China Is Not the Soviet Union: Applying Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’

Military vehicles carrying DF-26 ballistic missiles travel past Tiananmen Gate during a military parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II in Beijing Thursday Sept. 3, 2015. REUTERS/Andy Wong/Pool

China Is Not the Soviet Union: Applying Kennan’s ‘Long Telegram’

While Kennan observed that “Moscow sees in the UN not the mechanism for a permanent and stable world society founded on mutual interest and aims of all nations,” Beijing today in fact does see the UN as such a mechanism—albeit with a somewhat different vision than most Western powers for what such a “world society founded on mutual interests” would look like.

Last week marked the seventy-fifth anniversary of George Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” the five-thousand-word essay he wrote from the U.S. Embassy in Moscow in February 1946 explaining the Soviet strategic mindset, and which became the intellectual foundation for the U.S. strategy of “containment.” Today Kennan’s analysis in the “Long Telegram” is being invoked as a basis for devising new U.S. strategies toward China. But in order to avoid a new cold war, it is crucially important to understand the differences between the Soviet Union in 1946 and China today.

The most important difference arises from the central premise of Kennan’s telegram: that the Soviet Union saw itself living “in antagonistic ‘capitalist encirclement’ with which in the long run there can be no permanent peaceful coexistence . . . [or] modus vivendi.” The Soviets further believed that the “capitalist world” was “beset with internal conflicts” that were “insoluble by means of peaceful compromise” and would “inevitably generate wars.” 

Chinese leaders today do not believe any of this. They are seeking peaceful coexistence and a modus vivendi with the rest of the world; are extensively engaged with—and arguably part of—“the capitalist world”; have incorporated many elements of capitalism into their own system; and are not anticipating that “the capitalist world” will destroy itself through internecine wars. (It is a separate question whether “the capitalist world” itself judges that peaceful coexistence with Communist China is possible.)

There nonetheless are fundamental similarities in approach. Kennan wrote that Moscow would do everything possible to “advance the relative strength of the USSR as a factor in international society” and to “reduce the strength and influence, collectively as well as individually, of capitalist powers.” Moreover, Soviet efforts would be “directed toward deepening and exploiting differences and conflicts between capitalist powers.” Beijing clearly seeks to advance China’s relative strength in the world at the expense of rival major powers. It seeks to exploit differences and conflicts between those powers if and when it advances that goal. 

One of the more interesting areas for comparison is Kennan’s characterization of the Soviet leaders’ strategic mindset. He began by noting that it “does not represent the natural outlook of the Russian people,” who “by and large, are friendly to the outside world, eager for experience of it . . . and eager above all to live in peace and enjoy the fruits of their own labor.” In contrast, Kennan observed, the Soviet “party line only represents the thesis which the official propaganda machine puts forward with great skill and persistence.” All of these observations apply to China today: what is generated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda machine does not always or accurately reflect the aspirations of the Chinese people. 

But Kennan introduces an important distinction when he notes that the “premises on which this party line is based are for the most part simply not true. Experience has shown that peaceful and mutually profitable coexistence of the capitalist and socialist states is entirely possible.” Indeed, the “Soviet party line is not based on any objective analysis of the situation beyond Russia's borders; that it has, indeed, little to do with conditions outside of Russia; that it arises mainly from basic inner-Russian necessities.” After all, CCP leaders today agree with Kennan about the “mutually profitable coexistence” of capitalism and socialism. And it would not be correct to say that they lack any objective analysis of the rest of the world.

In one of his most famous insights, Kennan attributed the Soviets’ worldview primarily to a “traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity” based in part on a “fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies” in the West. “But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted rather Russian rulers than Russian people”—that Russian rulers have always “feared what would happen if Russians learned the truth about the world without or if foreigners learned the truth about the world within.” It is true that China has similarly developed an “instinctive sense of insecurity” because of its long history of instability and violence, both self-inflicted and imposed upon it by foreign powers. But this afflicted the Chinese people as well as Chinese rulers. It is nonetheless also true that Chinese leaders are neuralgic about what Chinese people learn from the rest of the world. 

