Sean Speer: We need a ‘long telegram’ on the growing great power competition

Kennan's memo came to shape America’s Cold War strategy for the next 40 years
British Prime Minister Winston Churchill, U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt and Soviet Premier Josef Stalin sit on the patio of Livadia Palace, Yalta, Crimea. AP Photo

At 3:52 p.m. on February 22, 1946, an incoming diplomatic cable from Moscow was received by the State Department in Washington. It was addressed to Secretary of State James F. Byrnes, who had previously been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941 but resigned after just 465 days because he couldn’t resist the pull of politics.

Byrnes is a highly underrated figure in post-WWII historiography. After serving in various senior bureaucratic roles during World War II (which earned him the unofficial title “assistant president”), there was an expectation that Byrnes would be Roosevelt’s running mate in the 1944 presidential election. Yet politics ultimately prevailed and Roosevelt instead chose Harry Truman.

Soon after Roosevelt’s untimely death and Truman’s swearing-in as president, Byrnes was appointed secretary of state and had tremendous scope to shape America’s post-WWII foreign policy including attending the Yalta Conference with Roosevelt and subsequently attending the Potsdam Conference and Paris Conference with Truman. He was a major figure in American strategizing about post-war geopolitical arrangements including the U.S. relationship with the Soviet Union. For these efforts, he was named Time Magazine’s Man of the Year in 1947.

The incoming cable back in February 1946 helped to inform and shape Byrnes’ thinking on geopolitics in general and the Soviet Union in particular. It was drafted by a senior diplomat and Sovietologist named George Kennan who had grown frustrated by his perceived lack of influence with the Truman Administration. His 5,363-word memorandum to the secretary of state was a last-ditch effort to urge him to abandon any hopes of America-Soviet cooperation and instead to see the relationship through the lens of a new economic, geopolitical, and ideological rivalry.

As he wrote:

“…we have here a political force [Soviet communism] committed fanatically to the belief that with U.S. there can be no permanent modus vivendi that it is desirable and necessary that the internal harmony of our society be disrupted, our traditional way of life be destroyed, the international authority of our state be broken, if Soviet power is to be secure.”

In light of this, Kennan called for a systematic response that recognized the Soviet threat represented the “greatest task our diplomacy has ever faced and probably greatest it will ever have to face.”

We’re missing a Kennanian strategy for how we engage China in the post-pandemic age.

Kennan’s memorandum, which famously became known as the “long telegram”, outlined a new, comprehensive strategy for managing relations with the Soviet Union. He later published an abbreviated version in Foreign Affairs magazine under the pseudonym “X.” The two documents came to fundamentally shape America’s Cold War strategy for the subsequent 40 years.

Kennan’s thinking and strategizing had such profound influence for three main reasons. The first is it was hard-headed yet empathetic. He sought to put himself in the mind of Soviet leaders and the country’s population to understand the impulses and objectives that would guide Soviet policymaking and the relationship between the day-to-day lives of ordinary citizens and the state apparatus.

The second is he was systematic. At the time of his writing, there was emerging thinking about the West’s economic relationship with Soviet Union, its defence and national security positioning vis-à-vis the Soviets, and questions about geopolitics and the future of Europe. Yet too much of this strategizing was siloed and disconnected. Kennan implored western policymakers and strategists to bring them together in a systematic strategy for the Cold War.

The third was timeliness. It was clear by the time of his writing that World War II collaboration with the Soviets would be replaced by a growing ideological and geopolitical rivalry. (Winston Churchill would deliver his famous “iron curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri, just 11 days after Kennan’s memo reached Washington.) His memo arrived at a crucial time as policymakers were coming to realize the scope and the nature of the forthcoming challenge. Kennan armed them with a strategic framework at the precise moment that they needed one.

We could sure use a modern version of the long telegram today as the U.S.-China geopolitical rivalry intensifies and the threat of a new Cold War looms. While there’s a growing consensus that western countries need to rethink their economic and political relationships with China, there’s far less agreement on the goals, purpose and tactics of a new strategy. As Princeton University professor Aaron Friedberg has put it: “We’re now running behind [the evolving U.S.-China relationship] trying to figure out exactly what we want it to look like.”

The immediate impetus for these fast-moving developments is the COVID-19 pandemic and a growing view that the Chinese government’s cloak-and-dagger handling of the virus contributed to its global explosion and the resulting public health and economic crisis. But the truth is the West’s relationship with China has been increasingly fraught for several years. A combination of economic, geopolitical, technological, and human rights considerations has caused western policymakers and their populations to revisit basic assumptions about the relationship.

