Foreign Policy and Christian Conscience

Speaking as a Presbyterian and also as a diplomat who has served in Berlin, Vienna, Prague, Riga, Lisbon, Moscow, and Washington, George F. Kennan addresses the Christian responsibility in international life

This article appeared in The Atlantic Monthly in May 1959, and reflects the author's thinking at that time. For a more up-to-date look at George Kennan's views, see his compilation of essays entitled At a Century's Ending: Reflections 1982-1995 (W.W. Norton: 1996).

I should like to say at the outset that questions of method in foreign policy seem to me to be generally a much more fitting subject for Christian concern than questions of purpose. It is very difficult for us to know which of the specific undertakings of government in foreign affairs might have Christian significance and which might not. If there is any one thing that is plain about international statesmanship, it is the extreme difficulty of establishing in advance the relationship between cause and effect--of gauging the likely results of one's own acts.
The English historian Herbert Butterfield has shown us with great brilliance, and so has our own Reinhold Niebuhr, the irony that seems to rest on the relationship between the intentions of statesmen and the results they achieve. I can testify from personal experience that not only can one never know, when one takes a far-reaching decision in foreign policy, precisely what the consequences are going to be, but almost never do these consequences fully coincide with what one intended or expected. This does not absolve the statesman of his responsibility for trying to find the measures most suitable to his purpose, but it does mean that he is best off when he is guided by firm and sound principle instead of depending exclusively on his own farsightedness and powers of calculation. And if he himself finds it hard to judge the consequences of his acts, how can the individual Christian onlooker judge them?

All this is quite different when we come to method. Here, in a sense, one can hardly go wrong. The government cannot fully know what it is doing, but it can always know how it is doing it; and it can be as sure that good methods will be in some way useful as that bad ones will be in some way pernicious. A government can pursue its purpose in a patient and conciliatory and understanding way, respecting the interests of others and infusing its behavior with a high standard of decency and honesty and humanity, or it can show itself petty, exacting, devious, and self-righteous. If it behaves badly, even the most worthy of purposes will be apt to be polluted; whereas sheer good manners will bring some measure of redemption to even the most disastrous undertaking. The Christian citizen will be on sound ground, therefore, in looking sharply to the methods of his government's diplomacy, even when he is uncertain about its purposes.

In the fabric of international life, there are a great many questions that have no certain Christian significance at all. They represent conflicts between those elements of secular motivation which are themselves without apparent Christian meaning: commercial interests, prestige considerations, fears, and what not. I do not think we can conclude that it matters greatly to God whether the free trade area or the Common Market prevails in Europe, whether the British fish or do not fish in Icelandic territorial Waters, or even whether Indians or Pakistani run Kashmir. It might matter, but it is hard for us, with our limited vision, to know.

But these are all questions which reflect the normal frictions between peace loving nations. How about the issues of the cold war? How about colonialism? How about aid to the underdeveloped areas? How about the United Nations as an institution? How about the atom? Are not Christian values involved in our attitude toward these questions?

Our competition with Moscow

In its internal policies, the state can create a decent human atmosphere, in which the individual has the maximum possibility for grappling in a hopeful and constructive way with the moral problems of personal life. Or it can, as we have seen in the examples of Hitler and Stalin and the Chinese Communists, strike out on the most appalling lines of viciousness and cruelty, deliberately fostering a real sickness of the human spirit and inculcating on people's minds, for its own purposes, suspicion, terror, callousness, and the habit of brutality--creating conditions dreadfully adverse to the success of the Christian cause. Christianity cannot be indifferent to the existence of such doctrines and methods; and whatever prevents their spread and their triumph on a world scale serves, it seems to me, a Christian purpose.

But I do not think this means that every measure that is damaging to international Communism is necessarily good and every measure that is acceptable to a Communist government is necessarily bad. The world is not that simple. Our competition with Moscow is not the only significant reality of international affairs. Our policies, furthermore, must take into account the interests of the peoples under Communist rule as well as those of their governments. Again, we have the question of Method and the fact that not even the greatest conviction of righteousness in our purposes absolves us from the obligation of decency in method. If we allow ourselves to copy our adversary's methods as a means of combating him, we may have lost the battle before we start; for this is, after all, what is most essentially at stake.

Furthermore, we must not make the mistake of regarding international Communism as a static, unchanging quantity in the pattern of world realities. While the full-blown totalitarian state in all its unnatural, nightmarish horror is certainly an abomination in the sight of God, one cannot say this of the conservative authoritarian state which has been the norm of Western society in the Christian era. And we must not forget that it is in this direction that the Soviet government, as distinct from the Chinese Communist government, has been rapidly evolving since Stalin's death. Its gravitation in this direction has not been final or decisive, but it has not been negligible. The mere fact that the most characteristic feature of totalitarian horror, the punishment of whole categories of people for abstract or preventive reasons, has been abolished shows how far the Russians have come since Stalin's day.

Now between democracy and traditional authoritarianism there are still differences, but they are relative and do not present clear-cut issues. The authoritarian regime, despite its origins and its sanctions, often rests on a wide area of popular acceptance and reflects popular aspirations in important degree. In democratic countries, on the other hand, such things as the operations of lobbies and political parties and the inevitable control of nominations by small groups of people tend to reduce the ideal representativeness of government and to make it hard to view the political process as much more than a negative expression of the popular will.

And if you consider, as I do, that the value of a democratic society in the Christian sense depends not just on the fact of its enjoying certain rights and liberties but on the nature of the use made of them, then I think you have to raise questions about our American society of this day. These questions do not need to make us lose hope or hang our heads, but they should cause us to be cautious in drawing conclusions about the merit in God's eyes of any particular form of society.

All these considerations lead me to feel that, while Christian values often are involved in the issues of American conflict with Soviet power, we cannot conclude that everything we want automatically reflects the purpose of God and everything the Russians want reflects the purpose of the devil. The pattern is complex, fuzzy, and unstable. We must look sharply at each individual issue before we jump to conclusions. We must bear in mind that there are things we do not know and cannot know. We must concede the possibility that there might be some areas of conflict involved in this cold war which a Divine Power could contemplate only with a sense of pity and disgust for both parties, and others in which He might even consider us to be wrong.

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