Monday, March 21, 2005

George Kennan

The Chargé d'Affaires ad interinum 's Syndrome?

George Kennan has died. Many serious obituaries sections say the same. From my Ministry's own daily bulletin (which, perhaps inevitably, always ends up with a sober reminder of the fortunes of one's football team), to serious media, like BBC News or, later on, the Financial Times. None, I'm glad to add, underscored the key feature of George Kennan's diplomatic professional relationship with Russia (in its Soviet Union garish clothes). He was, to my mind, the most accomplished sufferer of "Chargé d'Affaires' Syndrome".

How can one explain it to laymen, strangers to the arcane rules of diplomats behaviour abroad? Maybe I should say a few words about the next-in-succession-line to sovereign Ambassador, the "Number Two", to use the awful and, I suspect, American-originated expression. At the time of his famous Eureka regarding how Western governments should deal with the Soviet regime, Kennan was the Minister-Counsellor at the American Embassy in Moscow, you see? Having been myself a Minister-Counsellor in Moscow, and not that long ago, I can be forgiven for a feeling of camaraderie towards my distinguished, now defunct, colleague. It was precisely under the most telling of all manifestations, or symptoms, of "Chargé d'Affaires' Syndrome", that is, rushing to produce substantial and provocative analysis as soon as his Ambassador leaves for holidays or retires, that George Kennan wrote the 5,542-word "Long Telegram" in 1946. That most famous cable in US diplomatic history who ended up being published, albeit in revised form, in "Foreign Affairs", in 1947, under the pseudonym "X". The policy paper which started, single-hand, the Washington containment doctrine towards Communist Russia for forty years, was, I'm afraid, the labour of a frustrated "Nº2" in all its classic form. (The most delicious example is perhaps Chateaubriand who was send to Rome at the climax of his literary glory and spent his time there signing passports when he felt his understanding of complex international issues was much more accurate than the one of his hated 'ignoramus' of Ambassador.)

When I visited the American Embassy in Moscow for the first time, three winters ago, I got a copy of "Spaso House - a Short Story on the Residence of the Ambassador of the United States". I remember that I laughed with a letter by George Kennan that was included in the neat booklet, as an annex. Some hasted research on un-opened boxes that traveled from Russia to Madrid enabled me to find it, and I rush to blog my re-discoveries.

Kennan, in the capacity of diplomatic secretary and interpreter, accompanied Ambassador William C. Bullit when the latter went to Moscow in the late fall of 1933 to present his credentials as first American ambassador to the Soviet Government. When Bullit left, only to return in Spring and to more suitable weather-wise Moscow, Kennan remained in charge, the first of such periods of not-quite-the-real-thing self-torture. Uncle George returned again to Moscow in the times of Ambassador Joseph E. Davies ( who wrote a book, "Mission to Moscow" which was supportive of Stalin's regime - and which was made into a popular American movie - on top of it al!!!). During a second stint as man in charge he was able to detect a gross Soviet attempt of bugging the Ambassador's upstairs study. But Davies, "whose prime interest at that time was such publicity as he could produce for himself in the American press", as Kennan wrote from Princeton in 1963, "never wanted us to pursue these inquiries". Davies was afraid that the episode might become known and impair the public image of his popularity with the Soviet leaders, and, as fancily recalled in "Mission to Moscow", rebuked his young diplomatic secretary (Kennan) by saying something like "Young man, I have nothing to hide from these people. Let them hear what they like". As George Kennan, ironically noted, in true Chargé mood, "It was true enough, in fact, that he was not in the habit of saying things of any consequence, either in the bugged study or anywhere else...".

So, this is the true angle from which to look at Ambassador George Kennan's (1905-2005) achievements. He returned to Moscow as full ambassador alright, but only for a five months period, in 1952, cut short by his comments comparing the life in the US Embassy to a Nazi internment camp. But the powerful insight and understanding of what the West should do about the Soviet regime will remain the most distinctive example of that Principle-of-Peter-in-Reverse, when the highest level of competence is attained in the one-before-the last step of the diplomatic ladder.

Dazvidanya, Tovaritch Kennan…

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