History Offers Biden a Way Forward on Russia

George Kennan's Long Telegram still resonates 75 years later.

When in his first foreign policy address to the nation President Joe Biden declared, “America is back,” he was referring to the United States undertaking the kind of diplomatic engagement it had practiced in the years before the Trump administration. But when it comes to today’s Russia, there is a historic precedent that Biden’s remarks also call to mind.

This week marks the 75th anniversary of when George Kennan, then a career diplomat serving in the American Embassy in the Soviet Union, sent the State Department his breakthrough Long Telegram outlining how America should deal with a hostile Soviet Union. 

Kennan was on his second posting in Moscow at the time of his Long Telegram. The first one lasted from 1933 to 1937; the second had begun in 1944. “I reached figuratively, for my pen,” Kennan wrote years later in his Memoirs: 1925-1950, “and composed eight thousand words—all neatly divided, like an eighteenth-century Protestant sermon, into five separate parts.”

Kennan sought to explain why the Soviet Union, which had been America’s ally in World War II, would not continue in that role in the postwar world. Short of war, the Soviet Union would, Kennan contended, do everything in its power to undermine American influence. Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, Kennan predicted, would move to increase his power and that of the Communist Party. There would be no transition within the Soviet Union to democracy or a liberalization of the state-run economy.

Today, under Vladimir Putin, Russia has been as hostile to America as the old Soviet Union. Russia’s cyber attacks are, if anything, an escalation of past hostilities. The jailing of Russian dissident Alexei Navalny shortly after his return from Germany shows Putin’s willingness to suppress criticism when he feels threatened. Mass demonstrations did not deter a Russian court from sentencing Navalny to two years and eight months in a penal colony.

Kennan’s Long Telegram does not provide us with a formula for dealing with the specific issues that divide us and Russia today, but it does offer us something equally valuable—a framework for putting Russia in perspective.

Kennan’s point in 1946 was that the Soviet Union was driven by historic fears that needed to be understood. The Soviets had not suddenly turned hostile in the wake of Germany’s and Japan’s surrender. Kennan would expand on these ideas in the 1947 article, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” that he wrote for Foreign Affairs under the pseudonym of X in order to avoid a personal debate in diplomatic circles, but nothing fundamental changed in Kennan’s thinking between 1946 and 1947. The aim of “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” like that of the Long Telegram, was to prepare America for a period of intense rivalry with the Soviet government. 

The five parts of Kennan’s telegram provided the State Department with an outline of how America should think about and respond to the Soviet Union. Kennan began with what he regarded as the basic feature of Soviet foreign policy—the belief that everything possible must be done to advance the relative strength of the USSR and that in turn “no opportunity must be missed to reduce strength and influence, collectively as well as individually, of capitalist powers.”

This hostility, Kennan went on to say, came from Russia’s historic insecurity as an underdeveloped agricultural country and from its encounters with a more economically advanced West. “Russians will participate officially in international organizations,” Kennan wrote, only “where they see opportunity of extending Soviet power or of inhibiting or diluting power of others.” 

The unofficial extension of this policy meant, Kennan believed, that the Soviet Union would try to weaken sources of strength that were beyond Soviet control. “Everything possible will be done to set major Western Powers against each other. Anti-British talk will be plugged among Americans, anti-American talk among British.”

What America needed to do in the face of this opposition, Kennan wrote, was take a long view. The United States should not delude itself into thinking it could change the Soviet Union, but it should not grow cynical and lose sight of the power of its own example. The “greatest danger that can befall us in coping with this problem of Soviet communism,” Kennan warned, “is that we shall allow ourselves to become like those with whom we are coping.”

The containment policy that the Long Telegram advocated led to one of the most successful periods in American foreign policy. Between 1948 and 1953, American diplomacy helped get the nations of Western Europe back on their feet with the Marshall Plan; led them to form a military alliance, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO); and gave them the support to start integrating their economies through the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community.

In his first foreign policy address, President Biden took an approach to Russia very much like that of the Long Telegram. There was no post-World War II nostalgia in Biden’s words, but there was a sense that America could be firm without being belligerent.

Biden spoke of America’s willingness to confront Russian when necessary. “I made it clear to President Putin in a manner very different from my predecessor that the days of the United States rolling over in the face of Russia’s aggressive actions are over,” Biden declared. At the same time the president stressed that his administration’s diplomacy would be positive in tone and focus: “We must start with diplomacy, rooted in America’s most cherished democratic values.”

It is too early to tell what the long-term results of President Biden’s first major foreign policy speech will be, but there is room for optimism. America has already resumed its funding for the World Health Organization, imposed sanctions that would prevent the generals who led a coup in Myanmar from gaining access to $1 billion in funds their government keeps in the U.S., and agreed with Russia to extend the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) for five years.

Nicolaus Mills is professor of literature at Sarah Lawrence College and author of Winning the Peace: The Marshall Plan and America’s Coming of Age as a Superpower.