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- The Cold War and the Origins of the Concept
- Post-Bipolar Containments?
- Rogue States
- Peer Competitors
- Ambiguous Entities
- Containment Versus Engagement
The concept of containment was presented by the American diplomat George F. Kennan in a long telegram to the U.S. Department of State on February 22, 1946, and in an article published in the July 1947 issue of Foreign Affairs, signed “X.” The concept was intended to influence the U.S. policy response in the specific strategic context of the Cold War, but with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, the end of a bipolar world raised new questions regarding the relevance of containment—especially as the George W. Bush administration began to target new kinds of enemies.
The Cold War and the Origins of the Concept
Containment was adopted by President Harry S. Truman’s administration (1945-1953), both as a doctrine and as a rationale for external action, and was carried on by Truman’s successors, especially Lyndon Johnson (1963-1969). The main objective of this new doctrine was to use military, economic, and diplomatic means to oppose what Kennan depicted as the Soviet Union’s “hegemonic” strategy: “The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies” (X [Kennan], 1947, Part 2). The United States pursued a host of policies in the name of keeping an essential commitment to prevent the spread of the Soviet influence throughout the world. A large proportion of these actions were carried out in Europe and Asia. Some examples include support given to Greece to fight against the “Communist subversion” (1947); the launching of the Marshall Plan (a program of direct economic aid to Europe); the promise to support “free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures,” as stated by President Truman in a speech on March 12, 1947; the construction of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) (1949); and the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Although declining in the late 1960s (during the “detente” promoted by U.S. President Richard Nixon and the U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, then during the easing of tensions with the USSR and communist China), and challenged by the more radical concept of “rollback” (most notably under President Eisenhower’s secretary of state John Foster Dulles, who called for the “liberation” of Eastern Europe), the policy of containment continued to mark the American foreign policy landscape until the end of the Cold War, as President Ronald Reagan (1981-1989) sent military aid to anticommunist movements in Afghanistan, Angola, Cambodia, and Nicaragua; deployed the Pershing II missiles in Europe; and promoted the Strategic Defense Initiative, which would use ground- and space-based systems to protect the United States against nuclear missile attack.
Both external and internal factors influenced the relative power of containment as a doctrine. The Truman administration had the advantage of a favorable economic context. Soviet Premier Joseph Stalin’s death in 1953 allowed U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower to be less influenced by balance of power relations. Instead, he focused more on cutting government spending and reducing economic assistance plans and gave less priority to expensive conventional military deployments. It would have thus been reasonable to deduce that the end of the Cold War (1989-1991) would have marked the official end of the United States’ reliance on containment policy. Once America’s 40-year enemy disappeared, the expectation was that a “brave new world” would pay “dividends of peace” and render obsolete an expensive containment policy. But 20 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, there are more than 700 operable U.S. military bases, and approximately 370,000 American troops remain deployed in more than 150 countries. Nevertheless, fears continue to be expressed about the need to circumscribe emerging peer competitors, new global enemies, and new threats.
If the rhetoric of containment has officially disappeared with the demise of the Soviet Union, its spirit can be found in the targeting of new “threats” by the United States, especially in three main categories: rogue states, peer competitors, and ambiguous entities.
Iraq was the subject of a containment policy between the 1991 Gulf War (following its invasion of Kuwait) and the attacks on the United States in September 2001. Severe sanctions were applied, United Nations weapons inspections were imposed, U.S. troops and air patrols in the Persian Gulf were deployed, and the economic weakening and political isolation of Iraq was put into place. The uniqueness of the Iraqi example stems from the fact that it led to a radical change of course when the administration of George W. Bush opted for a policy of regime change via military action in 2003 and toppled Saddam Hussein. This raised questions about whether a similar fate awaited Iran and North Korea, the two other states (besides Iraq) characterized in Bush’s 2002 State of the Union address as the “axis of evil” and potential nuclear threats.
