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
The Tragedy of Colonialism

So much for the cold war. How about colonialism? Nobody seems to suggest any more, I notice, that God might conceivably be on the side of the metropolitan power, despite the fact that of the two parties involved it is often the mother country that represents the Christian society and the colonial people the pagan one. The assumption usually encountered today is that any form of foreign rule is necessarily oppressive and worse than any form of indigenous rule. The next assumption is that any anti-colonial effort is therefore automatically good in the Christian sense--that self-determination, in short, is a Christian purpose.

I am confident that for such assumptions there is not a shred of justification. The erection of the edifice of modern colonialism was not a moral act or a series of moral acts but the response to obvious historical conditions and necessities. It was a phenomenon occasioned by the fact that industrialism burst forth in Europe and North America more than a hundred years earlier than it did in other parts of the globe and thus produced huge and sudden disparities in physical and administrative power. This called for a political response, and colonialism was this response. We Americans were spared a greater participation in it only because of our preoccupation with the development of our own continent--for no other reason.

Today the colonial relationship has outworn in many instances--though by no means all--its original technological and psychological justification. A great part of the colonial system has been liquidated, and another part of it is in course of liquidation. This process could not fail to give rise to tensions of tragic bitterness and difficulty. In the anatomy of these tensions, one will look in vain, as a rule, for any Christian meaning. The resistance to change on the part of the mother country has sometimes reflected selfishness and shortsightedness, and it has also reflected in many cases a genuine sense of responsibility. Conversely, the demand for change on the part of the colonial people has sometimes reflected a real love of liberty, and it has often been borne by a spirit fiercely chauvinistic, full of hatred, undemocratic, and irresponsible.

Let us, as Christians, view these resulting conflicts for what they are: tragic situations, in which the elements of right and wrong are indistinguishable to us. Let us remember that insofar as these situations reflect racial differences, we ourselves stand before God and the world as one of the most conspicuous examples of the failure to find a satisfactory Christian solution to such problems. Let us learn to view this whole subject of colonialism with humility, with detachment, with compassion for both sides. Let us not abuse the confidence of Christ by invoking his judgment one way or another on situations that were obviously beyond the power of mortal man to prevent and are now beyond the power of mortal man to liquidate without pain and strife.

Or take the problems of technical assistance and other forms of aid to underdeveloped peoples. Here, too, I must argue against the absolutes. I can think of no question of Christian doctrine which needs critical examination more than the question of what constitutes charity. Even in the personal sense, in the relations between individuals, I often wonder whether we do not constantly misinterpret the term and whether it does not contain a host of subjective pitfalls. Charity is not giving people things which will only encourage them to postpone facing up to the necessities under which they are going to have to live in the long run. I question the handout as a means of bringing any important benefit to anyone, even in personal life. How much more complicated, then, is the matter of charity between nations. It is difficult to benefit a whole nation, as distinct from certain factions and elements in its competitive life, by anything you do to it from outside which affects its internal terms of competition. And make no mistake about it: every infusion of foreign aid has this effect. There are always some who benefit from it and others whose interests are damaged by it.

But beyond this, foreign aid, to be really effective as a gesture of Christian charity, would have to be understood as such a gesture by the recipients as well as by the donors. But most foreign peoples do not believe that governments do things for selfless and altruistic motives; and if we do not reveal to them a good solid motive of self-interest for anything we do with regard to them, they are apt to invent one. This can be a more sinister one than we ever dreamed of, and their belief in it can cause serious confusion in our mutual relations.

Foreign aid has a place in our foreign policy; but the favorable possibilities for it are more slender than people generally suppose. The less it consists of outright grants, the better. The less we try to clothe it in the trappings of disinterested altruism--to view it as Christian charity--the more we can show it as a rational extrapolation of our own national interest, the better understood and the more effective it is going to be abroad.

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