The Death of Kennan

Wars resolve the question of who’s in charge. Winston Churchill said once that “people talked a lot of nonsense when they said nothing was ever settled by war. Nothing in history was ever settled except by wars.”

That should give us an indication of how to assess the waning influence of the United States on the international stage. Tired of so-called endless wars, the United States is lowering its commitments to Iraq and Afghanistan. The US military drawdown from the latter is a case study, however, in strategic errors.

US priorities were shaped in the early 20th century by the decision to intervene in global affairs following a long period of splendid isolation. After World War II, that priority was shaped by the necessity to contain the expansionists tendencies of the Soviet Union. Writing after the war, American diplomat George Kennan said “the main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”

That become the model for US foreign policy for the Truman administration. And it endured into the late 20th century, when President Carter, seeing the Soviet military adventure in Afghanistan, said that any pursuit of an expanding belt of influence by a foreign advisory in the region must be dealt with “by any means necessary.”

Now, 20 years after al-Qaida – which developed strength under Taliban-ruled Afghanistan – left thousands of Americans dead in the attacks on September 11, Washington has abandoned that policy. And, if we believe Churchill, it resolved the question of who’s in charge. Instead of looking for further US assistance, regional powers are looking to Russia and China, suggesting the policy of containing adversaries has been abandoned.

Both countries have shown their ability to defend against US power displays from over the horizon, with Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative and Russia’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline working as case studies to that effect. Carter was worried about the security of oil in the region, and the Biden administration has recently doubled down on that policy by offering pleas to OPEC and its allies, which now includes Russia. And while the US has given up on holding its ground, Russia continues to work to extend its reach across the Balkans into the Middle East by way of the Syrian conflict.

A counterargument challenges Churchill by stating that 20 years of war yielded few gains for Washington. And some have suggested that nuclear, or perhaps even economic, powers do not need boots on the ground to protect their interests. The problem with nuclear weapons today is that using one is suicidal. And to some extent, both the actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan ended long ago, with the removal of Saddam Hussein from power and the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan. That determined who was in charge, but, as with the so-called unipolar moment, the reign was brief. The post-war phase was one of reconstruction and a tacit protection of interests, and those interests warrant attention. There are still US military forces, after all, in Germany, Japan and Korea, a half-millennium after those wars ended.

An argument could be put forward that, because the US is a net oil exporter, its overseas commitments are not as important as they were after the Arab oil embargo of the 1970s. But oil is zero-sum game. If one power doesn’t exercise its influence over it, another one will. As Kennan observed, hegemony requires “long-term, patient but firm” commitments. For the US, it seems, that patience has worn thin. And as a result, hegemony is waning and the vacuum will, for better or worse, be filled by others.


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