Friday, 31 March 2023 to Sunday, 2 April 2023

“Geopolitics of Sympathy”: George F. Kennan and NATO Enlargement

Fri31  Mar03:30pm(15 mins)
Senate Room
Dr Kaarel Piirimae


Kaarel Piirimae1
1 University of Helsinki, Finland


In light of the dramatic escalation of the Russian war on Ukraine, questions concerning the handling of Russia in the post-Cold War era, the enlargement of NATO in particular, have become timelier than ever. This paper discusses the latent geopolitical assumptions in the debate over NATO enlargement by scrutinizing George F. Kennan’s views and perceptions of Russia and the region affected by the opening of NATO. The paper is based on an extensive reading of Kennan's personal papers, archives of the Clinton administration, and other relevant government archives. The paper suggests that Kennan's so-called "realism" is understandable only in conjunction with his perception of the internal developments inside Russia and of his imagination of the other players in the region. His "realism" dependend on how his personal connections to places and people meshed with his ideas about desirable international order, in short, with his "geopolitics of sympathy". It is argued that Kennan became an advocate for a Russian sphere of influence because in his imagination Russia was not an aggressive power but an essentially peaceful country, a liberal empire of the times of Anton Chekhov. Kennan’s contention that intuition and reasoning was superior to expert knowledge also revealed a gap between what the public and what governments perceived as relevant expertise, raising questions about the basis of decisions on important foreign-policy issues, such as NATO enlargement.