Jordan Michael Smith explains the complicated views of George Kennan at the American Conservative in recognition of the release of the sixtieth anniversary edition of Kennan’s book, American Diplomacy.
The best one can say is that Kennan was not dogmatic about democracy. Indeed, he was dogmatic about very little. One is struck by how little theory or ideology occupied his mind. He was generally identified as a “realist” in the mold of Hans Morgenthau, and he maintained a fruitful correspondence with the godfather of American realism. The two shared the view that a state’s primary task is to preserve its national interest—Kennan wrote in American Diplomacy, “our own national interest is all that we are really capable of knowing and understanding.” Both also eschewed romanticism in policymaking. Perhaps the most famous lines in Kennan’s lectures are that he “see[s] the most serious fault of our policy formulation to lie in something that I might call the legalistic-moralistic approach to international problems.” He opposed attempts to apply domestic concepts of justice to the international arena. Not because he was amoral; just the opposite: “it is a curious thing, but it is true, that the legalistic approach to world affairs, rooted as it unquestionably is in a desire to do away with war and violence, makes violence more enduring, more terrible, and more destructive to political stability than did the older motives of national interest.”