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George Kennan’s Geopolitics of the Far East

A worldview based on “unsentimental calculations of the balance of power” and an understanding of human nature.

George Kennan’s Geopolitics of the Far East

U.S. Marines fighting in Seoul

Credit: U.S. Navy

The American diplomat and historian George F. Kennan is mostly known for writing the “Long Telegram” from Moscow in February 1946 that warned of the growing Soviet threat to the West, and “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in 1947 in Foreign Affairs, which explained the U.S. postwar policy of containment toward Soviet communism. Kennan as a diplomat represented the United States in European nations and Russia. He had very little experience in the Far East, with the exception of writing some confidential policy papers on China, Japan and Korea when he headed the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff and making a trip to Japan in March 1948 to meet with General Douglas MacArthur to discuss postwar occupation policies. Indeed, Kennan admitted in his book American Diplomacy that he had no “personal familiarity” with the Far East and was “not an expert on Far Eastern Affairs.”

Kennan the historian and observer of international affairs, however, addressed the subject of U.S. interests in the Far East with the same perceptiveness and objectivity that characterized most of his writings on Russia and Europe.

American Diplomacy consists of six lectures delivered at the University of Chicago and two articles in Foreign Affairs. In that book, Kennan explained U.S. geopolitical interests in terms of classical geopolitics. It was essential to the United States, he wrote, “that no single Continental land power should come to dominate the entire Eurasian land mass.” U.S. interests could best be protected, he explained, by “the maintenance of some sort of stable balance among the powers of the interior, in order that none of them should effect the subjugation of the others, conquer the seafaring fringes of the land mass, become a great sea power as well as land power . . . and enter . . . on an overseas expansion hostile to ourselves and supported by the immense resources of . . . Europe and Asia.” The United States, he continued, must work to ensure the “prosperity and independence of the peripheral powers of Europe and Asia . . . whose gazes [are] oriented outward, across the seas.”

Four years later, in Realities of American Foreign Policy, Kennan wrote that the chief threat to the security of the United States was “the association of the dominant portion of the physical resources of Europe and Asia with a political power hostile to ourselves.” Such a threat to U.S. interests, he noted, could only emanate from certain regions of the globe “where major industrial power, enjoying adequate access to raw materials, is combined with large reserves of educated and technically skilled man-power.”

Such geopolitical reasoning, Kennan wrote in American Diplomacy, was scarce among Americans in 1898 when the U.S. went to war with Spain and as a result acquired the Philippine Islands. He credited two Americans of that time with understanding international realities: Brooks Adams and Alfred Thayer Mahan. Adams, Kennan noted, “sensed the ultimate importance of the distinction between sea power and land power” and grasped “the danger of political collaboration between Russia, Germany and China,” while Mahan, “was charting new paths . . . which led in the direction of a more profound appraisal of the sources of American security.” He called their efforts in this regard “an isolated spurt of intellectual activity against a background of general torpor and smugness in American thinking about foreign affairs.”

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Kennan understood that the political decisions to annex Hawaii, the Philippines, Guam, and Puerto Rico “represented the first extensions of United States sovereignty to important territories beyond the continental limits of North America.” The United States became a colonial power. He discussed the arguments of American imperialists and anti-imperialists and came down on the side of the anti-imperialists. As he put it, “the ruling of distant peoples is not our dish.”

While America was at war with Spain, the European great powers appeared to be attempting to partition China, which only a few years earlier had lost a war to Japan. Kennan noted that the British government expressed concern that Russia was looking to dominate China. He quoted a British Foreign Office message to the Russian government that expressed the fear that Russia’s domination of China’s maritime region would give to her “the same strategic advantages by sea which she already possesses in so ample a measure by land.” The British government sought to persuade the United States to join her in expressing opposition to a European partition of China.

The United States initially rebuffed British solicitations, but when John Hay became Secretary of State, Kennan noted, he authorized the drafting of a series of notes designed to change American policy – the so-called Open Door notes. “The reception given to the notes by the various governments, Kennan wrote, “was tepid, to say the least,” yet Hay announced on March 20, 1900, that he “had received satisfactory assurances” from the other powers that China would not be partitioned into spheres of influence. Later, on July 3, 1900, Hay issued a circular stating that it was “the policy of the Government of the United States . . . to seek to preserve Chinese territorial and administrative” integrity.” This, Kennan noted, was nothing more than bluff. When several months later Japan sought U.S. assistance to oppose Russian encroachments in Manchuria, Hay responded that his government was not prepared to take any action “which could present a character of hostility to any other Power.” American credibility, at least in the eyes of Japan, suffered as a result.

Balance of Power

Instead of preserving China’s territorial and administrative integrity, U.S. policy, Kennan opined, should have recognized that the best and most realistic outcome of the events in the Far East was a balance of power between Russia and Japan. Indeed, President Theodore Roosevelt ultimately recognized this and it later guided his negotiations to end the Russo-Japanese War.

Kennan next addressed U.S. policy toward Japan between the world wars. He criticized the U.S. policy of “diplomatic pressures and reproaches,” and Washington’s reluctance to consider that its principles, however commendable, were not a realistic foundation upon which to base its policy in the Far East. The realities that U.S. policy should have addressed included Japan’s growing population, China’s weakness and instability, and the practical ways that the ambitions of Japan could be countered. Japan, he noted, had greater interests on the Asian mainland than did the United States, and Washington’s efforts to frustrate Japanese policies only increased the power of the militarists in Tokyo.

