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‘Mr. X’ would not approve of China containment

George Kennan would find the current trajectory toward confrontation with Beijing dangerous and unnecessary.

Analysis | Asia-Pacific

Today, the United States finds itself on a crash course toward escalation with China. Washington often denies that it seeks to contain Beijing, but actions have spoken louder than words. Through export controls, increased military spending, and expanded base access, the U.S. aims to weaken China economically and keep it hemmed in, even at the risk of a great power conflict. 

It is a dangerous and unnecessary policy. America has pursued a militarized “containment” approach before, with results that can only be described as disastrous for millions across the world. Even George Kennan — the father of anti-Soviet containment — came to regret his support for this approach, and there’s reason to think that we will too.

In the latter half of his life, Kennan was a staunch critic of Cold War hawkishness and deplored the conventional and nuclear arms racing that made up such a large part of the U.S. rivalry with the USSR. He constantly warned against the perils of militarism and nuclear warfare and feared that the superpowers were blundering toward a world-ending reprise of the 1914 march of folly. 

As Frank Costigliola noted in his recent biography, “While most people focus on the inflammatory manifestos he penned in 1946 and 1947 that helped ignite the Cold War, they underplay his pivot in the opposite direction soon thereafter.” If Kennan could see the burgeoning U.S.-China rivalry today, he would be appalled that our country is once again on the track of the same dead-end policy of armed confrontation that it was on more than thirty years ago.

Kennan was one of the great American policy intellectuals and scholars of the twentieth century, and modern Americans have much to learn from his time in government and his later work as an academic. Much of what he said over the years was ignored, often to the detriment of U.S. interests and international security. When the government dismissed Kennan’s advice, it usually later regretted it. He is not here to advise us now, but we can still learn from him through his writings and his career. 

George Kennan was not always right or consistent in his views, but he had a remarkable gift of understanding when vital U.S. interests were at stake and when they were not and then making policy recommendations accordingly. He recognized the futility of the Vietnam War when the government and much of the foreign policy establishment were still wedded to fighting it. He foresaw that the invasion of Iraq would be disastrous and spoke out against it. He understood that NATO expansion would antagonize Russia and needlessly create instability and new divisions in Europe. 

If he were with us today in 2023, he would no doubt view the pursuit of militarized rivalry with an increasingly powerful China with dismay. Having raised the alarm about the dangers of a new great war during the Cold War, he would likewise be warning against the reckless courting of great power conflict that Washington has been engaged in for the last several years.

While Kennan is best known for his understanding of Russian and Soviet foreign policy, he had a considerable impact on U.S. foreign policy in East Asia during his time in government. His views on U.S. interests in East Asia then and his later criticisms of U.S. policies provide important lessons for policymakers today. 

Paul Heer’s important 2018 study of Kennan’s legacies in East Asia, Mr. X and the Pacific, details the role that the legendary policymaker played in shaping early Cold War policies in this part of the world and his later career as a dissident against an overly militarized form of containment. If Kennan rejected the over-militarization of the original containment doctrine against the Soviet Union, which posed a far greater threat to U.S. interests than China does today, it is hard to believe that he would approve of something similar against China.

In the years after he left government, Kennan insisted that he never intended containment to be applied everywhere, and he opposed the militarization of the doctrine he formulated. He subsequently rejected the abuse of containment when it served as a justification for unnecessary and destructive military interventions. 

While Heer has argued that Kennan “would have approved” of an anti-China containment policy in the present, this fails to take into account Kennan’s intense hostility to the arms racing and militarism that our current policy involves. It is more than likely that he would have recoiled at the cost that such a containment policy will impose on the United States. China containment will inevitably involve the ongoing expansion of the military and an explosion in military spending beyond its already obscene levels. For his part, Kennan “opposed a bristling, overbuilt American military,” as Costigliola puts it, and so he would oppose a policy that requires the overbuilt military to be built up even more.

Kennan was also a sharp critic of jingoistic nationalism, and, if he were with us today, he would warn us that pursuit of a militarized rivalry with China would encourage the worst instincts in our government and our people. If Kennan was mystified by the sentimental attachment to China that many Americans had in the past; he would be similarly bewildered by the intense hostility towards China that has been cultivated over the last decade. 

Shortly after the Soviet collapse, Kennan faulted the pursuit of hardline, militarized policies for having kept the Cold War going for as long as it did. “Thus the general effect of cold war extremism was to delay rather than hasten the great change that overtook the Soviet Union at the end of the 1980s,” he wrote in an October 1992 op-ed for the New York Times.

Moreover, Kennan rejected the mythology that anyone “won” the Cold War, which he called a “a long and costly political rivalry, fueled on both sides by unreal and exaggerated estimates of the intentions and strength of the other party.” Considering how much he deplored the costs of the Cold War, there is little chance that he would have been in favor of another one.

In the end, Kennan would be opposed to China containment because of the dangerous, overreaching strategy to which it belongs. As Costigliola reminds us, after the Cold War, “Kennan wanted the United States to pull back from trying to manage a global informal empire. He believed that such efforts were not only doomed, but also diverted attention and resources from America’s pressing domestic problems.”

Today the U.S. is even more overstretched by more commitments than it had when Kennan was still with us, and our domestic problems have become no less pressing. Kennan would not approve of a policy that will increase the burden on the United States and preoccupy our government for several decades to the detriment of the country’s welfare, and neither should we.

George F. Kennan seated at a desk. Image: Reuters
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