the preeminent power of the United States after World War II.
''This whole tendency to see ourselves as the center of political enlightenment and as teachers to a great part of the world strikes me as unthought-through, vainglorious, and undesirable," Kennan said in a 1999 interview. ''I would like to see our government gradually withdraw from its public advocacy of democracy and human rights. I submit that governments should deal with other governments as such and should avoid unnecessary involvement, particularly personal involvement, with their leaders." One need only recall President Bush's imprudent talk of peering into the pure soul of Russia's President Vladimir Putin to realize that nothing could be more antithetical to the practice of the current Bush administration.
Kennan's original outlines of a containment policy in his famous Long Telegram of 1946 and in his article the following year in the journal Foreign Affairs assumed that the Soviet system was unsustainable, that schisms were inevitable among the disparate communist regimes in Moscow, Beijing, and Belgrade, and that if America and its allies waged a patient political struggle they would inevitably outlast the Soviets. Kennan's drive was not to change the governments in other countries but to keep unavoidable enmities with foreign powers from changing America.
''We have about 50 percent of the world's wealth but only 6.3 percent of its population," Kennan wrote in a Policy Planning Study of 1948. ''In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity."
Kennan was an unabashed elitist and an unsentimental realist in his counsel to statesmen. But when compared with the self-deluding misuse of American power that passes for conservatism today, Kennan's lucid view of the world inspires nostalgia.