George F. Kennan in 1947 – Public Domain
By Narupat Rattanakit
George F. Kennan, the architect of America’s containment policy towards the Soviet Union, never considered Southeast Asia of strategic importance to the United States. Kennan sought neutrality in the region to focus on prioritizing more pressing interests like the Korean Peninsula. Although Kennan is primarily associated with containing Soviet influence in Europe, his insights in the Far East region provide a modern lesson to U.S. policy toward Southeast Asia.
The United States should adopt a strategy of restraint, drawing from Kennan’s limited view of security interests in Asia. To apply this approach, the United States must recognize the contrary interests and strategic limits of alliances in Southeast Asia and address the region’s complexities effectively where Southeast Asian states are overly and subtly hedging.
Kennan was a strong advocate of diplomacy due to his realist interpretation of military power, arguing in his famous 1947 “Long Telegram” that the Soviet Union was inherently expansionist and could not be trusted to coexist peacefully with the West. He nonetheless maintained a cautious approach, encouraging a patient but firm containment of Russia by focusing on carefully defined strategic interests. In other words, the U.S. should contain Soviet power into key national security interests like nodes of global trade or energy security until communism collapses under the weight of its own internal contradictions.
This approach was instrumental in shaping American grand strategy over the course of the Cold War era. George Kennan was “much at odds with those people who emphasized military methods” like Paul Nitze, who wanted to use military and hard power anywhere the Soviets expanded. Kennan, however, thought some areas were not important enough to be prioritized, particularly Southeast Asia. Kennan suggested demilitarizing Southeast Asia and pursuing its neutrality based on his assessment of its peripheral strategic importance.
Kennan prioritized Northeastern Asia, particularly Japan, because “no communist are going to make major military-industrial powers out of the Southeast Asian countries in any short space of time.” He also believed that a Communist regime in the region would “more likely play Moscow and Beijing off each other than be a puppet of either.” This prediction materialized with the Sino-Soviet split in the late 1960s and the Chinese invasion of Vietnam in the late 1970s.
In Kennan’s view, the mainland of East Asia, including China, was not strategically important to the United States even if Southeast Asia were Communist. Instead, Kennan believed that the United States should focus on the offshore islands as the forward line of defense. Therefore, he believed that Japan was the only strategically consequential power in East Asia.
In Southeast Asia, Kennan did not see the region as a strategic priority because he understood that countries within the region valued neutrality. His opposition to U.S. involvement in Vietnam was informed by its history as a former French colony more interested in gaining its independence than spreading the ideology of Communism.
Kennan ultimately undervalued the economic potential and strategic relevance of Southeast Asia, as the region would grow as an industrial center faster than he implied. This realist perspective on undermining rivals informed strategic thinking until the Vietnam war when Kennan’s realist perspective on partners was ignored. Kennan accurately identified the risk involved in dealing with mercurial friends and allies in Southeast Asia and beyond, and this perspective is important to informing modern U.S. policy in Southeast Asia.
In 1964, Kennan described how the United States was increasingly tied to the weaknesses of allies, forced to spend resources to cover for “their domestic political ambitions, their inefficiencies, their blind spots, their internal rivalries and divisions, their ulterior commitments.” In 1964, the United States was increasingly investing in South Vietnam, a growing perspective that South Vietnam was losing and the war was unwinnable.
Alliance management has become a key concern in the unipolar era, with criticism toward American security commitments in Europe, the Middle East and more. Kennan distrusted the American military presence in South Vietnam and would later advocate American military withdrawal and political retreat from Southeast Asia. Kennan’s concern about the challenges and risks of relying on East Asian governments would prove accurate, but conditions changed that he could not have predicted.
Southeast Asia’s rise as an industrial and financial hub, accompanied by normalized relations with China, determined that the long-run U.S. strategic retreat from the region was neither feasible nor conducive to U.S. interest. Nevertheless, his conviction that “during times of war, the government should not lose sight of concrete political objectives” must also be applicable to times of heightened tension.
The United States needs to be calculated in order to maintain strategic interests in Southeast Asia. Aside from Vietnam, almost all countries within the region want a neutral foreign policy with limited alignment to competing superpowers where governments can have room to adjust their positions as conditions evolve.
Kennan may have a different interpretation of Southeast Asian states today, given how the region evolved since the creation of ASEAN in 1967 and the shift of global industrial capacity to East Asia. Southeast Asian countries have experienced a growth of institutional capacity, both within the intergovernmental organization and beyond with ASEAN-led architectures in Asia-Pacific.
Kennan’s realist view that Japan was the only American national security interest in Asia and pursuit of disengagement from Southeast Asia offers a striking contrast to the perspective that has dominated American policymaking since his retirement from government life in 1963. Idealism and primacy have created an ineffective and ambivalent U.S. policy to Southeast Asia with highly inconsistent commitments to the region. Embracing Kennan’s realism requires an analytical assessment of the interests of Southeast Asian countries and clear expressions of what America can offer in the short-term and expect from partners in the long-term.
Cold War solutions to great power competition are no longer possible. The United States can not effectively replace China’s influence in the region. Instead, America should pursue their national interests through engagement with each Southeast Asian state utilizing greater diplomatic, economic, and non-military security related engagements.
Southeast Asia will remain a challenge in American foreign policy unless policymakers are willing to “measure up to its own best traditions.” Kennan championed humility, acknowledging the considerable constraints on the United States’ ability to improve the world. Such caution should be applied to Southeast Asia in its critical role in the strategically significant Indo-Pacific.
Narupat Rattanakit is a Master’s student at American University studying the U.S. Foreign Policy. Narupat is also a writer for the Realist Review and a Research Fellow at the Pericles Institute. He is currently interning as a Consulting Intern at Deloitte.