In his cable, Kennan offered a clear-eyed view of the objectives and workings of the Soviet Union and posited that it would eventually collapse under the weight of its own contradictions. He argued that the Stalinist regime’s need to view the outside world in hostile terms was a vital excuse “for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, for cruelties they did not dare not inflict, for sacrifice they felt bound to demand.”
The cable is credited with laying the groundwork for a policy of “containment” and it became, in the words of Cold War historian John Lewis Gaddis, “the basis for United States strategy toward the Soviet Union throughout the rest of the Cold War.” Less than a month later, former British prime minister Winston Churchill delivered a speech in Fulton, Mo., pointing to numerous European countries then in “the Soviet sphere,” and declared that “an iron curtain has descended across the continent.”
Kennan’s legacy still shadows American foreign policy. He came to decry how his vision of “containment” — driven chiefly by political and economic pressure — was superseded by a history of globe-spanning American military deployments. Generations of policymakers, meanwhile, have pored over the “Long Telegram” to extract lessons for their particular moment.
That’s as true now as at any time in the past three-quarters of a century. Last month, the Atlantic Council published what it dubbed the “Longer Telegram,” a treatise attributed to an anonymous former senior official, which called for a comprehensive strategy to counter China and for policymakers to remain “laser focused” on Chinese President Xi Jinping, “his inner circle, and the Chinese political context in which they rule.”
The U.S. goal, the report concludes, should be a scenario where the United States and its close allies “continue to dominate the regional and global balance of power across all the major indices of power” by the middle of this century. Moreover, hard-line Xi would be “replaced by a more moderate party leadership” and there would be signs that the Chinese public was ready for a more liberalized political system.
This is a tall order, and the “Longer Telegram” received predictable pushback from various quarters. Chinese officials and state media panned the study as a “malicious attack,” while some experts in Washington pointed to perceived flaws in its analysis, including an overstatement of the ideological threat Beijing poses to the global order and an overemphasis on Xi’s particular profile in trying to divine the workings of China’s opaque political system.
The report’s anonymous author did recognize that times have changed. “When George Kennan wrote the ‘long telegram’ ... with his analysis focused on what would ultimately cause the Soviet Union to fail, he assumed that the U.S. economic model would continue to succeed of its own accord,” the author wrote. “The difference between then and now is that the assumption can no longer be made. The task at hand goes beyond attending to China’s internal vulnerabilities, extending to U.S. ones as well. Without doing both, the United States will fail.”
President Biden and his allies have repeatedly stressed that their foreign policy begins at home. But they also face a political climate in Washington where talk of great-power competition with China is rife, and increasingly bipartisan. Nevertheless, numerous experts — including scholars of Kennan’s legacy — caution against applying the same Cold War logic to the current challenge.
China represents “a type of strategic challenge that the U.S. has never faced before, a peer competitor that competes across all the dimensions of power,” said Thomas Graham, a former White House adviser on Russian affairs in the George W. Bush administration.
Graham was speaking Thursday at a virtual event on the 75th anniversary of the “Long Telegram,” hosted by the aptly named Kennan Institute at the Wilson Center.
“The world is no longer bipolar,” Graham told Today’s WorldView, referring to the Cold War dynamic that defined much of the 20th century. “And alternatives to American hegemony — or leadership, as Biden would have it — are not obviously worse.”
Meanwhile, global crises like the coronavirus pandemic and climate change compel Washington and Beijing to confront the same threats. “All of these problems call for cooperative solutions, not unnecessarily deepening rivalries,” wrote Daniel H. Nexon, a professor of government at Georgetown University. “When adopted as a foundational paradigm of foreign relations, great-power competition relegates collaboration to an afterthought or, worse, dismisses it as naive.”
“A durable cohabitation between the United States and China will require each to accept the reality of the other’s resilience,” wrote Ali Wyne, a senior analyst of the Eurasia Group, this week. “The Biden administration, then, has a compelling opportunity to advance a confident, forward-looking vision of America’s role in the world — one in which strategic competition with China is an important element, but not the overarching determinant.”