A map illustration of the “Two Worlds” of 1950 by Robert M. Chapin. Source: manhhai via Flickr, CC2.0

This is the first of three parts of an essay originally published by ICAS, a Chinese government-backed think tank in Washington.

Key takeaways

  • 75 years ago last month, the American diplomat George Kennan published an essay in Foreign Affairs titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct” in which he introduced the strategy of ‘containment’ to the Western world. Kennan advocated the firm containment of Soviet expansionism, which was being advanced under the banner of communism, at every critical strongpoint at which it encroached upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world order.
  • Kennan’s advocacy of containment was based on his reading of the philosophical drivers of the Soviet Union’s postwar foreign policy worldview. Moscow viewed the capitalist system of production to be nefarious and exploitative, innately antagonistic to socialism and in need of destruction as a rival center of ideological authority and geopolitical competition.
  • The China challenge today is unlike that posed by the early Cold War-era Soviet Union that Kennan had surveyed. The Chinese Communist Party’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” aims to take advantage of capitalism’s strength as a means of resource allocation and efficient market exchange – not its supposed weaknesses of class conflict and violent spillovers. Besides, Chinese socialism is not an instrument of geopolitical aggrandizement.
  • More to the point, Kennan’s strategy of containment was premised on Washington remaining the dominant global economic power and using this abundance, and leverage, to exert collective discipline among the West in its dealings with Moscow. In China, by contrast, it will face a peer whose economic size and material capabilities at the government’s disposal will outstrip that of the United States. This will heap a collective action problem of the first order on the West. It will also test a core proposition on which US primacy has rested: that America could meet the strategic challenge of the day from a position of national strength.
  • From an Indo-Pacific systemic perspective, the currency of competition in the age of the China Challenge will primarily be economic and technological, and less military or ideological. The gravitational pull of China’s domestic market will dictate that Washington embrace a light-touch approach when crafting selectively decoupled supply chain strategies. Allies must be treated as co-equals; not appendages leashed to the immediate American economic self-interest.
  • Interminable maritime and military competition within the first and second island chains of the western Pacific will remain an inescapable feature of US-China relations. Taiwan, in particular, will remain a powder keg for the foreseeable future. By the same token, there is no reasonable basis for an armed US-China conflict to spill over into geographies that Beijing deems as lying beyond the anti-access, area-denial range essential for its prosecution of a first island chain-specific contingency. The Indian Ocean and the South Pacific will remain as sideshows.
George F. Kennan. Photo: Princeton Alumni Weekly


Seventy-five years ago, the American diplomat George Kennan published an essay in Foreign Affairs, under the pseudonym “X,” titled “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.”

Kennan, a Sovietologist, was at the time coming off a stint as charge d’affaires at the US embassy in Moscow. In the essay, Kennan surveyed the political personality of Soviet power and, based on his deduction of the philosophical drivers of the Soviet foreign policy worldview, tendered a number of practical suggestions for future US policy toward Russia.

The article struck an instant chord, in a Washington grappling to come to terms with the Soviets’ intransigent ways, in the immediate aftermath of World War II when the postwar final settlement in Europe had not yet materialized.

Rather than engage constructively in East-West negotiations, Soviet leaders seemed more interested in transforming their Central and Eastern European military occupation into a network of satellite regimes – first by co-opting the region’s non-communist parties, next by engineering coups d’état and, finally, through outright suppression.

Kennan provided a compelling exposition of the wellsprings of this alarming behavior on Moscow’s part. 

“The Sources of Soviet Conduct” expanded on ideas that Kennan had expressed a year earlier in a confidential telegram to his State Department superiors, famously known as “the Long Telegram.”

Drawing on persistent caesaropapist impulses within the Imperial Russian tradition, Kennan had portrayed the Stalinist dictatorship as simply the latest of “that long succession of cruel and wasteful Russian rulers” who had “relentlessly forced” their country “on to ever newer heights of military power in order to guarantee external security of their internally weak regimes.” With such an insecurity-ridden regime, “no permanent modus vivendi” that was “desirable and necessary” was possible, Kennan had averred.

There was nary a mention of the word “containment” in the Long Telegram. That word would enter the diplomatic lexicon for the first time in “The Sources of Soviet Conduct.” In the essay, Kennan counseled his countrymen to implement a policy of “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment … designed to confront the Russians with unalterable counterforce at every point where they show signs of encroaching upon the interests of a peaceful and stable world.”

Soldiers from the US Army Berlin Command face off against police from Soviet satellite state East Germany during one of several standoffs at Checkpoint Charlie in 1961. Photo: US Army

“The Sources of Soviet Conduct” was not intended to be a comprehensive statement of national strategy. It nevertheless became one due to its rigor and timing. The call to containment effectively became the Western world’s geopolitical doctrine for the Cold War age.

Three-quarters of a century later, the rise of China and the deterioration of US-China ties have spawned emulatory efforts to intellectually frame Washington’s adversarial terms of engagement – and disengagement – with Beijing during this first half of the 21st century.

The most notable has been a 72-page paper released by the Policy Planning Department of the Trump-era State Department in November 2020, titled “The Elements of the China Challenge.” Its key chapter delves into “The Intellectual Sources of China’s Conduct.

The State Department paper purports to educate American citizens on the China challenge at hand and instill an all-of-society response in order to prevail in the ensuing great power contest. As Kennan did with Russia, the State Department authors reach back to China’s imperial era behavioral drivers to explain the Communist Party’s conduct.

“The defining component of China’s conduct” derives from the Chinese Communist Party’s “hyper-nationalist convictions,” which are “not drawn from the Marxism-Leninism playbook” but from traditional Chinese thought as well as the party’s 21st century model of authoritarian governance and international economic dependency-creation around the world, it postulates.

Kennan had ascribed Soviet conduct to its despotic Tsarist inheritance too, with Marxism-Leninism more-or-less serving as a fig leaf of moral and intellectual respectability.

The State Department paper makes for interesting reading. It also invites a set of fundamental questions. Even if one accepts its framework linking persistent domestic behavioral drivers and Marxist-Leninist façade to external conduct on lines reminiscent of Kennan, is there much or any equivalence in the behavioral wellsprings of the Stalinist Soviet Union’s conduct back then and socialist China’s conduct today?

Don’t the domestic drivers of China’s external conduct, set against the Soviets’ conduct in response to “capitalist encirclement” and geopolitical containment, point in fact to a very different set of outcomes? And shouldn’t those domestic drivers, in turn, point toward a different set of ideas and strategies to cope with the China challenge?

Sourabh Gupta is a resident senior fellow at the Institute for China-America Studies (ICAS). The essay is republished by Asia Times with permission.