George Kennan’s diaries are out right now, and one passage struck me as emblematic of all that is wrong with U.S. political culture. For those who don’t know, Kennan was one of the chief architects of U.S. postwar planning and remained a leading light in foreign policy circles long after his star had waned towards the end of the Truman administration. He preached amoralism in U.S. foreign policy, being one of the key proponents of the ‘realist’ school of international politics, and his analysis, on the whole, tends to be a temperate one.
It is this latter element, though, that makes the below passage so curious and yet telling, as the ‘realist’ school is, by its own conceit, supposed to offer sober assessments, empty of ideology, of the geopolitical environment, so as to best advance what is identified as the ‘national interest’. Yet, as the passage makes clear, Kennan’s entire frame is bedeviled by ideology: the Iranians (and Mossadeq, in particular) described as wracked with parochial interests (such as that of receiving fair value for their petroleum resources), as compared to the U.S. and Britain, who have a ‘responsibility of the most solemn and far-reaching nature…[to the] entire Western world’ to ensure the oil consortium’s interests remain undisturbed.
To Kennan, Iran’s interest in exerting control over its own resources is nothing more but ‘amour propre’ (or vanity), as compared to the U.S. and British interest which is ‘important in a much more serious sense.’ This is not atypical in imperial histories (and as I have argued, is being replicated today), as the strong justify their actions by lofty appeal, while the weak are derided for their provincialism.
Here is the passage, written in 1952, in the midst of the Iran oil crisis:
‘The Western world has no need to be apologetic about the minimal facilities and privileges it requires in the Middle East. Most of these have already been in existence for long periods of time, and there has grown up around them a right of usage similar to that of my country neighbor whom I permit for years on end to drive over my property to reach his own. The thesis to which we acquiesced in Iran: that such arrangements can be cancelled or reversed abruptly, on the basis of somebody’s whim or mood, is preposterous and indefensible. It is a dangerous distortion of the concept of sovereignty. But beyond that the British and ourselves have a responsibility of the most solemn and far-reaching nature which prohibits our being spendthrift and over-generous with things that represent the strategic assets not of ourselves alone but of the entire Western world. The commitments we have undertaken to our allies in continental Europe and elsewhere place us in a new position: that of an agent as well as a principal — and charity, by consequence, is beyond our competence. Such things as Abadan and Suez are important to the local peoples only in terms of their amour propre — and an artificially inflamed amour propre at that. To us, some of these things are important in a much more serious sense, and for reasons that today are sounder and better and more defensible than they ever were in history…’