'Power Always Thinks It Has a Great Soul'

I got the chance to really dig into the two big one's on alleged architect of Containment, and the new biography of his life authored by John Lewis Gaddis. I greatly enjoyed Louis Menand's piece, but this quote from Frank Costigliola stopped me cold:


Kennan himself "stressed the importance of the psychological dimension" in his life.15 He told Gaddis that "the inner emotional life of any person, as Freud discovered, is a dreadful chaos. We all have vestiges of our animalistic existence in us." Consequently, "good form," whether it involved the ceremonies of diplomacy or the constraints of marriage, "is really the thing to live for." He continued, "'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's wife.' My God, I've coveted ten thousand of them in the course of my life, and will continue to do so into the eighties." "All that has to be fought with. But the main thing is to try to play your role in a decent way."

I think if someone had explained marriage to me in this way, as a younger person, I might have walked the aisle sooner. I understood the point of monogamy pretty well, having seen the other options up close. But I've never grasped ritual and ceremony because it's mostly been explained to me in gauzy sentimental vocabulary. ("A moment you'll never forget..." "Happy for the rest of your life..." "A beautiful moment..." etc.) I've always been more susceptible -- in both my personal and my political thinking -- to all our efforts to tame the beast within. 

Menand depicts Kennan as deeply skeptical of democracy -- at one point he wants to reserve the vote for white men. But here is the thing: I actually relate to the skepticism. The problems of democracy, like the problems of monogamy are very real. In championing both (one for myself, the other for my country) I've never done so out of sense of ultimate solutions, but out of a sense that each presents a better set of problems.  

Keenan ultimately comes off as rather bitter. But there was something about his thinking which I really liked.  Perhaps Menand captures it here:

Still, buried within Kennan's realism there is a moral view: that in relations of power, which is what he thought international relations ultimately are, people can't be trusted to do the right thing. They will do what the scorpion does to the frog -- not because they choose to but because it's their nature. They can't help it. This is an easy doctrine to apply to other nations, as it is to apply to other people, since we can always see how professions of benevolence might be masks for self-interest. It's a harder doctrine to apply to ourselves. And that was, all his life, Kennan's great, overriding point. We need to be realists because we cannot trust ourselves to be moralists. 

This was the danger that the United States faced after Europe had destroyed itself in the Second World War. We had power over other nations to a degree unprecedented in our history, possibly in the world's history, and it was natural for us to conclude that we deserved it. "Power always thinks it has a great soul," as another Adams, John, once said. Containment was intended as a continual reminder that we do not know what is best for others. It is a lesson to be ignored only with humility.

Kennan is talking about how to govern a country. But I read him as also talking about how to govern ourselves.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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