Whether Pearl Harbor could have been avoided if the U.S. moderated its policies toward Japan, Kennan did not speculate. “Our action in the field of foreign policy,” he explained, “is cumulative; it merges with a swelling stream of other human happenings; and we cannot trace its effects with any exactness once it has entered the fluid substance of history.” Sometimes, he continued, “sheer tragedy [overtakes] human frailty as the determinant of our misfortunes.” He suggested, however, that U.S. interests in the Far East would have been better served by a policy based on “a recognition of power realities in the Orient;” a policy “directed toward the stability and quietness” of the situation in the region.

Kennan pointed out that some informed diplomats at the time warned leaders in Washington that the U.S. policy of frustrating Japan’s interests on the mainland could lead to war and as a result strengthen Russia’s power in the Far East. Prior to the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan and Russia had waged war against each other near the Manchurian-Mongolian frontier. A Japanese attack on U.S. and British interests in the Pacific, therefore, would benefit the Soviet regime. Kennan, of course, had no way of knowing that Soviet agents of influence within the U.S. administration, such as Harry Dexter White and Lauchlin Currie, recommended increasing pressure on Japan precisely to steer Japan towards attacking the United States instead of encroaching on Soviet interests.

In his book Russia and the West Under Lenin and Stalin, Kennan viewed the Far East as “a wholly different world [from Europe] not only geographically but also in thought and feeling, perhaps even in the nature of political reality.” The European powers’ positions in the Far East, he noted, were undermined and finally destroyed by the two world wars of the 20th century, while China was “delivered into the hands of the communists,” not by Moscow or the United States, but by Japan “whose occupation of large parts of the country destroyed the natural powers of resistance in the population, and whose final removal at the end of the [Second World War] created vacuums into which the Communists were prepared to flow. . .”

Kennan described China as an ally, but not a satellite, of the Soviet Union, and foresaw future tension between the two giant communist states. “There are . . . limits to the effective radius of political power from any center in the world.” He opined that universal world dominion was a “technical impossibility, and that the effectiveness of the power radiated from any one national center decreases in proportion to the distance involved, and to the degree of cultural disparity.” Moreover, Kennan believed that China would eventually go the way of Tito’s Yugoslavia—remaining communist but with a foreign policy independent of Moscow. Here, at least initially, Kennan was wrong. But after Stalin’s death, Mao Tse-Tung gradually began to compete with the leaders in the Kremlin for the leadership of world communism, and that led, again gradually, to the Sino-Soviet split.

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When North Korea invaded South Korea in June 1950, Kennan supported using U.S. military power to defend the South Koreans, but, consistent with the policy of containment, he believed that the political goal should be to restore the status quo ante. Temperamentally, he opposed crusades, including a crusade to liberate peoples from communist tyranny. Within the Truman administration, he recommended that U.S. forces should not go beyond the 38th parallel. In his memoirs, Kennan, ever conscious of the requirements of a balance of power, lamented that, “[h]aving self-righteously expelled the Japanese from their positions in Korea, we now found ourselves, in the postwar period, faced with the necessity of shouldering the burden they had long borne of containing rival mainland power—once Russian, now Russian and Chinese-Communist combined—on that peninsula.”

Kennan abhorred basing policy on sentiment. He had little use for Chinese Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, but nevertheless believed that the United States should oppose any attempt by the Chinese communists to forcibly take Taiwan. He also warned in August 1950 that U.S. policy in Indochina risked putting the United States in a position of underwriting France in its effort to maintain political control there, and assuming French imperial responsibilities the way that the U.S. had already assumed some of Britain’s.

Despite this warning, Kennan initially supported America’s effort to contain communism in Indochina. He was, after all, briefly a member of the Kennedy administration as the U.S. ambassador in Yugoslavia. Gradually, however, Kennan soured on the Vietnam War, worrying that the United States was investing much more in that conflict than its interests required. He did not believe that a communist victory in that war would alter the global balance of power. In 1966, in testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he invoked John Quincy Adams’ famous warning about not going abroad in search of monsters to destroy, and suggested that U.S. credibility would be better served by the “liquidation of unsound positions than by the . . . stubborn pursuit of extravagant or unpromising objectives.”

The Nixon-Kissinger approach to the world – détente with the Soviet Union, the opening to China, ending U.S. participation in the war in Vietnam – found favor with Kennan. He once said that Kissinger “understands my views better than anyone at State ever has.” Kennan’s geopolitical worldview, including his view of events and developments in the Far East, was always based on unsentimental calculations of the balance of power and an appreciation for the limitations and tragedy of human nature.

Francis P. Sempa is the author of Geopolitics: From the Cold War to the 21st Century (Transaction Books) and America’s Global Role: Essays and Reviews on National Security, Geopolitics and War (University Press of America). He is also a contributor to Population Decline and the Remaking of Great Power Politics (Potomac Books). He has written on historical and foreign policy topics for Joint Force QuarterlyAmerican Diplomacy, the University BookmanThe Claremont Review of BooksThe DiplomatStrategic Review, the Washington Times and other publications. He is an attorney, an adjunct professor of political science at Wilkes University, and a contributing editor to American Diplomacy.