A response to Timothy Naftali’s ‘George Kennan, Michael McFaul, and their Paranoid Hosts’ in Foreign Affairs magazine

John Lewis Gaddis’s biography of American statesman and scholar George Kennan published in 2011 has brought into new currency the life and thinking of one of the nation’s most extraordinary public figures of the 20th century. In the latest online edition of Foreign Affairs magazine, Naftali takes the new interest in the man who was the only US Ambassador to Russia to be declared persona non grata and find points in common with the plight of the incumbent ambassador Michael McFaul. There is indeed plenty of commonality, but not in the sense Naftali adduces. Read on…




A response to Timothy Naftali’s ‘George Kennan, Michael McFaul, and Their Paranoid Hosts:


The Perils of Serving as Ambassador to Russia’ in Foreign Affairs magazine – online edition 17 April 2012


                                            by Gilbert Doctorow, Ph.D.


John Lewis Gaddis’s biography of American statesman and scholar George Kennan published in 2011 has brought into new currency the life and thinking of one of the nation’s most extraordinary public figures of the 20th century. Gaddis’s great restraint, his interpretation of his role as ‘authorized biographer’ to mean  setting out in condensed, accessible form the vast written record of Kennan with minimal personal intervention, with a minimum of judgments, has touched off well-deserved discussion of the thinking of the great man himself, which often straddled both sides of highly contentious issues and took in a great many flip flops of position that his contemporaries viewed largely with good humor because of Kennan’s sheer brilliance and his usefulness as a devil’s advocate when his recommendations could not be adopted as national policy for a variety of reasons


Realpolitik was arguably the most consistent motif in Kennan’s public life: his advocacy of an interests-based foreign policy and his scorn for the moralistic-legalistic cast of U.S. policy which prevailed in his day. I might add, parenthetically, that the Wilsonian idealism that Kennan rejected is even more entrenched as the political correctness of our day.

For these reasons, Timothy Naftali’s use of Kennan as a template for what is happening around the sitting U.S. ambassador in Moscow, Michael McFaul is seriously flawed.  McFaul, with his deep-set Neoconservative convictions, is the very antithesis of what Kennan respected and sought as the informing principle of international relations. Kennan would have had nothing but criticism for McFaul’s pro-democracy agenda, for his attacks on the Putin ‘regime,’ for his taking sides against the Kremlin in the domestic partisan struggles of modern Russia.


This is not to say that the careers of the two ambassadors to Moscow do not have significant commonality. But it lies in areas which Naftali fails to explore when he shifts from examination of the men to a very superficial and flawed examination of the circumstances in which they found themselves in Russia. What he has in mind is a supposedly paranoid regime in the Kremlin which will make the U.S. emissary a scapegoat for its own problems.


Well before McFaul’s confirmation in the Senate, well before the December demonstrations in Moscow against Putin which Naftali tells us set off an anti-American campaign similar to what Kennan encountered upon arrival in the final year of the Stalin regime, I wrote that McFaul could easily find himself to be the second U.S. ambassador in history after Kennan in 1952 to be declared persona non grata in Moscow. See http://usforeignpolicy.blogs.lalibre.be/archive/2011/07/15/can-a-u-s-ambassador-to-russia-be-expelled-the-pending-case.html.  I was not trying to be prophetic, but I could not accept the empty accolades which were addressed to McFaul by many in the U.S. media, who insisted that as someone close to the President, he was the ideal emissary during the predictably tense period when both the U.S.A. and Russia would be having presidential elections. Nor could I accept the empty attacks on McFaul as unsuitable for the office because he was allegedly too soft on the Russians in light of his authorship of the ‘reset policy’ which guided the Obama administration’s dealings with the Kremlin.


Rather, my deep skepticism arose because of similarities in the personality and life experience of both Kennan and McFaul which made them both poor choices to run the U.S. embassy in Moscow.  At first glance this would not be obvious since both men have been held up as Russian experts, so allow me to be explicit.  Kennan was a career Foreign Service officer who was midway towards re-engineering himself into a scholar when he received the ambassadorship. During the period beginning in 1947, he was given the nation’s most responsible assignments to devise a course in strategic policy formulation at the War College, then to head the newly created planning staff reporting directly to Secretary of State George Marshall. He continued in very prestigious and visible positions under Dean Acheson. For his part, McFaul had made a successful career as research professor with a growing library shelf of books on Russia which he authored or edited. He was a welcome commentator on current affairs in Russia for the U.S. media in the late 90s.  But in parallel, McFaul double dipped as a paid political adviser to Yeltsin during its dirty election campaigns.  He was very close to the reformers who precipitated the economic collapse of Russia and made the word ‘democracy’ a pejorative among a great many pauperized Russians to this day.  In short, he was always a very partisan player notwithstanding his scholarly robes. Then in the first decade of the new millennium he re-engineered himself into a strategic policy advisor on Russia within the Obama administration while maintaining close ties to rather aggressive Opposition personalities.