Most of Kennan’s observations about the role of Marxism in Soviet Russia are applicable to the CCP:  “Only in this land which had never known a friendly neighbor or indeed any tolerant equilibrium of separate powers, either internal or international, could [such] a doctrine thrive.” For Russia then and China now, in Marxist dogma Communist leaders “found justification for their instinctive fear of the outside world, for the dictatorship without which they did not know how to rule, [and ] for cruelties they did not dare not to inflict.” And “today they cannot dispense with it. It is a fig leaf of their moral and intellectual respectability. . . . This is why Soviet [and today CCP] purposes must always be solemnly clothed in the trappings of Marxism, and why no one should underrate the importance of dogma in Soviet [and CCP] affairs.” But it is important to emphasize that Marxism remains largely a fig leaf in China today; it is not really necessary to invoke it to explain China’s international behavior, which is sufficiently explicable in realist and structural terms.

In Kennan’s outline of the policies the Soviets would pursue on the basis of these beliefs, many are similar to those CCP leaders follow today, but many are distinctly different—given their different premises and beliefs. Some elements of Soviet strategy resonate with China, such as its “internal policy devoted to increasing in every way the strength and prestige of the Soviet state.” That strategy also hinges on “continued secretiveness about internal matters, designed to conceal weaknesses and to keep opponents in the dark,” participation in international organizations where there is “the opportunity of extending Soviet power or of inhibiting or diluting the power of others,” and engagement with other countries that exhibit “strong possibilities of opposition to Western centers of power.”

On the other hand, Beijing is clearly not following the Soviet model in “international economic matters,” where policy would be “dominated by pursuit of autarchy.” And while Kennan observed that “Moscow sees in the UN not the mechanism for a permanent and stable world society founded on mutual interest and aims of all nations,” Beijing today in fact does see the UN as such a mechanism—albeit with a somewhat different vision than most Western powers for what such a “world society founded on mutual interests” would look like. 

Kennan itemized several activities the Soviet Union would pursue at the “unofficial level”—essentially in the realm of influence operations, both overt and covert. Here, too, the Chinese are following similar practices in many respects. They are targeting or cultivating a wide variety of constituencies in national and international political, social, cultural, and media organizations “which can be dominated or influenced by such penetration.” In these efforts, the Chinese are to some extent seeking to “undermine the general political and strategic potential of major western powers”—at least their potential to offensively challenge Chinese interests and security. 

But Beijing—unlike the Soviets—is not seeking to undermine or destroy Western civilization in the ways Kennan predicted the Russians would. In his view, Soviet agents and operatives would seek to “increase social and industrial unrest . . . stimulate all forms of disunity . . . [and], as a rule, work toward the destruction of all forms of personal independence, economic, political or moral.” Although the Chinese will to some extent try to “set major Western powers against each other” and undermine “any sort of unity or cohesion among other [countries] from which [China] might be excluded,” Beijing does not really have the absolute goal Kennan attributed to Moscow: “In general, all Soviet efforts on the unofficial international plane will be negative and destructive in character, designed to tear down sources of strength beyond the reach of Soviet control.” 

Kennan’s ultimate depiction of the Soviets’ core goal thus does not apply to China: it is not “desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of [American] society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, and the international authority of our state be broken, if [Chinese] power is to be secure.” But there are comparable elements to the challenge. Like the Soviet Union, China “has complete power of disposition over the energies of one of the world's greatest peoples” and concentration of resources. It also has “an elaborate and far flung apparatus for the exertion of its influence in other countries, an apparatus of amazing flexibility and versatility, managed by people whose experience and skill in underground methods” is extensive. Indeed, by these measures, China almost certainly poses an even greater challenge because its resources and global reach far exceed what the Soviets possessed. For that reason, Kennan’s characterization of the daunting task the US faced in confronting the Soviet Union probably applies even more to today’s China: the “problem of how to cope with this force is undoubtedly the greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably the greatest it will ever have to face. . . . It should be approached with the same thoroughness and care as solution of a major strategic problem in war, and if necessary, with no smaller outlay in planning effort.”