(First appeared on February 06, 2021)
In the past 20 years, I have brought up The Long Telegram by George Kennan more than a dozen times. Kennan was the Deputy Chief of Mission of the United States to the USSR from 1944 to 1946. His telegram and subsequent ‘X’ article which owes its name to the fact that he used the pseudonym ‘Mr X’ defined the contours of the US policy of containment towards the USSR. It was an inflection point in the US post-war foreign policy and a moment that shaped the world we live in.
Now the Atlantic Council has come up with another strategy paper titled “The Longer Telegram”, focused on containing China. It is a fascinating read because it is ostensibly written by an anonymous US expert with first-hand domain knowledge. Anyone even with a nodding acquaintance with the US think tank geography would have nothing but the utmost respect for the council. But this work, while rich in insight and substance, misses one crucial detail. That mimicry seldom produces anything remotely similar to the original. And there is a reason why.
Kennan wrote his famed telegram when he was stationed outside the US, could not disclose his identity, and literally used telegraphy to transmit his message. The same cannot be said of this work. Also, he wrote this telegram when the US and allies had decisively vanquished fascism in Europe. It was time to move on to the next biggest challenge. And in a sense, it was not something new. In the interwar period, a growing chorus had argued that the US focused on the rising threat of bolshevism rather than on Nazism. In many ways, Nazis were doing God’s work by standing up to those awful pinkos. As Hitler bit more than he could chew and Imperial Japan attacked America, the US and the USSR found themselves on the same side of the divide. After the end of the world war, the US would have taken some time to wake up to the Soviet challenge. Kennan’s timely intervention accelerated the fait accompli. Remember, being transmitted through official channels made forgery or manipulation nearly impossible.
The world of today is much different. There is too much white noise in the mix. America’s friends and foes alike are far better placed to push their agendas than anyone in the 1940s. I do not bring up the matter of telegraphy just to be petty. Intercepting telegrams and hacking emails are qualitatively different exercises and can produce different results. In this world connected by hi-tech gadgets and lightning speed internet messaging is not what it used to be. You can have as many drafts and revisions as you like. And there is an app called Telegram created by Russian developers out there. Then the twin spectres of fascism and racism have only just begun raising their ugly heads again. The fight is far from over. And it is a proven lesson of history that of the threats posed by fascism and socialism the former needs a quicker response. In pretending to be humane and civil socialism is reluctant to do anything that brings it bad publicity. Bad publicity, in sharp contrast, is exactly what fascism craves. The notoriety it causes is absolutely on brand. Ergo the difference between Stalin’s patient magpie-like project and Hitler’s stir-crazy adventurism.
That is not all. Word anonymous today reminds us not of undercover officers but a band of online thugs, ranging from hackers, agent provocateurs, and conspiracy theorists like QAnon. And let us hope we haven’t forgotten that merely weeks ago such characters attacked the US Capitol. Modern warfare relies heavily on perception management and we will see in a short while that some are really adept at this game.
Given that the Biden administration is still in its formative phase it goes without saying that the paper was conceived and written during the Trump administration’s time. Yes, the same president Trump who refused to condemn President Putin’s alleged heavy-handed tactics, was personally present in New Delhi when hordes of Hindutva fascists went on a rampage against Muslims, other minorities, and dissidents in the Indian capital. The same former president who still calls the novel coronavirus the China virus and whose secretary of state could only see faults in Democrats and the Chinese Communist Party.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t think the US is in a position to lower its guard against China. Far from it. But the fatalist idea that there is only one potential threat to a country’s security seriously jeopardises the threat perception matrix. Consider this. Among the flags carried by the capitol insurrectionists, there was only one foreign flag and it was not of China. You may not want to lower your guard against China but the notion that it is the only hostile power and its enemies are your bosom brothers only leads you to lower your guard against those some of whom might seriously damage you.
Does it not surprise you at all that the US media that takes its own and every other nation’s leadership to the task, does not spend a few minutes reflecting on this century’s biggest unfolding tragedy in India where a fascistic government is hellbent on destroying the lives of its people and peace in the neighbourhood? We were often told that the US media does not criticise Israel. But that is not true anymore. India is the new sacred cow. Consider this. Recently the famed singer Rihanna, environmental activist Greta Thunberg and the US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ niece Meena Harris came under brutal online attack by the Indian trolls and in some instances state officials and celebrities for sympathising with the protesting farmers, and in the western hemisphere, particularly the US it barely made the news. What is this secret power? Market compulsions can only explain some of this thrall. If a foreign power is censoring your press you deserve an answer. Bear in mind I am not disputing India’s importance. But this strange influence was brought to my notice when ABC decided to prematurely cancel the TV series, Quantico, featuring an Indian lead after it depicted Hindu extremists masterminding a terrorist plot. When you cede this much power to any foreign actor, you stop developing contingencies. A lot can go wrong in India today and it will be a tragedy if America is not prepared for every scenario.
The long and the short of it is that no one, including this scribe, should tell the US how to conduct its foreign policy. What I have tried to do is to flag some serious security issues. Now that the US under the new administration is carrying out policy reviews, perhaps it will not be a bad idea to take these matters into account. History, they say, first repeats itself as a tragedy and then as a farce. Unfortunately, we are witnessing the confluence of these two waves right now.