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.

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.

The UN As a Symbol of Conscience

The sovereign national state, to which so much reverent devotion is paid in the various gradations of patriotism and chauvinism that make up national feelings, has no foundation in Christian principle, whatever its secular justification. Nowhere in Christ's teachings was it suggested that mankind ought to be divided into political families of this nature, each a law unto itself, each recognizing no higher authority than its own national ego, each assuming its interest to be more worthy of service than any other with which it might come into conflict. Surely this whole theory is an absurdity from the Christian standpoint. Before we could achieve Christian foreign policy we would have to overcome this unlimited egotism of the sovereign national state and find a higher interest which all of us could recognize and serve.

How about the United Nations? it will be asked. Is this not an institution which, insofar as it represents an endeavor to transcend nation sovereignty, deserves our support as a vehicle of the Christian purpose?

The UN represents not a supergovernment, not a separate institutional personality but one of number of forums on which governments communicate with one another. It does not, in reality transcend the barrier of sovereignty. Its members are governments, not peoples, and such slender authority as it sometimes possesses is conferred upon it by these governments, each still acting within the sovereign framework.

There is no particular Christian sanctity lent to decisions taken in the United Nations by the fact that they represent the views of a majority of governments. Little countries are not necessarily more virtuous or more enlightened than big ones; and an international majority does not necessarily reflect the Christian answer, or even the most wise and courageous answer, to anything.

On the other hand, the UN does represent the germ of something immensely necessary and immensely hopeful for this endangered world: namely, a sense of conscience higher than the national one, a sense of the fellowship of fate by which we are all increasingly bound together. I cannot conceive of a satisfactory future for humanity that does not embrace, and draw its strength from, the growth of this consciousness. The present UN is the symbol of it. This symbol is still weak and tender, but it is not insignificant. We must therefore cherish it and guard it, not burdening it beyond its strength, not looking to it for the impossible, but strengthening it where and when we can, above all in our own thoughts and attitudes.

This does not mean that all UN decisions are to be taken as automatically right and good. It does not mean that all diplomatic questions should be uncritically consigned to the UN, whether or not this is a suitable place for their discussion. But it does mean that we should be careful and respectful of the organization as such, remembering that if the idea which it symbolizes is ever allowed to depart from international life, nothing else can stand between us and the horrors if a wholly chaotic world in the atomic age.

The Moral Implications of War

This brings me now to the questions on which I think a Christian might, with good conscience, really take a stand. They involve not just the national interests of individual governments but rather the interests of civilization: the question of war, and the atom, and the other weapons of mass destruction.

I am aware that the institution of war has always represented dilemmas for Christian thought to which no fully satisfactory answer has ever been offered. I have, in the past, found myself unable to go along with the Quakers in their insistence on a sweeping renunciation of power as a factor in international affairs. I do not see the reality of so clear a distinction as they draw between domestic affairs and international affairs. The Communists have taught us that these two things are intimately connected, that civil wars have international implications and that international wars have domestic implications everywhere. I am unable therefore to accept the view which condemns coercion on the international sphere but tolerates it within the national borders.

But that we cannot rule out force completely in international affairs does not seem to me to constitute a reason for being indifferent to the ways in which force is applied--to the moral implications of weapons and their uses. It is true that all distinctions among weapons from the moral standpoint are relative and arbitrary. Gunpowder was once viewed with a horror not much less, I suppose, than are atomic explosives today. But who is to say that relative distinctions are not meaningful? I cannot help feeling that the weapon of indiscriminate mass destruction goes farther than anything the Christian ethic can properly accept. The older weapons, after all, were discriminate in the sense that they had at least a direct coherent relationship to political aims. They were seen as means of coercing people directly into doing things an enemy government wished them to do: evacuating territory, desisting from given objectives, accepting a given political authority. A distinction was still generally drawn, furthermore, prior to World War I at least, between the armed forces and the civilian population of a hostile country. Efforts were made to see that military action was directed only against those who themselves had weapons in their hands and offered resistance. The law of war did not yet permit the punishment of whole peoples as a means of blackmail against governments.

In all of these respects, the atom offends. So do the other weapons of mass destruction. So, for that matter, did the conventional bomber of World War II when it was used for area bombing. In taking responsibility for such things as the bombing of Dresden and Hamburg, to say nothing of Nagasaki and Hiroshima, Americans went beyond what it seems to me the dictates of Christian conscience should have allowed (which is not to say that I think their problem was an easy one).

I regret, as an American and as a Christian, that these things were done. I think it should be our aim to do nothing of the sort in any future military encounter. If we must defend our homes, let us defend them as well as we can in the direct sense, but let us have no part in making millions of women and children and noncombatants hostages for the behavior of their own governments.

It will be said to me: This means defeat. To this I can only reply: I am skeptical of the meaning of "victory" and "defeat" in their relation to modern war between great countries. To my mind the defeat is war itself. In any case it seems to me that there are times when we have no choice but to follow the dictates of our conscience, to throw ourselves on God's mercy, and not to ask too many questions.

