November 10, 2014

On the Value of the Classics


A lot that seems new is said actually to be well-forgotten old. And the measure of an interpreter of politics, an analyst, is said to be whether or not his descriptions and conclusions are valid. The validity, however, does not emerge at once, but rather over time. Only with the hindsight belonging to the field of exact science is it possible to separate the wheat from the chaff. And only if one admits that even the brightest minds are not always right in everything, of course. For the classics are also, by nature, people prone to make mistakes.

An American diplomat, George F. Kennan, belongs among such classics. It was late at night on 22 February 1946 when the cypher equipment started buzzing in the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. “Chargé in the Soviet Union (Kennan) to the Secretary of State,” were the first words of the report that flashed towards Washington. The communications equipment in the embassy complex near Red Square worked steadily for an unusually long time that evening. The message from the American Deputy Chief of Mission George Frost Kennan turned out to be 5,300 words long in total. This memo by the then 42-year-old Kennan thus went down in history as the so-called “long telegram”.
One of the main messages of this report to the managers of U.S. foreign policy was the recognition that a recent ally in World War II, the Soviet Union, now considered the Western world as a fundamental opponent. The politics of Moscow, however, was to increase its influence wherever possible and to weaken the power that “capitalist countries” held in the world by any means possible everywhere that it could be achieved, even to a small extent.
The following year, under the pseudonym “X”, Kennan published an article based on the long telegram in the magazine Foreign Affairs—“The Sources of Soviet Conduct”. These two texts became the intellectual foundation of the West’s most significant political strategy during the Cold War—deterrence.
If we were to replace some details in the text of Kennan’s telegram with present-day equivalents—for example, type “Russia” or “Moscow” in place of “the Soviet Union”—we would recognise many features that could have been formulated today or yesterday.
For example: “[Russia is] impervious to logic of reason, and it is highly sensitive to logic of force. For this reason it can easily withdraw—and usually does when strong resistance is encountered at any point. … Wherever it is considered timely and promising, efforts will be made to advance official limits of Soviet power. … Everything possible will be done to set major Western Powers against each other. … Where suspicions exist, they will be fanned; where not, ignited …”
That is why, in this issue, Diplomaatia brings the full translation of the “long telegram” to its readers, probably for the first time in our native Estonian.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.

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