The Cloud of Danger

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 18)

George F. Kennan has had a distinguished career as an American diplomat, serving as Ambassador to the Soviet Union and to Yugoslavia. After retiring from the Foreign Service in 1953, he became a member of the Institute for Advanced Studies in Princeton, New Jersey. He taught at Princeton University and the University of Chicago and was visiting professor at Oxford University. His books about foreign policy and international relations include American Diplomacy, 1900-1950; Soviet-American Relations, 1917-1920; Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin; Soviet Foreign Policy, 1917-1941; Memoirs, 1925-1950; and Memoirs, 1950- 1963.

In his latest book, The Cloud of Danger, Kennan reviews United States foreign policy and suggests changes that need to be made. Basically, he urges that we restrict our involvement to those areas that are important to our national interest and turn our attention to our great domestic needs. He is unusually sensitive to our domestic problems such as the decline of urban areas, high unemployment, inflation, and energy. He is correct in calling our attention to the fact that we do not have unlimited resources and cannot do everything. Furthermore, we cannot remake the world in our own image because of the concept of the sovereignty of nations. Although we claim we are not the “policeman of the world,” we often act as if we were. We have not restricted our involvement to those areas that by Kennan’s definition are within our national interest.

However, we face a more fundamental dilemma than Kennan acknowledges. On the one hand, our commitment to freedom and individual rights makes it difficult for us to avoid involvement wherever these principles are being violated. Yet the concept of national sovereignty prevents our intervening in the affairs of other nations even if we are motivated by our concern for freedom and human rights. Kennan does not address this ethical dilemma, but restricts himself instead to a pragmatic assessment of our national interest.

Discussing at length the effect of our system of government on foreign policy, the author stresses the loss of flexibility that may result from the extensive involvement of the Congress and the consequent involvement of domestic interest groups. He regrets that more discretion is not left to the “highly competent persons” in the executive branch who are not distracted by interest groups but have only the national interest in mind as they make decisions. His willingness to rely on experts leads him to make a special plea for more professionals in the American embassy in Moscow and for greater reliance upon the embassy as a source of information and day-to-day advice for high-level policymaking. This thinking is consistent with the author’s aversion to summitry. Yet he does not seriously consider the technological advances in travel and communications that have changed the ways nations communicate with one another. Instead of looking backward with the hope that the traditional ways will return, what is called for are bold new ideas in exploiting technology to enhance communications.

Yet the widespread feeling that too much “secrecy” and not enough involvement by the Congress and the public in foreign policy matters have contributed to serious errors in our foreign policy will not allow us to be satisfied with his easy solution. We must strike a balance; ultimately, the President is responsible for the direction and consequences of our foreign policy, but there must be more extensive involvement in the policymaking process. It cannot be left to the experts.

Since this demand for greater involvement in the policymaking process cannot be denied, the public must become more sophisticated regarding foreign policy. This requires greatly improved reporting and more thorough education of the public by the elected representatives. Kennan correctly says the press tends to stress the sensational and the trivial and often dramatizes events or people, leading to a misunderstanding of the real situation. Perhaps the best example of this was the handling of the agreements and events which came to be labeled détente by the press and led to unrealistic expectations by the American public. Thus, fundamental changes are needed in the sense of responsibility of the press, in access to information by the press, and in explanations to the people by elected officials.

Despite the insight Kennan shows in the interlacing of domestic and foreign affairs, his lack of emphasis on economic and financial affairs is striking and can perhaps be explained by the era in which he received his training and completed his foreign service career. While acknowledging the economic interdependence of countries today, he rather wishfully deplores it. He states that most of the exchanges...

(The entire section is 1975 words.)