GEORGE KENNAN ON HIS HUGO CHAVEZ PROBLEM & OURS
"Latin American society lives, by and large, by a species of make-believe: not the systemized, purposeful make-believe of Russian communism, but a highly personalized, anarchical make-believe, in which each individual spins around him, like a cocoon, his own little world of pretense, and demands its recognition by others as the condition of his participation in the social process. Confronted with this phenomenon, many non-Latin American diplomatists first pause in dismay; for they see that only by accepting it can they achieve many of their purposes. Yet to plunge deeply into it, as many finally do, is to lose one’s self in a sort of Alice’s Wonderland, where normal relations between cause and effect have lost their validity, where nothing may be judged on its actual merits, where no idea has more than a relative integrity, where real things receive recognition only by their relation to the diseased and swollen human ego, where nothing is ever wholly finished because things are never more than symbols and there is no end to the those things which are the objects of the symbols. Here for the sensitive foreigner, there are only three forms of escape: cynicism, participation, or acute unhappiness. Most foreign representatives find refuge in a combination of all three.”
George F. Kennan, 29 March A. D. 1950, in PPS [Policy Planning Staff] Files, Lot 64 D 563. National Archives, Washington, D.C. [copy in my possession].
According to both the New York Times and the Financial Times, the candidature of Venezuela to the United Nations Security Council appears well on the way to being defeated. Notwithstanding the grand noise (if one wishes to call it that), that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez made at the United Nation’s back in September of this year when he addressed the General Assembly. The highlight of that speech being when he characterized the current American President, Mr. Bush, as being associated with the prince of darkness….Similarly, it appears that Mr. Chavez’s candidate in the Presidential elections in Ecuador is also in the process of losing the elections to a ‘pro-American’ billionaire (see: www.nytimes.com & www.ft.com). So, in the light of these two facts, as well as the recent loses of pro-Chavez (Peru), or pro-Leftist (Mexico) Presidential candidates, it can be safely assumed I think that the ‘Chavez wave’, in Latin American politics has for now run its course. That being said, I think that looking at the problems of Latin America, which for a variety of reasons (mostly good) tend to be a bit of a back number, in International politics, since 1945, in a more historical perspective, might, just might allow us to look at the antics of Monsieur Chavez, a provincial, second-rate, trumped-up demagogue, in a more proper light.
For that exercise, I am going to go back to some observations of perhaps the greatest, certainly the most illuminating and discerning American diplomat of the second quarter of the twentieth century, Mr. George Frost Kennan (for perhaps the three best books dealing with George Kennan, see: David A. Mayers, Walter Hixson, and Wilson Miscamble, all to be supercede when the authorized biography by John Lewis Gaddis comes out). Without a doubt the maitre of ‘realist’ thought as it pertains to 20th century diplomatic history, as well as the (misnamed) ‘father’ of the American, Cold War policy of ‘Containment’, Kennan’s thinking on American relations and interaction with Latin American has much to say to us today (on the concept of ‘realism’ in International relations theory and practice, see the various works by Raymond Aron, Hans J. Morgenthau, as well as Kenneth Waltz, Richard Ned Lebow among others, on Kennan’s tangled and less than happy relations with the Cold War American policy of Containment, see the various biographies cited above, as well as Gaddis’ various books dealing with the same period).
In the case of Latin America, Kennan’s observations were based upon one single experience: that of a two month visit to various countries in the continent, in the Spring of 1950, when he assumed the exalted (if relatively un-influential) position of ‘Counselor’ at the American State Department. As he noted at the time, in a cover letter to his report to then Secretary of State, Dean Acheson:
“I would not want it thought that I am over-rating this sort of a ‘Cook’s Tour’, as a basis for judgment, or that this report purports to represent a ‘study’ of Latin America….We must have some [emphasis in the original] opinions, well-founded or otherwise; and mine are presumably not less valuable by virtue of the fact that the trip enabled me to devote more time and thought to these matters than would ever have been possible in Washington.”
(For the above & the report see: PPS Files, op cit above).
As per Kennan’s later Memoirs, the reaction of the Department to his observations was one of ‘great shock’. So much so, that the Secretary of State ordered that the all copies of the report be “locked away and hidden from innocent eyes" (see Memoirs, 1925-1950, pp. 479-480). Notwithstanding the above, and the fact that the ‘locked away’ report never had any influence on American or other policy vis-`a-vis Latin America, that per se does not gainsay its cogency both for its time and for ours as well. In particular, the most interesting aspects of Kennan’s report is how well he qualifies and separates out the wheat and the chaff of national interest, and, dare one say it, grossmachtpolitik from mere humbug and rhetoric. Those latter two being the standard bearers of American public policy in the last One hundred and Eighty years or so. As Kennan notes much in the way of American policy towards its Southern neighbors were based upon confusion about ‘the nature of the importance to us of Latin America’ [emphasis in the original]. The issue was not of one of ‘bases, since Latin America offers little in this respect which could be of serious interest’. Noting that:
“In these days, when apprehension of Soviet military expansion assume such fantastic forms, we would do well to remember that not even the Russians can create military strength where the essential components of that strength , in manpower, in industrial background and in native leadership are lacking”.For Kennan, the sine qua non of Latin America's importance was two fold: one as a source of raw materials, and secondly as a matter of diplomatic psychology worldwide. Observing that: “more importantly [than raw materials] in the extent to which the attitudes of the Latin American peoples may influence the general political trend in the international community”. Following from the above, and following from the fact as he put it, that ‘with the possible exception of Guatemala,’ Communism was not a threat in the Southern Hemisphere, Kennan opined that:
“I think that this country should feel itself in a position to view indulgently such proclivities of the Latin American countries in the multilateral field as do not directly affect its own immediate and important interests.”
