Kennan’s famous “long telegram”, which inspired the containment response to the Soviet Union during the Cold War, is a lesson in how to strategize in the face of geopolitical challenges of great magnitude and complexity. When rereading it, the clairvoyance displayed by the young American diplomat is still amazing.
At present, another similar document would be needed to meet the challenge presented by a revisionist China. This situation causes serious dilemmas for the security strategies of Western nations. Whatever the line of action chosen by Washington, the only alternative that invites hope in Europe is a brave bet on a federal European Union. Their separate states no longer have sufficient geopolitical critical mass to be the owners of their own destiny.
Keywords: Long Telegram, Kennan, USSR, Containment, China, US, EU, Strategy, Security.
George Kennan is known as the father of the US containment strategy against the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). After World War II, the Americans stopped perceiving the USSR as an ally against Nazism when they discovered its totalitarian nature as a threat to democracy and the United States of America. From the diplomatic delegation of the United States in Moscow, Kennan wrote the famous and long telegram in which the central idea of the later design of the policy of the United States to defeat the USSR is exposed.
Today, Americans are undoubtedly fully aware of the aspirations of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to contest its current world supremacy. The new American perception of Chinese ambitions generated a first response, which manifested itself in the trade war declared on China by the Trump administration. However, as important as the commercial dimension is, the US strategy -necessary to manage in the medium and long term the inevitable tension in relations between the two superpowers- requires a complex and comprehensive design built on a novel core strategic concept. The objective is to ensure a geostrategic response model that allows peaceful coexistence and, at the same time, defends the interests and values of the world’s first democracy. In that sense, the allies of the United States and the world’s democracies also have to find out how to fit right into the new context.
The containment strategy
Recently, Josep Piqué wrote in Foreign Policy that “the United States and the West urgently need a clear roadmap, a new ‘long telegram’ to face the challenge presented by China.” 1 The moment could not be more appropriate. This year two anniversaries are remembered, the 75th of the writing of the Long Telegram and the 30th of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, two events closely related to each other. The Soviet collapse was, to a large extent, a consequence of the containment strategy proposed by George Kennan, with the singularity that, when rereading today both that diplomatic letter and the article entitled “The source of Soviet conduct,” published a year later in Foreign Affairs, the clairvoyance displayed by the then young American chargé d’affaires continues to amaze.
In the “long telegram,” sent from Moscow on February 22, 1946, Kennan analyzes in detail the strategic worldview and personality of the Stalin-led USSR, a product of the ideology of the Soviet Communist Party (CPSU) and the Russian historical experience, concluding that the United States faces “a political force fanatically bent on the belief that there can be no permanent modus vivendi with the United States, that it is desirable and necessary that the harmony of American society be disturbed, that its traditional way of life be destroyed, and that the international authority of its state be ruined, to ensure Soviet power. ”2
Taking into account that “the Soviets were by far the weakest force” and that they were “patient, flexible and very sensitive to the logic of force,” the US diplomat proposed containment as a long-term line of action, placing great trust “In the health and vigor of the American nation itself, in its methods and its conception of human society.” It was thus the very contradictions of the power system directed with an iron fist from the Kremlin that should end up undermining the foundations of the dangerous rival of the incipient Cold War. Thus, in the end, the solid tower of the communist bloc would collapse under its own weight.
In Kennan’s point of view, “the patient persistence that characterized the Soviet leadership could be effectively countered, not by sporadic acts that represented the momentary vagaries of democratic opinion but, only through long-term smart policies, policies no less stable in purpose, and no less varied and ingenious in their application, than those of the USSR itself.”3 Over time, a point would be reached where -even- the hardest dictatorship would end up having to give in to the economic and psychological reality of an inefficient and demoralized society, in increasing contradiction with the ideological postulates.
Therefore, American policy should not be limited to holding the line and hoping for the best. The United States had to influence events both within the Soviet Union and the international communist movement to create in the world the impression of being a country that knows what it wants, capable of successfully tackling its internal problems.
China is not the Soviet Union
According to Kevin Rudd, former prime minister of Australia, one of the few things that Washington and Beijing agree on these days is that the contest between the two countries will get into a decisive phase in the coming years, a decade in which it will be lived dangerously. “Regardless of the strategies that the two parties follow or the events that get developed, the tension between the United States and China will increase and the rivalry will intensify; it is unavoidable. War, however, is not. ”4
The dilemma in the West is triple: avoid at all costs the catastrophe that would result from a war between the great powers, devise a strategy that prevents the rise of China to global primacy, and, if this is not possible at a reasonable price, find the best possible gear in the international order that would derive from the emergence of the Asian giant. This last dilemma would mean the definitive end of an international order shaped by Western-inspired democratic ideals.
