The great diplomat George Kennan, a major architect of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union during the Cold War, wrote the following reflection which impresses by how, though written more than 40 years ago and before the fall of the Berlin Wall, it remains about as true today as when it was first penned. He died in 2005, but one can almost see Kennan nodding, not surprised but disappointed, at the crisis in Ukraine and the general state of U.S.-Russia relations today. Also note the exacting requirements he lays out for American Foreign Service personnel serving in Russia. From his Memoirs: 1925-1945 (Little, Brown, 1967):
“The results of these investigations made me skeptical of any momentous future for Russian-American relations within our time. I did not despair of the possibility of a limited and unsensational measure of profitable cooperation between the two countries. But I was convinced that even this could be effectively realized only if our part in it was borne by persons who had the understanding and the qualifications necessary for the task: a gift for self-effacement, a decent educational background, an intellectual humility before the complexities of the Russian world, and, above all, an exceptional capacity for patience. Barring the enlistment of such persons on our part, I could see little future for Russian-American relations other than a long series of misunderstandings, disappointments, and recriminations on both sides.”
In Chasing the Flame (Penguin, 2008) Samantha Power, who is now U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, gives us the enthralling, inspiring, and maddening story of Sergio Vieira de Mello. An international crisis man sometimes described as a humanitarian James Bond, Vieira de Mello was a brilliant and deeply humane UN diplomat whose combination of passionate idealism with hard-nosed pragmatism was repeatedly frustrated by forces larger than himself, including the shortcomings of his own organization, the UN. His was a thrilling life prematurely ended in 2003 by a bomb in Baghdad while he served as the UN chief of mission in Iraq.
This diplomat, who shuttled from one conflict zone to another to defuse international crises, was not only a man of action, but also a man of deep thought, a man after philosophy. A brief statement from early in his career reveals that for Vieira de Mello, philosophy not only provided the internal grounding for the bold pursuit of justice to which he devoted his life, but was also at the core of what makes us human. In his words below, he also echoes the ancients’ (was it Plato? It was probably Plato) insight that just as those who are most gifted have the greatest potential for good, they also have the greatest potential for evil. We’re reminded that this applies to the realm of thought and ideas as well.
After receiving the highest grades in philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris, Vieira de Mello wrote to his ex-girlfriend:
“‘But for what?’…if he had studied economics or marketing instead, ‘some American company would have assured me a “happy future” strewn with dollars.’ He would never sell out, he told her, and ‘just short of dying of hunger,’ he would ‘never abandon philosophy.’ The philosopher, he wrote, could become either ‘the most just man’ or the ‘the most radical bandit.’ Either way, he insisted, ‘to do philosophy is to have it in your blood and to do what very few will do – to both be a man and to think everywhere and always.'” (21)
What if a hospital refused to see you because last summer you volunteered for the political party opposite of that of your Governor? What if you were dropped by your insurance company because you signed a petition calling for the passage of a law opposed by the President? We would be outraged if these things happened in this country regularly and without consequence, and rightly so. Sadly, this has been the reality in Venezuela for many years under Hugo Chávez, and it continues today under his hand-picked and less talented successor, Nicolás Maduro.
In his timely and important book, The Dictator’s Learning Curve (Anchor, 2013), William Dobson gives us a glimpse of the abuse of state resources by government officials who target those who act to challenge the state:
“In one case documented by Human Rights Watch, a ninety-eight-year-old woman was denied medical prescriptions she had been receiving for years; when her family inquired, they were told it was because she had signed the referendum [for a recall vote challenging Chávez]. One person I met told me a similar story. Her fiancé required immediate medical attention and went to the emergency room of a government-run hospital. The hospital representative was in the process of admitting him, until she ran his voting identification card through the computer. He was told he would have to go someplace else…In a society ruled by patronage politics, being identified as an enemy of the state can have serious consequences…Venezuelans used the list against fellow citizens to decide everything from who is hired or fired to who gets a passport or is audited by the tax authorities” (100).
My favorite books of 2013, in order:
1. Seven Men: And the Secret of their Greatness by Eric Metaxas.
I’m breaking a rule with this one: including it as one of my top reads before I’ve finished it. But I’m just over halfway through the book, and it’s already my favorite! Expertly employing historical narrative, Metaxas introduces us or reminds us of these seven great men: George Washington, William Wilberforce, Eric Liddel, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Jackie Robinson, Pope John Paul II and Chuck Colson. Their greatness, Metaxas explains, is in their use of their power and position to serve others. Indeed, we can and should all recognize this as that which makes one truly great.
