George Kennan On Diplomacy As a Profession

In 1961, the legendary diplomat talked with his colleagues at AFSA about the profession of diplomacy.

On the occasion of George Kennan’s 100th birthday, the February 2004 FSJ devoted its focus to this “diplomat extraordinaire” and his work. This image was on the cover.
Ben Fishman

This is the classic function of diplomacy: to effect the communication between one’s own government and other governments or individuals abroad, and to do this with maximum accuracy, imagination, tact and good sense. Of course, this is not all there is, or not all there is on the surface. But at the bottom of almost every facet of Foreign Service work, if you analyze it, you will find, I think, that what is essentially at stake is this process of communication.

People have often alleged that the invention of the telegraph and other technological changes have detracted from the importance of this task—that they have reduced the diplomatist to a glorified messenger boy. This view could not, I think, be more mistaken. The sort of communication which the modern diplomatist is called upon to effect demands from him an independent contribution fully as responsible, and just as replete with possibilities for originality and creativity, as that of any other profession.

Any of us who has had so much as a single year in this work has learned, I am sure, the first great lesson it has to teach: and that is, that what is important in the relations between governments is not just, or even predominantly, the “what” but rather the “how”—the approach, the posture, the manner, the style of action. The most brilliant undertaking can be turned into a failure if it is clumsily and tactlessly executed. There are, on the other hand, few blunders which cannot be survived, if not be redeemed, when matters are conducted with grace and with feeling.

Of course, the Foreign Service officer is not alone responsible for the style of diplomacy. The basic responsibility lies with people above him! But the manner in which he handles his task is a very important component in the determination of his government’s style of action, as well as in the creation of the intellectual climate out of which this style is forged. The Foreign Service is in effect a co-partner with the senior political echelons of the government in the double task of studying and comprehending the nature of our world environment, and of communicating with other governments concerning the requirements and the aspirations that flow from the life of our society.

Scholarship and Diplomacy

And this is, as I see it, outstandingly an intellectual task. It is just as much an intellectual task as teaching or scientific research or medicine. It will absorb all that anyone can give it in the way of reflectiveness. It yields to no other profession in the demands it places on the capacity for scientific analysis and creative thought. It is, in fact, a species of scholarship.

Whenever I talk about this connection between scholarship and diplomacy, which for obvious reasons is close to my heart, I have to smile at myself for something that happened to me years ago. At a friend’s house, in a book about Confucius, I came on a passage which pleased me mightily. It was part of a dialogue between Confucius and one of his followers, named Tsekung. It reads as follows:

Tsekung asked Confucius: “What kind of a person do you think can properly be called a scholar?”

Confucius replied: “A person who shows a sense of honor in his personal conduct and who can be relied upon to carry out a diplomatic mission in a foreign country with competence and dignity can properly be called a scholar.”

As I say, I was very pleased about this. I saw in it a vindication of my own personal conviction about the connection between the two professions. But I was somewhat nonplussed when I read further down the page and came across the following:

“What do you think of officials today?”

“Oh!” said Confucius, “those rice-bags! They don’t count at all.”

The conduct of foreign policy rests today on an exercise in understanding, truly staggering in its dimension— understanding not just of the minds of a few monarchs or prime ministers, but understanding of the minds and emotions and necessities of entire peoples.

There is a special reason, in my mind, why it is important to recognize this connection between diplomacy and the life of the intellect. Diplomacy is a profession which until recently had never fully found its own soul or discovered its own proper dignity. As you all know, it had its origins, as an institution, in the relations among the royal and imperial courts of an earlier day. Its initial task was the mediation between royal persons, not states. The diplomatist was a member of the court. He stood at the center of its life: of its gossip, its intrigues, its sycophancy, of the moral corruption which inevitably attends great personal power. He gained, perhaps, in outward glamour from these associations, but he failed to gain in true professional dignity; for what was involved here was too often the interests of a dynasty, and too seldom the interests of a people.