Atomic Testing

But this is not the only moral connotation of the atom. There is another in the great controversy that has raged over the question of atomic testing, its effect on the atmosphere, and its consequences for human health. My colleagues in the scientific field advise me to stay away from this subject. They point out that there is a great deal about it which is not yet known: that scientists are themselves in wide disagreement about its seriousness; that I, as a scientific layman, would not even be able to understand the terms in which it is put. All this I readily concede; but even the little that is known to the general public is enough to pose a problem of Christian conscience.

Let us take a random sampling of recent press reports. During the first eight months of 1958, we are told, the fall-out of radioactive strontium on New York City increased by 25 per cent. Readings in Los Angeles are said by the health department of that city to have revealed for limited periods a count of five hundred to one thousand times the normal radioactivity in the atmosphere and double the intensity considered safe for continuous exposure over a lifetime. Only a few weeks ago observations in Sweden showed radioactivity at ten kilometers above sea level to be five times as intense as it was earlier in the year, and individual particles were detected (apparently at ground level), "larger and thought to be more radioactive, than any yet reported except from the immediate area of a test explosion." A similar report has come from Brazil.

All this is only the beginning; a large part of the fall-out from the tests conducted thus far is, we are told, still in the higher atmosphere and will not descend for years. Furthermore, the effect of radioactive substances on human health is cumulative, so that any unnatural exposure presumably reduces the tolerance of exposure from natural causes or for medical purposes.

In the face of these facts, I listen with some amazement to the statements with which some of the scientists endeavor to reassure us about such developments. The damages, they say, have been "negligible" so far. Not many deaths, they say, can be expected to ensue from this increase in radioactivity compared with those which occur from natural causes. One scientist, pained and astounded at the concern about the radioactive particles in Sweden, explained that if, for example, 100 people would be killed by the effects of a normal atomic explosion, then only 102 could be expected to die from the effects of the increased radioactivity which Sweden has been experiencing.

But whoever gave us the right, as Christians, to take even one innocent human life, much less 102 or a 102,000? I recall no quantitative stipulation in the Sixth Commandment. God did not say through Moses that to take 102,000 lives was wicked but 102 was all right. I fail to see how any of this can be reconciled with the Christian conscience.

I am delighted that our government now shows a serious readiness to work toward the termination of these experiments with atomic explosives. We must go farther and work toward the elimination of the use of atomic weapons in war as well. This cannot be done in a day, and not all that needs to be done can be done by us. But we can at least make a beginning by endeavoring to free ourselves from our unwise dependence on atomic weapons in our own military calculations, from our fateful commitment to the first use of these weapons, whether or not they are used against us.

Our Obligation to the Future

There is a principle involved here which has application beyond just the field of weapons, to a number of other effects in the introduction of modern technology. We of this generation are only the custodians, not the owners, of the earth on which we live. There were others who lived here before, and we hope there will be others who are going to live here afterward. We have an obligation to past generations and to future ones no less solemn than our obligations to ourselves. I fail to see that we are in any way justified in making, for the safety or convenience of our own generation, alterations in our natural environment which may importantly change the conditions of life for those who come afterward.

The moral laws which we acknowledge predicate the existence of a certain sort of world--a certain sort of natural environment--in which people live. This setting presumably reflects God's purpose. We did not create it; we do not have the right to destroy it. We know the problems which this environment poses for man. We know the nature of the Christian effort to find answers to them. We live by this lore. When we permit this environment to be altered quite basically by things we do today, we are taking upon ourselves a responsibility for which I find no authority in the Christian faith.

Obviously, we do not know what the ultimate effects will be of the atomic weapons tests we have already conducted. I am not sure that we know what will be the ultimate effects of our methods of disposal of radioactive wastes. I doubt that we know what we are doing to the sea through the use of modern detergents and the fouling of its surface with oil. I am not sure that we know what we are doing with modern insecticides, which we employ quite recklessly in agriculture for our immediate purposes, giving little thought to their ultimate effects. We who call ourselves Christians must acknowledge responsibility in these matters, most of which are international in their implications.

We will unavoidably find in the motives and workings of the political process much that is ambiguous in the Christian sense. In approaching the individual conflicts between governments which make up so much of international relations, we must beware of pouring Christian enthusiasm into unsuitable vessels which were at best designed to contain the earthy calculations of the practical politicians. But there are phases of the government's work in which we can look for Christian meaning. We can look for it, first of all, in the methods of our diplomacy, where decency and humanity of spirit can never fail to serve the Christian cause.

Beyond that there loom the truly apocalyptic dangers of our time, the ones that threaten to put an end to the very continuity of history outside which we would have no identity, no face, either in civilization, in culture, or in morals. These dangers represent for us not only political questions but stupendous moral problems, to which we cannot deny the courageous Christian answer. Here our main concern must be to see that man, whose own folly once drove him from the Garden of Eden, does not now commit the blasphemous act of destroying, whether in fear or in anger or in greed, the great and lovely world in which, even in his fallen state, he has been permitted by the grace of God to live.