When comparing the situation caused by the USSR with the current challenge of the emergence of the PRC, it must be recognized that Beijing would be willing to find a modus vivendi, if only because this would pave its way to become the first world power. “The PRC is increasingly confident that by the end of this decade, China’s economy will finally have surpassed that of the United States as the world’s largest in terms of classical GDP. Meanwhile, the Asian power continues to advance on other fronts as well. ”5
Chinese pragmatism also assumes that Beijing – unlike Soviet Moscow – has no capital interest in promoting a particular ideology or model. Nationalism, instigated from the instances of power, which instrumentalizes “the period of humiliations”, is generating a great cohesion of the Chinese nation in favor of its leaders, being able to consider it more resilient than American society itself, fractured after the period of Trump and tired of his international responsibilities.
Washington, on the contrary, considers that the policies of understanding with China have not produced the expected results and fears that any type of modus vivendi will finish giving the last brad to what remains of the liberal international order, opening the way to a very international uncertain system where Washington and Beijing compete for global leadership on increasingly favorable terms for China.
Therefore, it makes no sense to undertake a containment strategy. In this case, it is the great North American power that acts under the pressure of time as there are no compelling reasons to predict the Chinese collapse, a society, without a doubt, with many contradictions, none of them insurmountable, but which, in the last decades, he has shown an amazing ability to overcome the difficulties that have come on his way.
A confrontational strategy?
Based on the conviction that the rise of China, based on the scale of its economy and its armed forces, the speed of its technological advance and its worldview, profoundly affects the main national interests of the United States and the democratic world, a confrontational response – which will summon Washington’s allies to force China to return to the strategic status quo prior to the arrival of Xi Jinping – might seem sensible. This strategy would try to seize the opportunities presented by the division within the Party over Xi Jinping’s leadership and his vast ambitions. Therefore, the goal would be to focus on China’s domestic economic and institutional weaknesses, while the United States would seek to rebalance its relationship with Russia.
However, this approach does not value the strategic dynamics of others but as an accommodation to the North American initiative, even when it is a question of putting the world in a time machine to travel to the past. The 2019 Strategic Survey already stated: “The rules-based global order is now the object of Western strategic nostalgia.” Trying to rewind the last decade of evolution of the international order to return to the exit box is unrealistic and contrary to the most elementary wisdom.6
Xi Jinping’s China, unlike the USSR, has a coherent discourse that the people understand and a project to recover the lost greatness that the heart of the nation, the Han ethnic group, shares. The PRC has been able to solve the material problems of its population and therefore has 80% of popular support. The result is a determined China, resilient and ready to regain its lost centrality, which also trusts in the enormity of its size and the vitality of its economy but does not intend to impose its own model on others. An attempt to contain his rise would only be a stronger stimulus to seek to achieve his purpose.
There does not seem to be any strategy with guarantees that allows thinking of stopping the rise of the PRC at a reasonable price. It will be difficult to send out what to do within its borders.
The struggle is served, dynamics of classical geopolitics come into play, but immaterial factors of values, beliefs, and ideologies also compete, as well as the effectiveness of the different models of society.
In this context, the European Union must recognize that there is a “short telegram” for them. Either the European Union countries are integrated and adopt a unique geopolitical personality, or they are in danger of becoming an object of archaeological interest.
- Josep Pique, “EE. UU. necesita un ‘telegrama largo’ sobre China,” Política Exterior (february 05, 2021), https://www.politicaexterior.com/eeuu-necesita-un-telegrama-largo-sobre-china/ .
- George Kennan, The Long Telegram (Moscow: February 22, 1946) The quotation marks that follow are all from this document.
- 4 Kevin Rudd, “Short of War: How to Keep U.S.-Chinese Confrontation from Ending in Calamity,” Foreign Affairs (march-april 2021), https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/united-states/2021-02-05/kevin-rudd-usa-chinese-confrontation-short-of-war .
- International Institute for Strategic Studies, “Strategic Survey 2019: The Annual Assessment of Geopolitics,” International Institute for Strategic Studies (October 2019), https://www.iiss.org/publications/strategic-survey/strategic-survey-2019-the-annual-assessment-of-geopolitics.