A new containment of China was hinted at (but officially denied) by U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice as she paid tribute to Kennan (March 2005 in Tokyo) following his death. The context was the elaboration of a new logic of maintaining alliances, along with a mentioning of the need for China to play “a positive role.” In 2009, the United States had military bases in South Korea, Japan, and Afghanistan, much as it provided military equipment to South Korea, Japan, India, and Taiwan (whose security is guaranteed by Washington). Even after the election of Barack Obama to the presidency in November 2008, declarations by the new Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, evoked the need to diminish China’s global economic influence. Russia, after invading neighboring Georgia in August 2008, was also considered to be somewhat of a threat requiring containment: Moscow felt directly targeted by the installation of a U.S. missile defense shield in Poland and the Czech Republic (even though Washington insisted its official purpose was to counter “rogue states” such as Iran).
A relevant innovation following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, was the effort by the United States to drag its allies into a third type of containment against “terror.” Identified by Washington as the new global security priority since 2001, the “war on terror” became a massive endeavor to counter political or religious groups and movements—even social, economic, or cultural practices—with potential links to terrorism. With efforts concentrated mostly in the Middle East and the Muslim world (in Iraq, then Afghanistan; in the Gulf but also in Central Asia, Southeast Asia, and Africa), the United States has been deploying troops and military bases, fighting against social and financial networks, and working to change political regimes and to control transnational flows.
The revelation found in this new type of containment lies in the nature of the enemy targeted. With neither a clear political nucleus nor a defined territory (even if linked to the Muslim world in American rhetoric), the “terrorist” entity hardly conforms to Kennan’s initial containment theory, which was proposed to counter the Komintern and which included cutting diplomatic relations and all exchanges with the state in question. Still, Washington’s insistence on organizing the eradication of both “terror” and its state and nonstate sponsors recalls the initial containment doctrine and raises the question of whether the concept of containment is enduring, relevant only to a specific time, or altogether obsolete.
Containment Versus Engagement
Was containment policy efficient? And can it be effective today? In his 1947 article, Kennan advocated “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points” by the United States. He believed that a policy of containment would add to internal pressures on the Kremlin that would ultimately lead to “the breakup or the gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” Because the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, the containment policy would seem to have proven successful. Still, the approach was controversial from the beginning and remains so.
In the 1940s, the lauded columnist Walter Lippmann put forth a harsh criticism against the “X” article for failing to differentiate between vital and peripheral American interests. Moreover, the debate persists on whether the end of the Cold War was the direct result of U.S. foreign policy strategies or whether it owes more to complex interaction between domestic and global economic and social factors.
The containment strategy now appears to be outdated for several reasons. First, containing one specific enemy in a globalized world is an illusory goal—the possibilities of circumventing any attempts at isolation are now virtually infinite. Second, containment has been used almost exclusively by the United States and its allies, and it led to a counterproductive result: States considered to be the main enemies of the United States may gain solidarity from other “protest diplomacies” and the support of public opinion (mostly in the South). Third, political and economic isolation has proved useless, and even dangerous, in an interdependent world, notably when the targeted country or entity has already acquired enough potential to cause havoc.
In contrast, dialogue and diplomatic commitment have emerged as more serious means of dealing with difficult interlocutors. Containment of China, Iran, North Korea, Venezuela—even Hamas or Hezbollah—would indeed be hazardous from material, social, political, and military perspectives. Finally, the post-bipolar structure of the international system no longer allows for such an approach; for containment was forged in a different international system with one permanent peer competitor in mind and not conceived for fast-changing and asymmetrical targets in a turbulent world.
The formal temptation of a containment policy is still present and possible. Its reemergence is possible in the context of a new global competition between the United States and China. However, in material, political, and social terms, containment is no longer tenable. Classical in its conception (a struggle for survival against an enemy in a balance-of-power competition), ambitious in its implementation, and influential among U.S. allies, the concept of containment is a remnant of the Cold War whose translation to modern times is a troubled one.
- Anderson, S. (2005). Condemned to repeat it: Lessons of history and the making of U.S. Cold War containment policy. New York: Lexington Books.
- Gaddis, J. L. (2005). Strategies of containment: A critical appraisal of American national security policy during the Cold War. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.
- Kennan, G. (1946). The long telegram. Retrieved July 3, 2016, from http://nsarchive.gwu.edu/coldwar/documents/episode-1/kennan.htm
- Litwak, R. (2000). Rogue states and U.S. foreign policy: Containment after the Cold War. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press.
- Shapiro, I. (2008). Containment: Rebuilding a strategy against global terror. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
- X (George Kennan). (1947). The sources of soviet conduct. Foreign Affairs, 25(4), 566-582.