At the time of their appointments to the ambassadorship in Moscow, both McFaul and Kennan were prima donnas, public figures with well-known positions on Russia which might not be considered friendly in the Kremlin. Both came with a lot of intellectual baggage. Having enjoyed privileged access to nation’s highest officers, having shaped the planning processes which others in the Foreign Service would implement, they were scarcely the persons to change into pin-striped suits and adopt the modest tasks of implementers of instructions authored by others while stationed in Spaso House.


In the case of Kennan, the record of his time in Moscow is clear from Gaddis.  He received no instructions whatsoever from Secretary of State Acheson on what exactly he was to do in Moscow.  Notwithstanding his overblown ego, Kennan was very thin-skinned and was in emotional limbo not merely because of the cold reception from his host country, but because of the minimal support from his home country.  Considering that he was sent out in a period of his career very close to retirement, and also in the last year of the Truman administration, when the President himself had chosen not to run again, his colleagues in Washington had a lot on their minds besides providing assurances and a detailed work agenda for their man in Moscow. He was psychologically ill-prepared to assume responsibilities which required the highest degree of circumspection.




In the case of McFaul, the appointment also came in the last year of his President’s term in office, and it could reasonably be seen as an honorable brush-off.  Let us not confuse re-set with détente. The re-engagement implicit in re-set was focused on reaching a very few objectives in the relationship, which were largely achieved before McFaul’s nomination to the ambassadorship. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the intent of re-set was to disarm Russia not just figuratively but literally. The successful New START entailed modest bilateral cutback on strategic offensive weapons systems. The parallel pursuit of the missile defense system in Europe over Russian objections signified a coming overturning of the strategic parity and troubled relations ahead. In this sense, McFaul’s re-set had played itself out and he had nothing further to contribute to the administration.


Naftali makes a great deal out of Ambassador McFaul’s Twitter entries about Russian harassment, which have a superficial resemblance to the indiscretions of Kennan’s remarks to reporters at Templehof airport over his ill-treatment in Moscow which precipitated his png status.  Thin-skinned he may be, but I rather doubt that McFaul is likely to fly off the handle the way the mercurial Kennan did.  If expulsion will be his fate, it will be due to more deliberate and egregious offenses to which his past experience and associations with the Kremlin’s opposition make him prone.


In closing, I would like to call out the susceptibility of at least one other American Ambassador to exaggerate his own importance and the meaning of the surveillance directed against him by the Kremlin. My point is to raise the question as to who really was/is being paranoid, the Russians or the Americans.  For Naftali this is self-evident, but I disagree. The point must be proven. 


I have in mind Jack Matlock, who was surely the most effective U.S. ambassador to Moscow in the second half of the 20th century.  A seasoned Foreign Service professional, a team player who understood to perfection the tasks of the office, Matlock nonetheless was overly flattered by the attention President Gorbachev accorded him, by the invitation to offer advice on matters which were strictly internal to the Soviet leadership and which he therefore should have declined. And the inverse side of this heightened sense of his place in history was Matlock’s unbalanced, unreasonable expectation that his every diary notation found its way to Gorbachev’s breakfast table the next morning, as we see repeatedly mentioned in Anatomy of an Empire. Would Naftali place the blame for this paranoia on a hostile, anti-American environment in Moscow at the time? I imagine not, and rest my case.


The Gaddis biography of George Kennan has elicited a goodly number of reviews from leading experts in international relations, among them, most interestingly, Henry Kissinger.  In many ways Kissinger, the statesman was influenced by Kennan, in whom he found a rare soul mate in realism. In an analytical essay which I plan to publish in the coming week, I shall examine the debate around Kennan which Gaddis has facilitated, and shall also take issue with some of the consequences of Gaddis’s low-visibility approach to writing the biography, including inadequate annotations and a failure to define in what way George Kennan was an expert on Russia…and when.






© Gilbert Doctorow, 2012



G. Doctorow is an occasional guest lecturer at St. Petersburg State University and Research Fellow of the American University in Moscow. His latest book,Stepping Out of Line: Collected (Nonconformist) Essays on Russian-American Relations, 2008-12, is available in paperback from Amazon.com and affiliated websites worldwide. An e-book edition will be issued shortly.


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