I’ve been reading Ned O’Gorman’s Spirits of the Cold War, and the chapter on Kennan includes an excellent quote from him that bears repeating. O’Gorman writes:
Rebutting those like James Forrestal who insisted that the United States needed a “policy” on China’s internal politics, a 1948 Policy Planning staff paper Kennan designed stated:
There is no requirement either in United States diplomatic tradition or in the general rules which govern intercourse between states, that a government have “a policy” with respect to internal events in another country. On the contrary, it is a traditional principle of this Government, deeply sanctioned in practice and public opinion, to refrain from interference in the internal affairs of other countries. Non-intervention in internal affairs is therefore our normal practice; and we do not consider that we are automatically obliged to take measures to influence decisively the course of internal events in other countries. There are, to be sure, instances in which intervention has been found to be in the national interest. But these are the exceptions and not the rule. (p. 71)
The intervening sixty-five years have taken a terrible toll on what Kennan described as “our normal practice” to such an extent that the “normal practice” has been ignored more often than not. We have reached a point now where following this normal practice is treated as something that has to be explained or justified, as if non-interference were the aberrant and strange response and meddling the proper and obvious one. How many times have pundits across the spectrum berated the U.S. for failing to “shape” events in this or that country? It’s as if it never occurred to them that events in other countries are not for our government to “shape.” Bear this in mind the next time you read an op-ed or an editorial demanding that the U.S. interfere in another country’s election dispute or civil war or political transition in order to “shape” events there.