"I have attempted to take the high ground," writes George F. Kennan in the foreword to this illuminating work, "trying to stick to the broader dimensions of things-the ones that would still be visible and significant in future decades." Against the background of a century of wars, revolution, and uneasy peace, Mr. Kennan advances his thoughts on a broad front: how the individual's quest for power can transform a government into a confusion of ambition, rivalry, and suspicion; how a nation's size can create barriers between the rulers and the ruled; why America must first set its own house in order before it can become a beacon to others. Deeply aware of the pressures under which public officials must act, Mr. Kennan sees a government in Washington that is forced to make decisions on issues of the moment, often without regard for long-term consequences. Neither the legislature, responsive to the interests of a narrow constituency, nor the executive branch, swamped by urgent problems at home and abroad, has the time or inclination to look far beyond the next election. Lost entirely is a vital element in any democracy: deliberation based upon study, review, and judgment. To address problems that defy quick political solutions, Mr. Kennan here boldly lays down a blueprint for a Council of State, a nonpolitical, permanent advisory board that would stand alongside yet apart from government policy makers, with the prestige to be heard "above the cacophony of political ambitions." Rich in historical example, this volume is a brilliant summing up of the experience and thought of the man the Atlantic described in a cover story entitled "The Last Wise Man" as: "diplomat, scholar, writer of rare literary gifts, one of most remarkable Americans of this century."
The former foreign-service officer, professor at Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study, and author of 18 books now offers The World According to Kennan. Here, Kennan (Sketches from a Life, 1989, etc.) tries to set forth a coherent personal and political philosophy. Unfortunately, he starts with the personal. Sex, he tells us, is usually "tedious, monotonous, at times ridiculous," and, along with conceit, constitutes "a little demon companion in attendance on every civilized person." The widespread American hostility to the idea of hereditary effects on personality stems, he contends, from our being "a nation of immigrants." Kennan declares that the soul is separate from the body, and that it's difficult to reconcile God-the-creator with God-the-custodian-of-our-fates. Kennan's general statements on government also tend to be chatty and unhelpful: Power is "not, in truth, a nice thing"; government is an "unpleasant business"; urban expansion is "simply a horror." There are odd moments here, as when Kennan calls for carrying on the tradition of household servants. Yet when he talks about foreign policy, his words take on the weight of a distinguished career. Kennan rejects "any and all messianic concepts of America's role in the world" and calls for "a modest and restrained foreign policy," with cuts in military spending and foreign aid. An admirer of the European system of democracy, he also suggests that the secretary of state become a sort of prime minister to supervise the executive branch and deal with party politics. Finally, Kennan recommends that a "permanent, nonpolitical advisory body" be formed to take advantage of the collective wisdom of retired statesmen, jurists, and educators. Quoting Goethe, Chekhov, Gibbon, and Clausewitz, Kennan veers from the erudite to the platitudinous. He presents some valuable policy suggestions toward book's end, but, most of the way, be seems asleep at the wheel. (Kirkus Reviews)