The Long Telegram and the Introduction of Realist Thought

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George F. Kennan is a figure of huge political importance, yet many will not even recognise his name. However, his influence, although potentially unintentional, was substantial.

The end of the second World-war brought with it jubilation of all allied forces; Nazi Germany had been defeated in what had been the bloodiest display of warfare history had known, and so for a time the relative political stability of the world was greatly welcomed.

But for the US, a power just as potentially destructive and repulsive lay only slightly to the east of the former Nazi Germany. The USSR was beginning to become ever more antithetical to the ideas, practices and values that they believed the USA, the ‘West’ and capitalism held.

Kennan, a minister-counsellor to the US ambassador in the USSR, was asked to produce a report for the US Treasury Department on why the USSR was not advocating or complying with the IMF or World Bank in the new global system. What followed from Kennan has been seen as a fundamental example of realist thought shaping foreign policy of the west for the coming decades.

Kennan’s characterisation of the USSR’s foreign policy was an inherent and archetypal example of realist international relations theory. Kennan made clear the mistrust the Soviet Republic felt not only towards the West, but also other nations, and saw them as threatening. This manifested itself in an apparent belief that the USSR was conflictive with the capitalist ways of certain states, and to an extent tried to combat these.

Kennan also noted that the USSR was, for various reasons, damned to dominate; it would expand until a counterweight met it and matched it; until they were threatened, there was no stopping Soviet expansion.

Above all else, Kennan made it abundantly clear that, particularly given the context of no higher authority in the international sphere, that there was no chance of peaceful co-existence between the two – too much antagonism, egoism and competition lay in place.

Kennan’s recommendation? The U.S.A should immediately begin a policy of containment, and should stop the USSR – full scale war was out of the question given the all too recent atrocities of World War II, but certainly America must be the aforementioned counterweight to stop the USSR.

The reason for this was that the lack of ability for coexistence to prosper meant one thing only; zero-sum gain – the USSR’s gain was the US’ loss. There was a distinct ‘balance’ at play, and unless the USA retained this they would find themselves in a position of relative power loss and weakness.

In reflection, Kennan’s writings were abundantly realist; the notion of balancing material capabilities, the centrality of ‘power’ as a concept, and the conflictive ideas orchestrated in the ‘long telegram’.

When looking at the Cold War, it is hard to say truly when tensions between the USSR and USA began, or for that matter what motivations and influences fuelled these inevitable tensions. But surely Kennan’s telegram posts itself as a key moment of influence of US decision-makers.

The reason this is important is because, arguably, Kennan’s telegram is a key instance of the influential position realist theory held within US foreign policy in the 20th century; a theory that shaped a nation that shaped the world.

The ramifications of such an influence are multiple and severe; from the US’ actions in Vietnam, through to the Gulf War, it is arguable that American foreign policy, masqueraded as the perpetuation of liberal values, actually holds deep realist tendencies.

The need for regional balancing, or at least retention of previous balances; the excessive use of militaristic strength, and the overall assessment of capabilities for a large part through militaristic strength (America’s defence budget was larger than that of Europe’s and Asia’s combined in 2012[1]); the use of one-upmanship as a means of defeating enemies in methods such as arms races (look at the production of the B-52 as a prime example of this in the Cold War[2]) – all of these tendencies show a clear manifestation of realist foreign policy in action, or at least following the guidelines of realist foreign policy.

In conclusion, Kennan’s long telegram may not be remembered as a pioneering moment in the 20th century; it doesn’t hold the cathartic sentiment of JFK’s assassination, nor does it hold any of the hope and achievement of the first landing on the Moon. It doesn’t epitomise the power of humans over structure with the fall of the Berlin wall, and neither does it show the difference one person can make, whether it be Margaret Thatcher or Martin Luther King Jr. But, Kennan’s telegram is a symbol of dominance; it is a symbol of how foreign policy was constructed, how foreign policy was seen to be acted, and how foreign policy was initiated by the largest power of the century.

Kennan’s telegram epitomised the inherent components of realist thinking in the international sphere, and no doubt influenced the dogma that was present from the Korean War through to fighting in Iraq.

In this regard, it is anything but insignificant.