As things began to change, in the past century and a half, as dynastic relationships began to give way to relationships reflecting the interests of entire peoples—diplomacy, for understandable reasons, was slow to change with the times. It long retained the trappings and habits of an earlier epoch. It could hardly do otherwise. It continued to be, by habit and tradition, an expensive profession. It required independent means. It required special breeding and education. These were things for which, until very recently, one had to have had the advantages of birth.

Diplomacy, for this reason, long continued to be the province of what we could call high society; and I think it suffered from this fact. It led a life remote from that of the masses and the people. It attracted the sneers and jealousies that are bound to attach themselves to any social elite. It still had, of course, its somewhat spurious social glamour; but it tended to be associated in the public mind with luxury, with personal ingratiation, with deception and intrigue, with cunning and insincerity. It failed to command wide respect as a calling which had its own integrity and could absorb the best there was in people. And even for those who practiced it, the rather unreal social climate in which it all proceeded tended to obscure rather than to reveal its true distinction and its true possibilities.

I say these things with no disrespect for the men who staffed our diplomatic missions in earlier days. On the contrary, many of these were very able people, some of the ablest we ever had. The advantages of personal security and superior education which they brought to this work often stood them in good stead.

A Challenging, Difficult Task

But the excellence of some of these men must not blind us to the weaknesses that affected the Service in the days when I joined it. There was still a hangover from the older assumptions of dynastic diplomacy. It was still assumed that what was most importantly involved was to know and understand, in any given county, only a small group of highly placed and influential individuals. It has taken the events of recent decades to teach us that in the modern age, diplomacy has a task far wider, more difficult, more challenging than this. The conduct of foreign policy rests today on an exercise in understanding, truly staggering in its dimension—understanding not just of the minds of a few monarchs or prime ministers, but understanding of the minds and emotions and necessities of entire peoples.

And not just a few of the peoples at that, but a round hundred of them—peoples in all conceivable stages of progress from the state of primitive man to the greatest complexities of modern industrial society. And what is involved here is all their aspects: social, economic, cultural, as well as political. It is this vast work of cognition and analysis in which the Foreign Service officer participates so prominently and responsibly. And it is in this case, commensurate—I repeat—in its demands on the mind with the task of academic scholarship and science, that I have personally come to see diplomacy’s escape from the triviality and sterility that recently threatened it, and its elevation to one of the really great and challenging callings of mankind.

Diplomacy yields to no other profession in the demands it places on the capacity for scientific analysis and creative thought.

On the other hand, inspiring as this task may be, we have to recognize that this profession also suffers from certainly inevitable and probably incurable handicaps. The first of these is its congenital remoteness from popular understanding. I doubt that this can ever be fully cured. The external needs of a democratic country are always going to be to some extent in conflict with the internal attitudes and aspirations of its people. To most national societies, the world outside is mainly and normally a nuisance: something that impedes and limits the ability of the people to live the way they would like to live. And the diplomatist cannot help it. His duty is to reflect the realities of this bothersome outside world, whether his fellowcountrymen like it or not.

It is his task, very often, to say the unpleasant things—the things people neither want to hear nor like to believe. The achievements of diplomacy are hard for the public to discern. The position of the diplomatist, on the other hand, is such that he constitutes a ready target for blame when things go wrong. The popular concept of the social habit of diplomacy and the nature of diplomatic life continues to arouse jealousies and resentments.

In the case of our own country this failure of understanding is particularly great. Somehow or other, to many Americans, the idea of residing permanently [abroad] in a profession at the seat of other governments and of trying patiently to understand these governments and to mediate between their minds and ours is repugnant. These people find such an occupation unmanly. They question its necessity. They cannot understand why anyone should want to do it. They suspect that it leads to a weakening of the attachment to traditional American values. They see in it a loss of true American innocence.