Following from which is a key statement that Kennan makes and which needs repetition, time and again, when one is dealing with verbose, populist demagogues, like Hugo Chavez. The worse possible reaction that one can have is to take them at their own measure. That is of course exactly what they would like for the great, outside powers to do. As Kennan clearly states, the most fundamental truth of the American policy vis-`a-vis Latin America, is that:
“It is important for us to keep before ourselves and the Latin American peoples at all times the reality of the thesis that we are a great power; that we are by and large much less in need of them than they are in need of us; that we are entirely prepared to leave to themselves those who evince no particular desire for the forms of collaboration that we have to offer; that the danger of a failure to exhaust the possibilities of our mutual relationship is always greater to them than to us; that we can afford to wait, patiently and good naturedly; and that we are more concerned to be respected than to be liked or understood.”Something as I said needs to be endlessly repeated over and over again, as characters such as Chavez et, al. decide to foul the air with their style of rhetoric. Nota bene: in reality, just as in Kennan’s time, aside from the psychological dynamic, the nature of American (indeed any other power’s) interest in Latin America can be said to revolve around the procurement of raw materials which in the absence of a severe and drastic return of mercantilism, and economic autarchy, is something to be obtained via the open market. Something that Peking has learned quite well. With the caveat of course that if autarchy were to return then proximity (read the USA) rather than cash (read the PRC) will rule the day. In the case of the United States the other admittedly minor issues that come to the fore vis-`a-vis Latin America are of course the migration of dirt-poor, illegal aliens and problems relating to the same (for a worrisome development in the migration of semi-militarized, criminal drug gangs, north of the Rio Grande River, see: “Mexico’s Cartel Wars: The threat beyond the U.S. Border,” in www.stratfor.com). For the rest of it, as Kennan notes cogently most of the ‘deep’, id est, structural problems in the Braudelian sense of the word of the Southern American continent, deny easy solution, and we will conclude our ‘Latin American’ issue on the following :
“It seems to me unlikely that there could be any other region of the earth in which nature and human behavior could have combined to produce a more unhappy and hopeless background for the conduct of human life than in Latin America. As for nature, one is struck at once with the way in which South America is the reverse of our own North American continent from the standpoint of its merits as a human habitat. North America is broad and ample in those temperate regions which are most suitable to human life. As once moves southward into the subtropical zones, it tapers off to the narrow and mountainous Isthmus, which is a part of Latin America. South America, on the other hand, is wide and vast in those portions of it which are close to the equator and least suited to human habitation, and it is the temperate zone into which the continent narrows at its southern extremity, pinching off with a fateful abruptness the possibilities for a vigorous and hopeful development of human society. In North America, the Mississippi drains and serves the great basin of fertility which is the heart of the continent. The Amazon, on the other hand, reaches great fingers into a region singularly hostile to human activity. In North America, the great country stands in the center of the continent is highly developed, with a dense network of communications, and is well developed, with a dense network of communications, and is well qualified to act as a bond for the continent as a whole. In South America, the great pathless expanse of central Brazil, around the periphery of the which the other countries are arranged, acts rather as a barrier to their mutual access and communication….
Against this unfavorable geographical background, which would have yielded only to the most progressive and happy of human approaches, humanity superimposed a series of events unfortunate and tragic almost beyond anything ever know to human history. The Spaniards came to Latin America as the bearers of a national and cultural development which was itself nearing its end; a development in which many of the more hopeful origins had already died and little was left but religious fanaticism, a burning, frustrated energy, and an addiction to the most merciless cruelty. To those portions of the New World where an Indian civilization was already in existence, they came like men from Mars: terrible, merciless conquerors—the bearers of some divine punishment—whose sympathy and understanding could never be enlisted for local traditions or institutions, and to whom the only possible relationship was one of tragic and total submission, involving the abandonment of all prior attachments and customs.
Human history, it seems to me, bears no record of anything more terrible ever having done to entire peoples. The shock to the national consciousness was profound and irreparable. Here, something violently broken which was essential to the hopeful development of human society; and the effects of that terrible rupture was destined to endure through the generations, to a point in time which we cannot clearly foresee. Here is the true illustration of the crimes of the fathers being visited on their progeny: for as the Spaniards intermarried with these native peoples the course of whose history had so ruthlessly been interrupted, they came to share the scars and weaknesses which they had themselves inflicted.
Elsewhere in Latin America, the large scale importation of Negro slave elements into considerable parts of the Spanish and other colonial empires, and the extensive intermarriage of all these elements, produced other unfortunate results which seemed to have weighed scarcely less heavily on the chances for human progress….
These bitter realities are ones, which people cannot face fully constantly. Human nature, with its insistence that life must go on, represses the consciousness of these things, turns away from them in healthy revulsion, and seeks to balance them out by over-compensation. Thus the inordinate splendor and pretense of the Latin American cities can be no other than an attempt to compensate for the wretchedness and the squalor of the hinterlands from which they spring. And, in the realm of individual personality, this subconscious recognition of the failure of group effort fids its expression in an exaggerated self-centeredness and egotism—in a pathetic urge to create illusion of desperate courage, supreme cleverness, an a limited virility where the more constructive virtues are so conspicuously lacking”.