George Kennan is one of the more important diplomats (and scholars) in the history of U.S. foreign relations. Best known as the “father” of the Cold War policy of “containment,” Kennan was the ultimate “cold warrior” of the immediate postwar era. Later in life, Kennan took a rare turn and began to question his core beliefs and became an ardent critic of foreign policy and especially the nuclear weapons race.
In 1948, Kennan was heading the Policy Planning Staff (PPS), a bureau he’d created at the request of Secretary of State Dean Acheson, and wrote important memorandum charting out the future of American foreign policy. In that capacity, he authored PPS 23, an overview of cold war policies.* In Section VII he analyzed America’s future in the Far East, but used words that had meaning far beyond Asia. Kennan began by admitting the U.S. had limited means to influence “Asiatic peoples.” Americans were “deceiving ourselves” if they believed they had answers to the problems that were surfacing in Asia at the moment (rebuilding Japan and evaluating the Chinese Civil War, most importantly).
And, then, the money quote:
Furthermore, we have about 50% of the world’s wealth but only 6.3% of its population. This disparity is particularly great as between ourselves and the peoples of Asia. In this situation, we cannot fail to be the object of envy and resentment. Our real task in the coming period is to devise a pattern of relationships which will permit us to maintain this position of disparity without positive detriment to our national security. To do so, we will have to dispense with all sentimentality and day-dreaming; and our attention will have to be concentrated everywhere on our immediate national objectives. We need not deceive ourselves that we can afford today the luxury of altruism and world-benefaction.
Kennan was always respected for his openness, his frank explanations of American goals, power, and ultimately imperium. And this paragraph, while written as an evaluation of the U.S. role in Asia, spelled out in brutal honesty the U.S. goal in the days after World War II—to maintain and expand global hegemony, to “maintain this position of disparity.”
Now, 68 years later, with a legacy of presidents Democratic and Republican, conservative and liberal, we can see that ultimate goal—keeping the power gap between other states and the U.S.—never changed and is still the ruling class doctrine in foreign relations. Earlier today, February 2, 2016, President Barack Obama, using the Russian threat as Harry Truman did when Kennan wrote PPS 23, announced a quadrupling of military spending in Europe. Already, the U.S. has an annual military budget of about $600 billion, almost 4 times more than China, which is next in line, and almost the same as the next 14 states (including China) spend on defense. (See charts below).
So, the percentages may be different, but the conditions Kennan was describing–a relatively small country with huge wealth and the goal of extending its riches and power, eschewing altruism and benefaction–are still relevant today, and the overriding purpose–to maintain that disparity– remains the same.
*George Kennan, PPS 23, “Review of Current Trends: U.S. Foreign Policy,” 28 February 1948.