24 February 2016

The United States needs a new Long Telegram. But from where?

February 22, 2016

George F. Kennan arrived in Kyoto, Japan, and was greeted by Maj. Gen. Joseph M. Swing, Commanding General I Corps, Kyoto and Brig. Gen. Eugene L. Harrison on March 6, 1948. 

Today marks the 70th anniversary of diplomat George F. Kennan’s Long Telegram, a missive he sent from his post in Moscow to explain Soviet intentions to a perplexed and confused State Department in the postwar era. That telegram — which eventually was converted into Kennan’s “Sources of Soviet Conduct” essay in Foreign Affairs — had a dramatic effect on how U.S. policy principals thought about American foreign policy toward the Soviet Union.

Which raises an interesting question: From where in the world right now could the United States use another Long Telegram?

The first thing to understand about the Long Telegram is the role that luck and technology played in its impact. As John Lewis Gaddis chronicles in “George F. Kennan: An American Life,” Kennan had grown increasingly frustrated in Moscow. Six months before drafting the Long Telegram, he had submitted his resignation because he felt his warnings were being ignored (though Kennan is regarded now as the wisest of the Wise Man, he was also a diva of the first order).

The only reason the telegram had the impact it did was because it came as U.S. foreign policy decision-makers realized a rethink of Soviet policy was in order. President Harry Truman believed Secretary of State James Byrnes had been too accommodating toward Russia, and a rationale for what to do instead was needed. As Kennan told Gaddis:

Six months earlier this message would probably have been received by the Department of State with raised eyebrows and lips pursed in disapproval. Six months later, it probably would have sounded redundant, a sort of preaching to the convinced. This was true despite the fact that the realities which it described were ones that had existed, substantially unchanged, for about a decade, and would continue to exist for more than a half-decade longer.

Kennan’s use of technology — the telegram itself — also enhanced its impact. It was the longest telegram ever sent in State Department history. Had Kennan used the diplomatic pouch instead — standard operating procedure for a missive of more than 5,000 words — it would have had to advance a long, hard slog up Foggy Bottom’s chain of command. Instead, by abusing Foggy Bottom protocol on brevity in telegrams, Kennan sent something that the secretary of state, secretary of the Navy and Truman quickly devoured.

The lesson of the Long Telegram is that wisdom and perspicacity are not enough to make a diplomatic difference. Timing matters. So does marketing. We know that the U.S. diplomatic corps is loaded with sage observers, so that’s not the issue. It’s about the timing.

So, back to the question: From where does the United States need a new Long Telegram?

This requires a place where the U.S. foreign policy community is ripe for a rethink — a place that is both important and where the status quo thinking seems radically insufficient. I don’t think Russia or China qualifies here. The rethink of the reset has already occurred toward Moscow, and U.S. policy toward China is in pretty good shape no matter how many times Donald Trump says China. The Iran deal is too fresh for a rethink to be possible. North Korea is vexing, but as the United States has no diplomats in Pyongyang, unfortunately, that telegram won’t happen.

No, if there’s a place I want to see a Long Telegram from, it’s Saudi Arabia. Last week in the Atlantic, Sarah Chayes and (my Fletcher School colleague) Alex DeWaal offered up quite the warning about the protector of Mecca and Medina:

Saudi Arabia is no state at all. There are two ways to describe it: as a political enterprise with a clever but ultimately unsustainable business model, or as an entity so corrupt as to resemble a vertically and horizontally integrated criminal organization. Either way, it can’t last. It’s past time U.S. decision-makers began planning for the collapse of the Saudi kingdom….

The United States keeps getting caught off-guard when purportedly solid countries come apart. To do better this time, U.S. military and intelligence officials should at the very least, and immediately, run some rigorous planning exercises to test different scenarios and potential actions aimed at reducing codependence and mitigating risk. They should work hard to identify the most likely, and most dangerous, regional outcomes of a Saudi collapse—or the increasingly desperate efforts of its rulers to avoid one. And above all, they should abandon the automatic-pilot thinking that has been guiding U.S. policy to date.

I’d offer three observations on Chayes and DeWaal’s essay. The first is that I heard similar dire warnings about Saudi stability the last time I was in the region. Indeed, there’s been a steady drumbeat of this kind of warning for some time. That is the second observation; warnings like this have been made about the House of Saud for decades. So collapse might not be just around the corner.

This leads, in turn, to the last observation: It would be good to get a sense of just how precarious the Saudi family’s grip on power is, how that will inform the kingdom’s foreign policy, and what the United States should do in response. And I suspect that this is a country where the Obama administration, even in its last year, could use some fresh thinking.

So if you’re reading this in Riyadh, and work for the State Department, start working on your tweetstorm or Medium post now please.

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