The previous strategy, which presupposed that leaning into economic cooperation in the form of expanded trade and investment would lead to a combination of greater prosperity and democratic reform, has shown itself to be a spectacular failure. China got richer but it produced a significant “shock” to certain industries and workers in western economies and the promised political liberalization never transpired. President Xi’s China is now more ruthlessly and efficiently authoritarian than it was at the start of the century.

Donald Trump’s shocking election in 2016 was due in part to his willingness to call out this failure. Now everyone from former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers to former Speaker Paul Ryan basically concedes as much.

It’s a remarkable reversal from the optimism with which we began this century. The Canadian government at the time was among the biggest boosters of the view that China’s transition from communism to something approximating market economics represented both an enormous opportunity for western businesses to leverage China’s low-cost workforce and massive domestic market as well as the geopolitical prospects of its full partnership in global governance.

Those assumptions were predicated on Korea’s history of development which saw a correlation between growing household wealth and democratization as well as the collapse of the Soviet Union which started with glasnost and ended in perestroika.

The tools of statecraft will necessarily be different than in the Cold War.

This became in academic, business and political circles a universalist theory that foresaw a predestined relationship between rising GDP per capita and burgeoning democracy. Yet China’s real-life experience hasn’t conformed to this overdetermined theory. Instead it’s once again shown that history isn’t History — a proper noun reflecting autonomous forces unfolding to an inner logic — but rather a matter of individual and collective choices. Western leaders forgot this crucial insight. They somewhat ironically proved to be more Marxist than China’s communists.

The question, of course, is what comes next?

We need a modern version of the long telegram to fully and properly answer it. We’re missing a Kennanian strategy for how we engage China in the post-pandemic age.

This is particularly important for Canada which has already experienced the profound challenges of being stuck in the middle of a growing “great power competition” between the U.S. and China. A protracted, zero-sum conflict between its first and third largest trading partners will necessarily have far-reaching consequences for Canada’s economic and geopolitical interests.

It’s not quite correct, by the way, to describe the U.S.-China rivalry as a new Cold War. The two countries are much more economically integrated than was the case with the Soviet Union. Their rivalry is also less about ideological conflict and more about technological competition in strategic areas such as artificial intelligence, biopharma, and semi-conductors. That these technologies tend to have both commercial and military applications only reinforces the seriousness and urgency. Former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence has called it a battle for the “commanding heights of the 21st century economy.”

The tools of statecraft will therefore necessarily be different than in the Cold War. A technology-based competition will require serious and practical thinking about, among other things, supply chains, intellectual property, basic and industrial research, foreign investment, free trade, and cybersecurity. It will be less about vanquishing the other side and instead more about staying ahead in an ongoing technological race.

The policy and governance implications for Canada are significant. Recent essays for The Hub by famed foreign policy expert Janice Stein, Macdonald-Laurier Institute scholar Balkan Devlen, former Religious Freedom Ambassador Andrew Bennett, and anti-money laundering expert Matthew Grills outlined various considerations for Canadian policymakers.

What’s interesting though is that as much as Kennan’s long telegram was focused on policy and governance questions, his key recommendations were mostly about our own social cohesion, community vitality, and civic confidence. As he wrote:

“Much depends on health and vigor of our own society. World communism is like malignant parasite which feeds only on diseased tissue. This is the point at which domestic and foreign policies meet. Every courageous and incisive measure to solve internal problems of our own society, to improve self-confidence, discipline, morale and community spirit of our own people, is a diplomatic victory over Moscow worth a thousand diplomatic notes and joint communiqués. If we cannot abandon fatalism and indifference in face of deficiencies of our own society, Moscow will profit.”

This is a key insight: although foreign policy issues tend to be highly contingent, there’s nothing stopping us from trying to “solve internal problems of our own society.” Recommitting ourselves to the aspirational goals of growth, dynamism, and a renewed sense of collective purpose is squarely within our purview.

It turns out that the best way to navigate the tumultuous world of post-pandemic geopolitics is the same thing we need to do to address the growing pessimism and polarization in our society. Basically we need a narrative and vision to overcome what New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has called “decadence” and to replace it with something perhaps approximating what American conservative writers David Brooks and Bill Kristol once referred to as “greatness.”

A “national greatness” agenda may be too grandiose. The Hub contributor Howard Anglin, for instance, has written in favour of more modest ambitions. But the key point here is that, as Kennan notes, we must reject fatalism and indifference and instead recognize that we have greater control over our destiny than we often realize. As he put it in his memo: “I would like to record my conviction that [the Soviet] problem is within our power to solve.”

Many experts agree that the U.S.-China geopolitical and technological rivalry will likely shape the rest of this century. How countries such as Canada navigate this new world will be the key question facing their political leaders in the coming years. It should start with a plan to get us out of decadence. A modern-day George Kennan and his long telegram would help too.

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