Taking a Page out of George Kennan’s Long Telegram

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.

·        Second, policymakers should recognize that Russia has a comprehensive strategy that integrates both “official” and “unofficial” means, the latter of which are deniable. Kennan characterized this as policy conducted on “two planes.” He argued that while “actions taken on different planes will differ considerably, [they] will dovetail into each other in purpose, timing, and effect.” This is perhaps best characterized today by the seeming divergence of statements of the Russian government on one hand, and its actions on the other – in Crimea and eastern Ukraine; in Syria; and in cyberspace. As experts assert, this is part of a comprehensive strategy crafted to advance Russian interests and undermine the political and strategic aims of perceived opponents. Today, foreign policy and defense experts call this strategy “hybrid warfare" or “cross-domain” competition, and Russia’s most recent military doctrine articulates the value of such comprehensive and flexible tools to achieve its aims. However, little is new. Moscow’s tactics today mirror those used by the Kremlin for decades. U.S. policymakers would be wise to recognize this as they craft an effective Russia engagement strategy.

·        Third, Kennan argues that one of the best means to resolve differences between Russia and the West is an informed and engaged public. In the telegram, he laments, “I am convinced that there would be far less hysterical anti-Sovietism in our country today if [the] realities of our situation were better understood by our people.” To this end, Kennan argues the government must play a leading role in interpreting and explaining Russian behavior to the public and to U.S. allies. This must be based on sound analysis grounded in direct engagement with Russians (at the official level, at the military-to-military level, and at the people-to-people level) and communicated by an informed Executive.

Managing our relationship with Moscow is, as Kennan describes, “undoubtedly [the] greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably [the] greatest it will ever have to face.” Since 1946, the stakes have only grown. With thousands of nuclear weapons in our respective arsenals, and our mutual security in the balance, charting a Russia strategy will require the same courage, ingenuity, thoroughness, and care that Kennan prescribed some 71 years ago.



March 2, 2017
Brian Rose
Brian Rose

Program Officer, Global Nuclear Policy

Leon Ratz
Leon Ratz

Program Officer, Materials Risk Management


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