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Universalistic Vs. Particularistic U.S. Foreign Policy

According to George F. Kennan, a universalistic pursuit of U.S. foreign policy assumes the possibility of harmony in international affairs and seeks to reduce foreign policy to parliamentary procedures and majority decisions through the creation of "artificial structures," such as the League of Nations or the United Nations. The success of a universalistic U.S. foreign policy depends on the willingness of nations to subordinate their own security requirements to those of the international community.

Particularism, on the other hand, assumes that nations seek power and that force has to be met

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with counter-force. Therefore, Kennan was skeptical of any scheme compressing international affairs into legalistic concepts. He did not reject world order models but these should be based upon real communities of interests and outlook.

Kennan rejected a universalistic U.S. foreign policy because he considered universalism unrealistic, overburdening, and promising eternal peace. First, he considered universalism unrealistic in that it assumes that human beings everywhere are like Americans, share the same hopes and aspirations, and react in the same ways under given circumstances. In other words, universalism assumes uniformity while international diversity is the reality. Second, he considered universalism to be overburdening, because it would require the worldwide diffusion of American institutions which would exceed the national capacity of any nation. Third, he disdained universalism because it promised eternal peace which seeks to eliminate armed conflict from international life. Kennan thought that war might not always be evil and that peace might not always be good and he argued that peace might be confused with stability or the absence of war. Pacified situations are not necessarily peaceful.

For these reasons Kennan promoted a particularistric pursuit of U.S. foreign policy. The basic idea of particularism is the maintaining of an equilibrium or a balance of power within the world. No country or group of countries should be able to dominate the international order. U.S. foreign policy should establish a balance, put one against the other (if necessary), so that they spend in conflict with each other the energies of intolerance, violence, fanaticism, etc. which might otherwise be directed against the U.S.

Sources : John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment : A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security (Oxford University Press, 1982).