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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  A memo on geopolitics sent in 1946 retains its relevance
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A memo on geopolitics sent in 1946 retains its relevance

More than three quarters of a century after it was written, George Kennan’s long telegram—it ran to 5,500 words—from Moscow to his bosses at the US State Department remains arguably the most influential diplomatic document of all time

This photograph taken on February 26, 2023, shows a destroyed Russian tank and buildings in the village of Kamenka, Kharkiv region, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Anatolii STEPANOV / AFP) (AFP)Premium
This photograph taken on February 26, 2023, shows a destroyed Russian tank and buildings in the village of Kamenka, Kharkiv region, amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine. (Photo by Anatolii STEPANOV / AFP) (AFP)

More than three quarters of a century after it was written, George Kennan’s long telegram—it ran to 5,500 words—from Moscow to his bosses at the US State Department remains arguably the most influential diplomatic document of all time. At a time when the US and Britain were still nominally allied with Stalin’s Russia in the aftermath of World War II, his 22 February 1946 memo called for realism in dealing with an autocratic adversary and containing it. “I apologise in advance for this burdening of the telegraphic channel," Kennan wrote. But he had opted not to use the diplomatic pouch precisely to grab the attention of Washington. Long as the telegram was, its very first point, that Stalin’s Soviet Union was beset by “antagonistic" paranoia about “capitalist encirclement" and that there could be no “permanent peaceful coexistence", set the foundations for decades of US containment as a strategy for dealing with Moscow.

Re-reading it today, against the backdrop of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as well as China’s border disputes with nearly all its neighbours, is hugely instructive. Kennan’s genius, as someone who loved Russia, spoke Russian fluently and adored its literature enough to contemplate writing a biography of the playwright Anton Chekhov, was to understand that Marxism was “just a fig leaf of their moral and intellectual respectability. Without it, [the Kremlin] would stand before history as only the last of that long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers who have relentlessly forced the country on to ever new heights of military power in order to guarantee the external security of their internally weak regimes." This perspective is crucial to understand the combative stance of two countries with Communist foundations: Putin’s Russia and Xi’s China.

Then, as now, coping with these powerful rivals is “undoubtedly the greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably will ever have to face," as Kennan wrote. Unlike those who act as apologists for Putin’s need for “spheres of influence" and tiptoe around Beijing’s supposed historical claims to Taiwan—which ought to be regarded with as much scorn as, say, Pakistan insisting that Bangladesh not be accorded diplomatic status befitting a nation—Kennan warned that these regimes were committed “to the belief that with the US there can be no permanent modus vivendi." Decades later, it is easy to discern signs that this perceived antagonism was alive and well in the minds of China’s leadership in an encounter described in Richard McGregor’s biography of the Chinese Communist Party. McGregor’s The Party recounts a meeting between Wang Qishan, China’s vice premier in charge of the financial sector, with Western financial investors and executives. One of the underappreciated inflection points of history is how this partnership between Communist Beijing and Wall Street has been crucial in helping China raise hundreds of billions of dollars in overseas capital markets by listing an array of badly run state-owned enterprises that Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley also helped restructure. The meeting with Wang took place in 2008 in the aftermath of the financial crisis that saw US financial giants nearly collapse till they were bailed out by the US government. Wang’s meeting was suffused with gloating rather than sympathy; Beijing’s superiority complex was all too apparent. Wang’s view, one participant told McGregor, was “You have your way. We have our way. And our way is right!"

Kennan’s policy of containment focused on exerting pressure on a totalitarian adversary by diplomatic and economic means, not war. It is safe to assume that he would have regarded Wall Street’s track record as an accomplice to Chinese power ambitions as naïve. Equally, he would have been appalled by the cynical view of so many that the invasion of Ukraine is just Russia asserting its right to rule its neighbours. The ferocious fight-back by Ukraine’s leadership, army and civilians makes a mockery of Russian claims.

A formative experience for Kennan in the last days of World War II was hearing of the Polish Home Army heroically rising up against Warsaw’s German occupiers in August 1944. Stalin refused to intervene, even though the Russian army was less than 60 miles away. He initially paid little heed to US appeals to let Allied planes refuel at Ukrainian bases so they could get arms and supplies to the Polish revolt. As Louis Menand observes in a 2011 review of Kennan’s biography in The New Yorker: “[Stalin] was waiting for the [German elite guard] to annihilate the Home Army for him, thereby removing a potential obstacle to the establishment of a Soviet puppet regime." The Germans killed 225,000 civilians and shipped half a million Poles to concentration camps. When Russian troops entered Warsaw in January 1945, “not a single inhabitant was left." This shameful example of Russian realpolitik should suffice to explain the commitment of ordinary Poles to the Ukrainian cause; thousands of Polish families have opened their homes to Ukrainian refugees who have crossed the border in millions.

Kennan was disillusioned that successive US administrations sought military intervention of one kind or another to prop up regimes in Asia and Latin America. He spoke against the Vietnam war. But, he would have loudly called out the autocratic regimes in Beijing and Moscow and their many cheerleaders in diplomatic and business circles. From Delhi to Davos and from Washington to Brussels, we need Kennan’s clear-eyed vision more than ever today and in the perilous years ahead.

Rahul Jacob is a Mint columnist and a former Financial Times foreign correspondent.

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Published: 01 Mar 2023, 11:37 PM IST
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