The Cold War was supposed to be a dusty relic, permanently consigned to the past. After all, it’s been more than 25 years since the fall of the Soviet Union. In fact, the United States and Russia are now finding themselves increasingly at odds, with no clear plan offered by either side for how to end the escalating tensions. To understand how the U.S. government might reshape its policy toward Russia today, it may be helpful to look back at the Cold War-era “containment” doctrine, first articulated by the young diplomat George Kennan in an 8,000-word telegram sent from Moscow to the U.S. State Department in 1946.
After meeting with President Vladimir Putin this week, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters that the “current state of U.S.-Russia relations is at a low point.” Contributing to the tense relationship between Washington and Moscow are ongoing crises in Syria, North Korea and Ukraine and the conclusion by American intelligence agencies that Russia interfered in the most recent U.S. presidential election, among other issues. More than 25 years after the Soviet Union’s fall, Putin’s Russia is one of the most significant adversaries the United States faces on the world stage.
To get some sense of how to move forward from this point, it may help to take a look back. Early in 1946, as the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union was heating up, George Kennan, the 44-year-old U.S. charge d’affaires in Moscow, sent an 8,000-word “long telegram” to the Department of State outlining his views on the Soviet Union, and his opinion on what U.S. policy should be toward the communist state.
Kennan had been one of the U.S. diplomats who helped to establish the first American embassy in the Soviet Union in 1933. He respected the Russian people, but during his time there had grown increasingly critical of the communist leadership, and viewed President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s friendly wartime stance toward Josef Stalin as misguided. Less than a year after Roosevelt’s death, Kennan decided to come forward with his own view on things.
In mid-1947, the long telegram was published in the magazine Foreign Affairs, under the title “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” Though the piece was better known as the “X Article”—Kennan had used the byline “Mr. X” to avoid looking like he was presenting official U.S. government policy—everyone at the State Department and White House knew exactly who had written it.
Together, Kennan’s telegram and article presented a comprehensive plan for how the United States should handle the growing rivalry with the Soviet Union, which he believed was a ruthless, inherently unstable state. “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union,” Kennan wrote, “must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.”
In short, Americans should be patient and wait until the rival superpower imploded, while at the same time acting forcefully to curb the USSR’s attempts to expand its influence. Kennan was convinced that the Soviets would attempt further expansion, and pointed (correctly, as it turned out) to Iran and Turkey as immediate potential trouble spots. But the Soviets were not only expansionist, Kennan argued. They were also pragmatic and “highly sensitive to logic of force,” and would back down “when strong resistance is encountered at any point.”
President Harry S. Truman’s administration embraced Kennan’s plan, and took a variety of steps to “contain” Moscow’s ambitions over the next few years, including the establishment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949. Containment remained the primary U.S. policy toward Moscow for the duration of the Cold War, with more hawkish leaders using it to justify everything from the costly nuclear arms race to the domino theory, which viewed smaller nations like Vietnam as U.S.-Soviet proxies. By the 1960s, Kennan had begun to question some of his own assertions, and became a vocal critic of the Vietnam War, believing U.S. policymakers needed to focus more on political and economic programs than military containment of the Soviets.
On December 25, 1991, history vindicated Kennan’s wait-it-out strategy, as the Soviet Union (peacefully) dissolved. But despite the good intentions expressed early on by leaders like Boris Yeltsin, Russia has decidedly not transformed into a democracy. Since 1999, when Yeltsin picked Putin, a former KGB officer, as prime minister and his successor, the Kremlin has steadily distanced itself from the West and worked to weaken institutions such as NATO and the European Union.
With Putin bringing Russia back to its undemocratic roots, and U.S.-Russia relations deteriorating swiftly, it’s hard not to think another part of Kennan’s advice might also still be relevant today. Instead of trying to change the Soviet government itself, or to focus on befriending a regime so fundamentally different from our own, Kennan argued, the United States should “formulate and put forward to other nations a much more positive and constructive picture of [the] sort of world we would like to see that we have put forward in past.” Today, more than 70 years after Kennan wrote the long telegram, confronting the tasks involved with creating the positive example he envisioned—including such vital domestic issues as education, infrastructure, health care and employment—may yet prove the biggest challenge of all.