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Latin America Between Kennan and Obama

BUENOS AIRES – The late American diplomat and strategist George Kennan is remembered as the creator of the doctrine of “containment,” which formed the centerpiece of the United States’ policy for waging the Cold War. But Kennan was also among the key architects of another US grand strategy: the “dominance and discipline” approach toward Latin America. While less discussed, the latter strategy has long outlasted the Cold War. Fortunately, this may finally be changing, thanks to US President Barack Obama.

In 1950 – four years after sending an 8,000-word cable to US Secretary of State George Marshall detailing his views on the Soviet Union and US policy toward it – Kennan sent another memorandum to Secretary of State Dean Acheson. This time, he argued that the US needed to take a tougher stance in regions with communist connections and sympathies. The report, which Kennan produced after a tour of Latin America, included a series of notable assertions about the region.

For starters, Kennan claimed that the particular combination of “nature and human behavior” in Latin America had produced a uniquely “unhappy and hopeless background for the conduct of human life.” Impediments to progress in the region, Kennan observed, were “written in human blood and in the tracings of geography,” and the solutions that had been proposed were “feeble and unpromising.” This, he argued, had produced a “subconscious recognition of the failure of group efforts,” which manifested itself “in an exaggerated self-centeredness and egotism.”

In Kennan’s view, it was critical that Latin America resist the “communist pressures” emanating from the Soviet Union – an outcome that the US should help to bring about. That meant, first and foremost, creating incentives for Latin American governments to implement pro-US policies.