What Would Kennan Say?
No doubt he would be both annoyed and amused to see his name invoked as an authority by warmongers.
Walter Russell Mead does a good job of making Russia hawks look ridiculous:
As the Ukrainian crisis deepens, there is only one option that would stop a Russian invasion—and that is the one that all the serious players in Washington say is off the table: dispatching an American and coalition force to defend Ukraine. Vladimir Putin is not ready for war with the U.S.; informing his gamble is a well-grounded conviction that America is not committed enough to Ukraine to defend it by force.
History may look back on this as a failure of nerve equal to the appeasement of the 1930s.
There is good reason why America is “not committed enough to Ukraine” to go to war for it. The U.S. has nothing at stake there that could possibly justify taking the enormous risks that a war with Russia involves. Even the most aggressive hawks tacitly admit as much when they claim that the current crisis is just a prelude to worse things later. Mead makes the usual references to the 1930s because he can’t make a straightforward argument that Ukraine is important enough on its own that the U.S. has to defend it. Russia hawks know they can’t sell a war for Ukraine, so they have to make it into a war for NATO or world order or something big enough to make their insane proposal seem at least slightly defensible. Their own alarmism confirms that they know the U.S. has no vital interests here.
Mead asserts that putting Western troops in Ukraine to defend it is the “only” option that can stop an invasion. This conveniently ignores the obvious compromise that is much more likely to achieve the goal, and it fails to anticipate how Russia would react to the insertion of more Western forces into Ukraine. The current crisis has been driven in large part by Russian opposition to any Western military presence in Ukraine. Sending a large deployment of troops would be extremely provocative. Something like that could be the match that sets off the explosion.
He ends with a reading recommendation: “American policy makers should reread their George Kennan.” Does that mean he wants policymakers to reacquaint themselves with Kennan’s arguments against arms races and militarism? No. Is he interested in having them reread Kennan’s attacks on NATO expansion? Definitely not. He is referring to the Kennan of the 1940s at the start of the Cold War, but even here he is misreading what Kennan said. Kennan did not favor the heavily militarized and confrontational approach that came to be identified with containment doctrine, and in the decades that followed he spoke out publicly against the militarism that characterized U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. As Stephen Hoadley pointed out last year, “At this point, Kennan demurred. He advised against military responses and arms build-ups, regarding them as unnecessarily provocative and risky.” We know that Kennan became even more opposed to a confrontational policy towards Russia after the Cold War ended, and we can only imagine how horrified he would be by the Western policies that have brought us to the current crisis. No doubt he would be both annoyed and amused to see his name invoked as an authority by warmongers.
To reread Kennan and to read him accurately would be to understand that everything Mead is recommending is wrong and very dangerous. It is also safe to say that the U.S. and its allies are in their current predicament in no small part because Kennan’s advice over twenty years ago was ignored. Kennan would be appalled that things have reached this point, but he would not be surprised that the U.S. and its allies once again erred by pursuing overly aggressive and unwise policies that later blew up in their face.