As U.S. policymakers look to chart a new course with Russia, they may want to re-visit George Kennan’s famous 1946 “long telegram” – dispatched from Moscow 71 years ago last week.
Kennan, a career foreign service officer then stationed in Moscow, penned an 8,000-word cable responding to an inquiry from the U.S. Treasury on why the Soviet Union withheld support from the newly established World Bank and International Monetary Fund. Kennan’s response was a treatise on Soviet thinking, leadership, motivations, and fears. The telegram and his subsequent “X Article,” published in Foreign Affairs in 1947, became the basis for the Truman administration’s policy of containment and served as the foundation of U.S. strategy during the Cold War.
The basic premise of the document—a deep and nuanced analysis of Soviet thinking and strategy—stands up quite well today. One walks away with valuable insights on the origins of Russian thinking, as well as what drives the political and security environment that influences Moscow’s worldview.
In 1946, Kennan stated boldly that he believed the issues plaguing Western-Soviet relations could be resolved, “without recourse to any general conflict,” ultimately recommending containment. To be clear: the United States need not contain Russia as it sought to contain the Soviet Union, nor is today’s situation likely a direct analogue of the gravity that was the Cold War. However, several lessons from Kennan’s telegram may offer a path forward to U.S. policymakers trying to manage one of America’s most important and consequential relationships. Among these lessons, three in particular stand out as guideposts for U.S. policy toward Russia today:
· First, in order to craft a successful Russia strategy, one must first understand Russia’s outlook on the world and how that outlook has been shaped by history. In fact, Kennan dedicates the majority of his 8,000 words to describing the origins of Soviet thinking. He explains that Russia has for centuries believed itself to be “encircled” by unfriendly forces, resulting in “an instinctive Russian sense of insecurity.” Consequently, he wrote, Russia has historically directed its energy to strengthening all elements of national power and prestige, while weakening the external factors that would reduce Russian influence on the international stage.