it is clear that Kennan’s prescient argument about the cold war, its causes, course and outcome – the dominant struggle of the second half of the 20th century – was vindicated to a degree greater than that of any other writer on the subject. The vindication is in two directions: against establishment figures like John Foster Dulles and Ronald Reagan, who sought victory through military confrontation with the USSR, and against radicals like C Wright Mills, Noam Chomsky and many intellectuals associated with the 1980s “peace movement” in Europe, who argued that the cold war was an imaginary or confected conflict designed primarily by the elites of both sides to subdue their own domains.
George Kennan himself saw the cold war as an “unnecessary, fearfully expensive and disoriented process”. But his belief that it was a real conflict, for all the rhetoric and exaggeration involved, proved correct.
The vindication here is not just Kennan’s but Lenin’s. In perhaps the only prescient remark the first Bolshevik leader ever made, he criticised the voluntaristic dreams of his followers by insisting that two conditions were needed for a successful revolution: the ruled could not go on being ruled in the old way, and the rulers could not go on ruling in the old way. This, to a remarkable degree, describes what happened in east-central Europe and the Soviet Union in the 1980s: there was some resistance from below, above all in the form of Solidarity in Poland, but to a great extent it was the loss of faith and dynamism of the communist rulers, not the resistance of the people, that led to the final collapse of 1989-1991.
Fifteen years on, the Lübeck analogy offers a highly relevant lesson for the current global struggle involving Islamist political radicalism. As Sunni militants inflame Iraq and hit at targets far to the west, the forces of Islamic revolution are dying in the countries where they first took power: Iran, Afghanistan, and Sudan. The architects of the “war on terror” could still learn from George Kennan.
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