Can Kennan Shake Us Out of Our Strategic Groundhog Day?

November 9, 2015

Since World War II, the United States has entered into many situations with military force from which it has never left. The country still maintains forces in Europe and Japan. It participates in United Nations peacekeeping missions, one of which started in 1948 and is still ongoing. The United States military continues to be in South Korea (since 1950), Iraq and Afghanistan. The United States left Vietnam by choice, but not because it gained its national security goals. Now the United States is contemplating entry into Syria and President Obama has just authorized the use of special forces there.

The country’s national security seems to be stuck in time. Sure, there is movement around the edges: New tactics, technical capabilities, reorganizations, slogans and buzzwords come and go. But, does anything fundamentally or significantly change? For Phil, Bill Murray’s character in the movie Groundhog Day, the day finally ended when he shifted his preconception about what he thought was important in life. If we follow his lead and change a fundamental preconception about national security, can we break out of our own strategic Groundhog Day?

A Preconceived Purpose of Warfare

Shortly after writing the famous Long Telegram in 1946, George Kennan was assigned to the National War College as an instructor of strategic-political studies. While in this role, he wrote:

The precedents of our Civil War, and of the war with Spain, and of our participation in the two world wars of this century, had created not only in the minds of our soldiers and sailors but in the minds of many of our people an unspoken assumption that the normal objective of warfare was the total destruction of the enemy’s ability and will to resist and his unconditional capitulation. The rest, it was always assumed, was easy. This sort of victory placed you in a position to command total obedience on the part of the defeated adversary; it thus opened the way to the unhindered realization of your political objectives, whatever they might be.

It seemed to me that in each of the two world wars, the application of it, while successful in immediate military sense, had complicated — very gravely indeed — the problems of the peace.

This concept of unconditional surrender, described by Kennan over six decades ago, divorces military application of force from winning the peace. It assumes that one need only understand the threat and figure out how to defeat it. Then, not only is winning the peace “easy,” but it is a separate problem for others to solve. This approach gives rise to strategic concepts whose purpose is to defeat an enemy or neutralize a threat, not win a durable political victory. In fact, as Kennan pointed out in a 1967 article that discussed the origins of the Marshall Plan, to bring favorable political stability to post-World War II Western Europe, the use of military force could be entirely counterproductive:

We thought that the dispatch of American forces to any of these threatened areas would, in fact, be self-defeating. The idea of strategic bombing as a weapon against communist infiltration and subversion would have been strange to us. What seemed to us desirable was to stimulate and encourage the rise of indigenous political resistance to communist pressures in the threatened countries. We believed that unless the people and governments of those countries operating through their own political systems, could be induced to pick up the great burden of this load, success was not likely. For us to attempt to carry that burden would have effects — such as the paralysis of local initiative and responsibility, or the negative impact which a great foreign presence inevitably has on the natives of a country — which would tend to defeat the purpose of the undertaking.

The Marshall Plan was right for its time and circumstance. As an approach, it is not a panacea to all problems, nor should we infer from the above example that the United States should never use military force — that all depends on the situation at the time. Nevertheless, our strategies should always start by defining and understanding what it means to win the peace. We can use this understanding to come up with and evaluate strategies, approaches and resourcing. Our strategy and tactics must be judged by how they contribute to or complicate winning the peace, not by how effectively or efficiently they defeat or neutralize a threat. In Kennan’s example above, winning the peace was defined as “stimulat[ing] and encourage[ing] the indigenous political resistance to communist subversion.” He evaluated options by analyzing how they would support this objective. The strategy would have been quite different if the goal were to “unconditionally defeat the communist threat.”

Implementing this change in concept would not be easy. It is disruptive to our training, planning and execution across the policy and legislative communities and in all of the departments and agencies. It is a different way of thinking, not an organizational fix. It intimates a unity of action where appropriate power is used and coordinated to create, rather than using all elements of national power to defeat. A place for this thinking does need to exist. Kennan was the first director of the State Department Policy Planning Staff, and it was there that his new way of thinking was formulated:

…it was to the filling of the need for a new rationale of foreign policy that the staff was obliged to direct its efforts over the three years that I held the position.

However, it was not the organization that made this new way of thinking work. It was what and how they worked that made it successful:

What we really tried to do in the Policy Planning Staff was to evolve a workable concept of American foreign policy in the given conditions. With one possible exception — that of Colonel House’s so called “Inquiry” of 1918, designed to help Woodrow Wilson in his confrontation with the problems of the peace conference — our labor constituted, I suppose, the first consistent effort of this nature ever conducted over a prolonged period of time by a single group of responsible people within government.

Today, the U.S. national security community should study the methods and approaches used by Kennan’s group. What training, expertise and experience did they have? What methods did they use? How did they think about things? From this study, we should create a new policy guidance process to be adopted by the National Security  Staff and the State Department’s Policy Planning Staff. It should fill positions in those organizations with candidates who have the right expertise and background to use the new policy planning process. With the guidance from this group using the new process, approved by the president, we can shift our thinking and approaches to national security. The U.S. government can change its tactics, capabilities and organizations all it wants, but without the right strategy, we are doomed to relive our days over and over again.

Sun Tzu said, “Strategy without tactics is the slowest route to victory. Tactics without strategy is the noise before defeat.” If we can drive our strategic thinking with a new concept based on creating a durable political victory rather than the unconditional tactical defeat of a threat, then we might be more like Phil and break out of our own strategic Groundhog Day.


Kevin McCarty was a career Naval Officer, after which he served at the Central Intelligence Agency and on the National Security Council staff under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama. He also served as the lead staffer on the 2010 Independent Congressional Quadrennial Defense Review sub-panel on strategy.