This is, of course, a form of provincialism. I think it is declining, as our nation grows in experience and maturity, but we must not expect it to disappear overnight. To some extent, I fear, the professional diplomatist will always remain, in his own country and particularly in this one, a person apart, the bearer of a view of his own country, which, while it does not cause him to love his own country the less, causes him to see it in other ways than his neighbors at home can ever be expected to see it. He is guilty, if you will, of the sin of detachment. In interpreting his fellowcountrymen to others, he will not be able to avoid interpreting them, to some extent, to themselves. And this is something for which they will not readily forgive him, for self-knowledge comes hard.

A Serving Profession

For these reasons, diplomacy is always going to consist to some extent of serving people who do not know that they are being served, who do not know that they need to be served, who misunderstand and occasionally abuse the very effort to serve them. This, too, is something to which the younger ones of you will have to accustom yourselves. It adds to the strains of the Service; it does not detract from its dignity. On the contrary. Let us take special pride in the fact that we of this profession serve, not because of, but in spite of many of the popular attitudes by which our work is surrounded. It takes a special love of country to pursue, with love, and faith, and cheerfulness, work for which no parades will ever march, no crowds will cheer, no bands will play.

The second great drawback of the Foreign Service seems to me to be the fact that it so often is, or can so easily become, an unhealthy mode of life—unhealthy in the sheer physical and nervous sense. It does involve, and always will involve an intensity of social entertainment which goes far beyond what the human frame, and particularly the human gastro-intestinal tract, was ever meant to endure. In many instances normal exercise and recreation are hard to find. It is a life of many petty anxieties and frustrations, but of few visible achievements. The diplomatist lacks the spiritual satisfaction that comes from being able to see in concrete form the results of cultivating one’s own home and one’s own garden. His life, as that of his children, is subject to peculiar forms of insecurity, physical and psychic.

The achievements of diplomacy are hard for the public to discern. The position of the diplomatist, on the other hand, is such that he constitutes a ready target for blame when things go wrong.

For all these reasons, I think this to be in some respects a dangerous profession. It seems to me that I have seen over the decades an unduly high percentage of older men in this Service who prematurely lost physical and intellectual tone, who became, at best, empty bundles of good manners and, at worst, rousing stuffed shirts. They are not to blame for this. They have eaten one too many a diplomatic dinner. They have pumped one too many a hand. They have exhausted the capacity for spontaneity. Let us not be superior! We all face these dangers— and some of us sooner than we like to think—and it will take our best efforts to avoid them.

If this is really the nature of our profession—if it is really thus isolated, thus misunderstood, thus unhealthy and dangerous— where does one find the rewards, the satisfactions, the compensations that could make it personally worthwhile? Let me volunteer some answers—not complete answers, certainly, but perhaps suggestive.

One looks for these rewards, first of all, in the understanding and respect brought to one’s work by one’s own colleagues—in the sheer professional comradeship they afford. This is true of many professions: it is to the colleague, not to the outsider or the client, that one looks for real appreciation. Ask the doctor, or the lawyer, or the teacher. And it’s precisely because this is so—because the people of our Service have this high degree of dependence on one another—that the Service has a special need of wise and sensitive administrative direction. It is for this reason that it needs a set of administrative and disciplinary rules that take account of its many peculiarities, of administrators who know something of the substance and the subjective sensations of its work, of a reasonable uniformity in the qualifications of membership, of fair and consistent standards in selection and promotion.

It is for this reason that it should never be permitted to become impossibly large and mechanical and impersonal. It is for this reason that it should have personnel and security procedures which do not proceed in watertight compartments, which take as their objective the whole man, not just part of him; which take cognizance of his virtues as well as his weaknesses and make their judgments on the balance of the two; which breed mutual confidence laterally and vertically rather than mutual suspicion; which avoid the evils of anonymity; and which ease, in short, the special burden of insecurity that rests in any case on Foreign Service life instead of adding to it.

The individual officer, too, must make his contribution with a view to creating the only tolerable sort of collegial atmosphere— it is up to him to discipline himself to avoid the petty jealousies, to refuse to listen to the office-intriguer and the trouble-maker, to recognize a responsibility for the morale of those around him, just as he has to draw on them for his own morale. No one, in my opinion, will experience the full satisfactions of this work if he only regards it as a means of personal advancement—only as a means of satisfying personal ambition. Ambition is all right, to a degree. God forbid that anyone should be wholly without it. But in our case, it is not enough.