2. The Meaning of Marriage: Facing the Complexities of Commitment with the Wisdom of God by Timothy Keller.
I read this to prepare for marriage this year, and it’s a book my wife and I will go back to many times during the course of our marriage for guidance and motivation when the going gets tough. Keller expounds on the biblical principles laid down for husbands and wives and shows us the power, the essence, and mission of marriage. It’s replete with useful principles and examples of meaningful, Christ-centered marriage, but one of the most helpful insights I took was the view of marriage as, ultimately, “spiritual friendship” between two sinners in need of God’s grace. Five months into my marriage, I affirm that this is indeed the bread-and-butter of our union – daily friendship and companionship in which we not only greatly enjoy one another, but also encourage and gently push each other to grow in our love for God and others. Keller’s important book explains the theology and teaches the practice behind meaningful marriage.
3. Lincoln’s Melancholy: How Depression Challenged a President and Fueled his Greatness by Joshua Wolf Shenk.
Most people recognize the greatness of Abraham Lincoln, but few know the crucial role of his struggle with lifelong, persistent clinical depression in forming and strengthening his character. Shenk sheds light on Lincoln’s condition, which began in his 20s when he had his first severe bout of depression, with the understanding of our modern understanding of this illness, and he demonstrates how Lincoln’s trials with depression prepared him for the gargantuan trials of his presidency and the nation. This book illuminates and consistently fascinates, besides being eloquently and delightfully written.
4. The Irony of American History by Reinhold Niebuhr.
Though too few today have heard of him, Reinhold Niebuhr was a towering theologian and public intellectual at mid-century. He wrote this book as a critical self-examination for our nation, which following WWII found itself as the unchallenged superpower in a world threatened by the menace of Communism. Clear-eyed about the evil and perversion of communism, Niebuhr called on the American public and their leaders to not be blind about our own contradictions and ironies, such as professing noble universal ideals of peace and freedom while securing them through the threat of nuclear annihilation, as demonstrated in Japan at the close of the war. He argued that as the necessary and often tragic exercise of leadership in the world meant that we would not be able to keep intact our professed innocence and virtues. Still, he was clear that the consequences of inaction and isolationism are worse still. This profound and prophetic work, written in 1952, remains as relevant as ever today.
5. Making Sense out of Suffering by Peter Kreeft.
“This is a book for anyone who has ever wept and wondered, ‘Why?'” begins this book. A philosophy professor at Boston College, Kreeft takes the reader by the hand and brings him to the feet of philosophers, theologians, artists and writers to help him better understand the why behind the painful but universal reality of suffering. Kreeft’s gentle wisdom is displayed on every page, making this a deeply personal and moving journey in addition to an intellectual examination of the various and often inadequate answers to suffering found in different religious and philosophical worldviews.
Twentieth-century theologian, public intellectual, and prophet, Reinhold Niebuhr wrote powerfully about America’s role in the world. He beckoned Americans to examine their own values in light of their professed virtues and noble national goals, reminding a nation of the need for humility and faith even as it pursues justice and confronts real evil in a morally ambiguous and often tragic world. In his classic The Irony of American History (University of Chicago, 1952), he achieved the nearly impossible: critiquing his own society from within, like an astute and wise outside observer, but with eyes of faith which transcended the events of his day.
A short sampling of some of my favorite excerpts:
“A sane life requires that we have some clue to the mystery so that the realm of meaning is not simply reduced to the comprehensible processes of nature. But these clues are ascertained by faith, which modern man has lost.”
“Genuine community is established only when the knowledge that we need one another is supplemented by the recognition that ‘the other,’ that other form of life, or that other unique community is the limit beyond which our ambitions must not run and the boundary beyond which our life must not expand.”
“The God before whom ‘the nations are as a drop in the bucket and are counted as small dust in the balances’ is known by faith and not by reason. The realm of mystery and meaning which encloses and finally makes sense out of the baffling configurations of history is not identical with any scheme of rational intelligibility. The faith which appropriates the meaning in the mystery inevitably involves an experience of repentance for the false meaning which the pride of nations and cultures introduces into the pattern. Such repentance is the true source of charity; and we are more desperately in need of genuine charity than of more technocratic skills.”
