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.