In 1946, George F. Kennan, then a 44-year-old American diplomat based at the U.S. embassy in Moscow, wrote an 8,000-word “long telegram” delineating his views on the Soviet Union. The next year, the long telegram famously appeared in Foreign Affairs as “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” or the “X” article, since it was published anonymously. (Everyone in the know was aware, of course, that Kennan had written the article, but, being a diplomat, he had to be discrete.) The “X” article essentially argued two fundamental points: first, that the Soviet state was inherently unstable; and second, that all the United States had to do to counter and, ultimately, prevail over the U.S.S.R. was to wait it out while simultaneously “containing” the state’s ambitions. The policy of containment guided Washington’s attitude toward Moscow for much of the duration of the Cold War.
Kennan’s argument assumed that there was nothing that the United States could—or should—do to improve relations with the Soviet Union. Any fissures or crises that might arise between the superpowers had little, if anything, to do with the United States; they were instead functions of a criminal regime that had murdered tens of millions of its own citizens, allied itself with Adolf Hitler (before being invaded by him), and imposed a socialist dictatorship that masqueraded as “liberation” on the whole of Eastern Europe. The doctrine required of American presidents and policy makers an intelligence and a fortitude and patience that have been mostly absent in Washington since the end of the Cold War.
And yet Kennan’s advice remains virtually as relevant today as it was 75 years ago. Of course, had the Soviet collapse facilitated a truly democratic flowering, this would not be the case. But that didn’t happen. It probably couldn’t have happened, despite the noble intentions of Boris Yeltsin, Bill Clinton, and Jeffrey Sachs. It was probably too much to ask a basically medieval country to become modern in a decade. Instead, Russia reverted to its primal self, to Vladimir Putin, whose compact with the Russian people is a somewhat attenuated version of Josef Stalin’s own. Kennan, it seemed, had figured out the whole game before we even started to play it.
One suspects that Donald Trump and his coterie have yet to read the “X” article. If they had, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson wouldn’t have flown to Moscow to discuss U.S.-Russia relations; Trump likely never would have made his now obsolete comment about the obsolescence of NATO; and former national security adviser Michael Flynn never would have discussed lifting sanctions with the seemingly ubiquitous Russian ambassador Sergey Kislyak. Nor would White House spokesman Sean Spicer—impossibly unsophisticated, devoid of nuance or grammar—have made that asinine remark about Hitler and Bashar al-Assad. Recall that Spicer made his comment while trying to argue that the Kremlin had to decide whether it wanted to be allied with the Syrian regime. Perhaps most galling about Spicer’s suggestion that Hitler was Assad’s better because he hadn’t sunk to using chemical weapons was not its obvious falseness, in fact, but rather its implication that Russia could be appealed to on moral grounds. He was trying to embarrass Russia, which is an embarrassingly ignorant thing for a White House press secretary to do, since nothing embarrasses the Kremlin.
Alas, these are things governments do when they are negotiating with governments that can—and, more to the point, ought to—be negotiated with. And not just negotiated with but changed. We belong to NATO and we imposed sanctions on Moscow because we believe Russia is an undemocratic and dangerous country. It is a country that exists outside the Western paradigm, and, so long as that’s the case, we ought to guard against it. Trump probably doesn’t care that Russia is undemocratic. In fact, he probably thinks that’s a good thing. But apparently he does, or did, believe that it can be made into a country that’s not dangerous, that doesn’t threaten elections, energy flows, or the prosecution of wars against terrorists.
It’s unlikely that any of this has anything to do with the president’s understanding of Russia. He probably doesn’t have one. It has much more to do with the hodgepodge, Jackson Pollock nature of his foreign policy, which doesn’t appear to be a foreign policy so much as a series of leaps and lurches, ejaculatory outcries about Chinese currency manipulation and the Syrian gas attack followed by a lie or contradiction or bomb blowing up in eastern Afghanistan—the better to distract everyone’s attention for a few hours.
Since then, there have been two periods of faux-warming: the reset, at the outset of the Obama era, and the lead-up to Trump’s inauguration. Both moments of ill-placed optimism had nothing to do with Russia and everything to do with America reaffirming its core belief that, if only it tried a little harder, or set about things a little differently, Russia would come around—which is to say that neither had any basis in reality. It’s heartwarming that the new secretary of state appears not to be under any illusions about the possibility—for now, at least—of a more durable friendship between Moscow and Washington.
None of this is to say that Russia and the United States can’t one day be allies. They can. But, as Kennan understood better than any of our recent presidents, getting there will have nothing to do with the United States. It will have everything to do with Russia transcending Russia—embracing the rule of law, imposing checks and balances on the Kremlin, disentangling the innumerable holding companies and government ministries that control not only the Russian state but Russian society. This will almost certainly not happen this decade or even, perhaps, this century. Our faith in technology and progress blinds us to the glacial pace of human evolution, but it is glacial, and this is Russia, and we should stop pretending otherwise, stop being so American about it.