By Fareed Zakaria
“All conservatism begins with loss,” Andrew Sullivan writes. “If we never knew loss, we would never feel the need to conserve.” That’s why the first and still canonical conservative text is Edmund Burke’s “Reflections on the Revolution in France,” a lamentation on the uprooting of that country’s monarchical order. And that’s why America, as an experiment in modernity, hasn’t had many genuine conservatives in its history.
The so-called conservative founding fathers, John Adams and Alexander Hamilton, were in fact creators of a new and radical system of government. The 19th-century Whigs — Webster, Clay and Calhoun — sometimes seen as conservatives, were aggressive proponents of capitalist development. Even many Southerners who argued for slavery were advocating an economic system that kept them rich, enthusiastically embracing the trade and modern technology that made slavery so profitable. And contemporary conservatism — which began as a reaction to the progressive era and the New Deal — has always mixed dynamic capitalism with moralism.
Given this background, “The Kennan Diaries” is an illuminating, fascinating and sometimes disturbing book. George F. Kennan was the most celebrated diplomat-intellectual of the 20th century, the brilliant author of the strategy of containment that the United States adopted and that won the Cold War. For most of his life he was seen as a strategist and — because he was dovish on most foreign policy issues — a liberal. As these diaries make clear, he spent much of his life thinking about political philosophy. And his instincts and insights were deeply conservative, but in a way that doesn’t really fit into today’s left-right categories.