“…the whole drama of human history is under the scrutiny of a divine judge who laughs at human pretensions without being hostile to human aspirations.”
“…humility…is the prerequisite of every spiritual achievement.”
“Those who succeed in life, whether by the acquisition of power, wealth, or wisdom, do incline to value their achievements too highly and to forget the fragmentary character of all human achievements.”
My work exposes me to difficult questions about America’s role and responsibility in the world community. Iran and the nuclear bomb. The use of chemical weapons against innocents in Syria. Billions in assistance to Egyptian strongmen who offend our democratic sensibilities but who ensure our national interests in the Middle East. These examples are the ones that grab the headlines, but there are many more like them that are no less complex.
Though I have no decision making responsibility over these matters, the people I work for do, and their responsibility forces me to consider the inevitable exercise of American leadership on the world stage. On the one hand we see the reality of this exercise – far from perfect, sometimes hypocritical, but, as I and many others see it, on the whole good and indispensable; and on the other hand we hold the ideal of this exercise – the promotion of the universal principles of liberty, equality and human dignity through our engagement with the world.
Too often in our discourse and our policymaking we lose the balance between the actual and the ideal: some jettison any notion of universal norms and humanitarian disinterestedness as self-defeating delusions that have no place in the exercise of foreign policy in the real world, and others would seek to wield American power to crusade against all injustice and, whether unilaterally or in concert with international bodies, seek to prevent conflict everywhere and usher in world peace. Two men exemplifying these two spectrums are Henry Kissinger, the brilliant realist behind Nixon’s opening to China, and Woodrow Wilson, the academic architect of the League of Nations who said he was taking the U.S. into World War I to “make the world safe for democracy.”
To this discussion Reinhold Niebuhr offers wise words which, though written 1952, remain as relevant and pressing today. Public intellectual, Christian theologian and adamant anti-communist, Niebuhr was clear-eyed about the shortcomings of our nation as it proclaimed its virtue against the evil of communism. In The Irony of American History, he shattered the illusion that we as a nation could keep intact our innocence and virtues and still fulfill our responsibility to the world. He understood that though this exercise of leadership is inevitably imperfect and sometimes tragic, the consequences of inaction and isolationism are worse still. Today’s idealists who call on our leaders to either retreat from the world stage or pursue a more innocent and pure foreign policy would do well to consider his words:
“They [the idealists of the 1930s] had a dim and dark understanding of the fact that power cannot be wielded without guilt, since it is never transcendent over interest, even when it tries to subject itself to universal standards and places itself under the control of a nascent world-wide community. They did not understand that the disavowal of the responsibilities of power can involve an individual or nation in even more grievous guilt.”
This country needs more men like George Kennan.
George Kennan is best known for his “X” article, which laid out the policy of containment that was to define decades of U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. George Kennan (1904-2005) was an accomplished diplomat, a devoted husband (a marriage of over 70 years!), a natural teacher, a meticulous historian, and a gifted writer. But perhaps the best way to describe him is as “conscience of a nation,” as John Lukacs puts it in his excellent biography, George Kennan: A Study of Character (Yale, 2009). What made George Kennan invaluable as a diplomat was that he was the best kind of patriot: a man who so loved his country that he did not turn a blind eye to its faults and defects but shined a light on them, wishing the improvement of our character and conduct as a nation. He was deeply committed to the principles of liberty and equality and believed America should exert its influence in the world, but he deplored the tendency toward wrongheaded, righteous interventions and the increasing overextension of our military throughout the world. In this vein he often quoted John Quincy Adams: “We are friends of liberty all over the world; but we do not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.” This posture earned him the ire of both liberals and conservatives, and so it should be, for he had “no doctrines, only principles.”
George Kennan led a long and fruitful life, leaving behind a mountain of writings on the role of the U.S. in the world. As our country faces many serious threats, it is worth recalling the lessons of this sober-minded and clear-eyed American, of which the most important may be, humility:
“Remember that the ultimate judgments of good and evil are not ours to make: that the wrath of man against his fellow man must always be tempered by the recollection of his weakness and fallibility and by the example of forgiveness and redemption which is the essence of his Christian heritage.” (130, quoted from his 1953 address to University of Notre Dame).