George F. Kennan, the architect of America’s “containment” policy toward the Soviets, often lamented that his theory was used to justify a military buildup rather than a sustained commitment to political and economic diplomacy. In a new biography, the historian Frank Costigliola writes that, after Kennan “spent the four years from 1944 to 1948 promoting the Cold War, he devoted the subsequent forty to undoing what he and others had wrought.” The Soviet example holds only limited lessons for today, though, because of China’s economic scale. Toward the end of the Cold War, U.S. trade with the Soviet Union was about two billion dollars a year; U.S. trade with China is now nearly two billion dollars a day.
Kennan, to his final days, warned about the seductive logic of wars, both cold and hot. In 2002, at the age of ninety-eight, he campaigned against the march to war in Iraq, arguing that history suggests “you might start a war with certain things on your mind” but often end up “fighting for entirely different things that you had never thought of before.”