Stalin had opted for a Russia that was isolationist, which meant, among other things, the isolation (even more than the segregation) of foreign diplomats from contacts with almost any Russian; this included, too, close and constant secret police accompaniment and supervision. Because of his great interest in Russia, because of his affection for its people, Kennan was even more pained by these conditions than were other diplomatists posted in Moscow….At the same time the violence and the rabid lies of their government directed against American and Americans were such that, at least on one occasion, he came close to suggesting that while an American diplomatic representation should remain, there might be no need for an American ambassador in Moscow. He was unhappy with some of the activities of his government, too. He tried–on occasion, more or less successfully–to curb such American military undertakings that, close to the Soviet Union’s frontiers, would unnecessarily arouse Russian suspicions and countermeasures. In early September he sat down at his desk and–again–wrote a long paper for Washington entitled “The Soviet Union and the Atlantic Pact.” In this he warned against excessive militarization on the part of the West, because of the condition that the Soviet Union did not want another war and did not plan to extend militarily. The dispatch was comparable to the Long Telegram of 1946, but only to some extent; it went largely unnoticed by Washington. But what vexed Kennan above all were his experiences of sequestered life in Moscow. The result was his–unexpected–explosion, and the subsequent end of his ambassadorial career. ~John Lukacs, George Kennan: A Study of Character (p. 117-118)
I wanted to find Lukacs’ account of the end of Kennan’s tenure as ambassador to the USSR after Ryan Lizza referred to it in this item on Jon Huntsman. Lizza’s description seemed incomplete, and it is. Lizza uses Kennan’s “explosion” as a precedent for an ambassador causing an uproar in the country where he is posted, but this misrepresents Kennan’s actions and almost gives Huntsman a pass for what Lizza speculates he might be doing. Lizza wrote:
But the fallout from Huntsman’s adventure in a Beijing market clotted with protesters raises an interesting question: What if, in his last two months before he leaves his Beijing post, Huntsman provoked some sort of diplomatic row that emphasized an ideological split with the President? What if he demanded that Obama give more aid and support to the pro-democracy movement? That could certainly make some waves in Iowa.
I can’t think of a recent Presidential candidate who used his or her diplomatic confrontations as a campaign platform, but my editor, Nick Thompson, the author of “The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War,” reminds me that Kennan’s very public spat with a Communist regime served him well politically later in life.
For Huntsman’s sake, and for the sake of the relationship with China, I would have to hope that his dedication to serving as ambassador in a professional way would prevent him from doing anything like this. This is the scenario that James Fallows worried about when rumors of a Huntsman run startled swirling. Were Huntsman foolish enough to make some melodramatic break with the administration, everyone would see it as a transparently political ploy. Far from helping him with anyone in the U.S., it would signal to anyone paying attention that Huntsman was unduly self-serving and was willing to put his own ambitions ahead of serving responsibly in his current position. I don’t know that Huntsman would even consider doing such a thing, but it isn’t a compliment to suggest that he might.
This is why it’s important to understand the difference between what Kennan did and why, and what Lizza suggests that Huntsman might do. Kennan’s outburst was the result of frustration with his experience in Moscow, and it obviously wasn’t a deliberate plan with the goal of setting himself up politically back home. Despite disagreements with Washington, his statement wasn’t primarily an expression of his dissatisfaction with policy. What Lizza proposes here is that Huntsman should pick up on (or maybe invent?) some China policy disagreement he may have with the administration and then exaggerate it for the sake of creating the appearance of distance between himself and Obama. Whether or not the disagreement would have merit is irrelevant. As Huntsman would be concocting this diplomatic incident after his resignation had already been accepted, it also wouldn’t do Huntsman any good politically. Lizza acknowledges as much at the end. He wouldn’t be seen as someone speaking out on a point of deep principle, which some people might at least respect even if they thought it unwise. He would be seen as obviously pandering to domestic constituencies that want to find fault with Obama’s foreign policy, and his credibility would be badly damaged.