Curious, Detached and Observant

To find meaning and satisfaction in this work, one must learn, first of all, to enjoy it as a way of life. One must be able to love the great diversity of nature and of human living—to forget one’s self at times, to be curious and detached and observant, to be sensitive to beauty and to tragedy, grateful for the opportunity to see life from many sides, accepting gladly the challenge that the external world presents to the understanding and the capacity for wonder. This is something which the overambitious, self-centered man will never be able to do, because he will never be able to see much beyond himself. It takes modesty, as Sigmund Freud once pointed out, to be clearsighted.

It takes a special love of country to pursue, with love, and faith, and cheerfulness, work for which no parades will ever march, no crowds will cheer, no bands will play.

You must also have, if you are to taste the full satisfactions of this work, a belief in its essential importance and even— if I may use this term—its solemnity. This is, after all, an endangered world, endangered in the grimmest sense of that term: a world endangered by the atom, by the phenomenon of overpopulation, by the lack of uniformity in the economic and social advancement of various branches of the human family, with all the tensions that produces. And finally, by the ideological prejudices in the name of which certain great peoples are today ruled. It is to this pattern of dangers that the foreign policies of our country are, in large part, addressed. There is no country whose policies are, from this standpoint, more important. There is no Foreign Service officer whose work and attitudes do not have something to do with the formulation of these policies.

Unless one realizes these things—unless one cares about them—unless one has a real love of life and a belief that there are things worth living for—unless one trembles occasionally for the civilization to which he belongs—unless one can contrive to see his work as related, however modestly, to the problem of saving this civilization—unless one consents, accordingly, to recognize that there are things at stake in his work vastly more important than the comforts or the financial enrichment or the career advancement of any single individual— unless one can do these things, then, my friends, I can give no assurance whatsoever that the strains and drawbacks of the Foreign Service life are ever going to find their compensation.

George Frost Kennan (1904-2005), scholar, diplomat and historian, is perhaps best known for his role in developing U.S. foreign policy in the immediate aftermath of World War II. In response to a State Department request for an explanation of Soviet behavior in early 1946, Kennan traced the basic features, background and prospects of Soviet foreign policy and the implications for American policy in a memo now known as the “Long Telegram.” The most famous of all his writings, “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” was published in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs under the authorship of “X.” In that article, Kennan outlined the policy of “containment” that would guide U.S. relations with the Soviet Union for the next four decades.

During a distinguished Foreign Service career from 1926 to 1953, Kennan served in Geneva, Hamburg, Tallinn, Riga and, later, Prague, Berlin, Lisbon and London. In 1933, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt recognized the Soviet Union, Kennan accompanied the new ambassador, William C. Bullitt Jr., to establish the embassy in Moscow, serving there for four years. In July 1944, he returned to Moscow as Ambassador Averell Harriman’s deputy chief of mission. Subsequently, he served as director of the Policy Planning Staff in the Department of State from 1947 to 1949, ambassador to the USSR in 1952 and ambassador to Yugoslavia from 1961 to 1963.

Kennan retired from the Foreign Service in 1953, and in 1956 joined the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, where he taught, researched and wrote for the rest of his life. His first book, American Diplomacy, 1900–1950 (1951), was praised on both literary and historiographical grounds, and he won Pulitzer Prizes for two later works, Russia Leaves the War (1956) and Memoirs: 1925–1950 (1967).

His subsequent publications continued to stir interest because his views, if sometimes out of step with official U.S. policy—including his prediction of the demise of the USSR—were often vindicated by history. Even when they weren’t, he was recognized for having raised the level of public discourse.

Ambassador Kennan served as president of AFSA from 1950 to 1951. This piece, excerpted from a speech he delivered at AFSA on March 30, 1961, was published in The Foreign Service Reader (AFSA, 1997). The full transcript of the speech was published in the May 1961 Foreign Service Journal.