Features | Politics | Security

R.I.P. Containment

Why global commerce, modern telecommunications, social media and modern international politics have conspired to put to rest a faded strategy.

By William C. Martel for

When we consider the array of problems in our world, no one can say that we don’t live in interesting times.

Asia worries about China’s ascent, Russia is dismantling its democracy, and Iran everyday gets closer to possessing a nuclear weapons capability.

Recently, the Middle East was wracked by violent protests against American embassies in Egypt and Libya – with as many as twenty countries experiencing turmoil.

Facing mounting evidence of an increasingly chaotic and unstable world, it is immensely dangerous for societies to hang on to old and familiar policies.

What is missing, as I wrote on these pages in the summer, is a coherent grand strategy for the United States. But you ask: doesn’t America have a grand strategy? It’s a good question. The answer may be equally surprising.

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Some would argue that the United States still follows a strategy of containment. When some policy analysts conclude America is trying to contain China with its “pivot” or “rebalance” to the Asia-Pacific, or when economic sanctions crafted to “contain” Iran’s nuclear aspirations, one could see why containment is still on people’s minds.

Not to be the bearer of bad news, but containment died more than twenty years ago. While once an immensely successful policy, sticking with containment promises certain foreign policy failure.

Why, then, do states adhere to containment?

The answer is simple: policymakers and societies find comfort in following familiar policies that once produced results. Even when they no longer make sense, familiar, well-established ideas are reassuring to the public, particularly in unsettling times.

Containment was a highly effective strategy for decades, but its irrelevance was foreordained when the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. Today, containment is intellectually bankrupt, but it endures as the jargon, the ‘gold standard’, for American grand strategy. Strangely, many continue to embrace a strategy totally unsuited to dealing with the modern world.

This essay asks what containment was and why it emerged, why it eroded and cannot work, and briefly outlines several principles to guide foreign policy in the modern world.

Origins of Containment

Containment emerged from an article written in 1947 by George Kennan, a diplomat who was stationed at the U.S. Embassy in Moscow. This strategy was designed to prevent (read: contain) the spread of the Soviet ideology of communism while limiting its political and military influence. Bolstered by alliances and institutions, massive military establishments, and thousands of nuclear weapons, containment was the basis for American foreign policy during the Cold War.

Containment rested on America’s commitment to prevent the Soviet Union, its client states, and later China from expanding their sphere of influence. It was designed to “contain” these states, manage relations between Washington and Moscow, and deter “hot wars.”

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These states were the architects of a bipolar order during the second half of the twentieth century, which was notable for ideological hostility and geopolitical confrontation. At heart, deep ideological divisions between Washington and Moscow over political and economic power contributed to widely divergent geopolitical interests.

Why Containment was Practical Strategy

For decades, containment was a highly effective, practical, and positive strategy that balanced diplomacy while building stability and avoiding war. Leaders in Moscow rarely missed opportunities to fan the ideological flames. Moscow’s confrontational language, incessantly declaring that the United States was their implacable ideological foe, for decades helped policymakers in Washington mobilize and sustain public support for the strategy of containment.

After World War II, the Soviet Union’s massive conventional forces directly threatened Europe. While the U.S. had military forces deployed globally, those forces (with some rebalancing after being demobilized shortly after World War II) strengthened political alliances along the Soviet perimeter in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. Roughly translated, our strategy was to surround and contain Moscow.

Initially, Washington relied on its atomic monopoly to deter war by counterbalancing the Soviet Union’s greater conventional military forces as the strategy for containing Moscow. Once the Soviet Union tested an atomic bomb in 1949, containment shifted to strategies based on mutual annihilation to deter war. From the late 1940s onward, containment helped hold back the Soviet Union and avoid mutual annihilation.

Why Containment Eroded

Containment succeeded because the Soviet Union was an ideologically extreme, economically backward, and politically isolated state.

But when the Cold War ended in the early 1990s, the U.S. foreign policy community failed to move beyond containment, which to be blunt, collapsed, although it had served America’s purposes quite well.

The central problem facing policymakers is that containment no longer “fits” the present geostrategic order. The United States reaction was muted and slow to move beyond containment because its erosion was so gradual – it was practically imperceptible to practitioners attuned to the daily, tactical minutiae of foreign policy. By the early 1990s, containment made no strategic sense for Washington because its core principles were irrelevant once the Soviet Union ceased to exist.

Second, humans resist change, even when it is painfully necessary, because change is a powerful source of anxiety. Predictably, states, organizations, and individuals fail to recognize and implement dramatic change precisely because it creates discomfort and confusion. As familiar ideas fade away, societies struggle with how to make sense of the world and their place in it. So it was with the gradual erosion of containment.

Third, abandoning containment would be equivalent to declaring that American policy is not guided by a coherent strategy. Very little could be as unsettling for policymakers than to realize that their foreign policy is not guided by principles that help them make difficult and often painful choices about peace and security.

Fourth, containment worked so well for decades that even when it produced a stunning strategic success societies naturally resisted abandoning it. To this day, no scholar, policymaker, or journalist can claim to have anticipated the Soviet collapse or demise of the Cold War. Nonetheless, containment gets credit for relieving Washington of two enormous responsibilities: defending the world against totalitarianism and preventing nuclear annihilation.

Since what worked once cannot endure forever, the first step is to declare containment dead.

Why Containment is Failed Strategy

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Today’s “arc of problems” exceeds what containment can handle. It makes no sense to talk about containing China as an ascendant state, containing Iran as a sponsor of terror and potential nuclear state, containing Russia as an authoritarian state that uses energy as a weapon, or containing Pakistan’s ability to spread nuclear weapons. By its very nature modern technology, through the telecommunications revolution and the rise of global markets as fundamental forces in international politics, renders containment an obsolete strategy.

Containment offers no practical or effective responses for dealing with modern challenges precisely because the world has grown far beyond the conditions that existed decades ago. More than ever, containment which is more akin to a slogan used by policymakers, scholars, and journalists rather than a strategy, collapsed for two critical reasons.

Political Collapse of Containment

The first reason is that while containment once provided useful guidance for dealing with an adversary guided by a political ideology hostile to freedom and democracy, this is no longer the case.

States today do not face ideological foes on any scale comparable to the Cold War. Without an ideological foe, the practitioners of containment cannot persuade states to organize their foreign policies to oppose others. In effect, states lack a compelling reason or the political will to coordinate their policies and actions. They view the world, not as a dangerous struggle against an expansionist ideology, but as a relatively benign contest between democratic and authoritarian states

The West’s geopolitical adversaries do not inspire awe or fear. Such run-of-the-mill authoritarian states, as Russia, China, Iran, Syria, North Korea, and Venezuela, operate as members of an ‘authoritarian axis.’ In addition to their reflexive opposition to democracy, modern authoritarian states reward their rulers, rather than their people, with great power and wealth. However, modern authoritarian states lack a common, unified, and systematic ideology, buttressed by a coherent philosophy, to guide their actions.

In contrast with the ideological chasm between Moscow and the West, which rested on philosophically absolute differences, modern authoritarian states are so much less consequential politically and historically. Rather than being the servants of a grand ideology, they are “in the game” principally to preserve their power and wealth. Where containment dealt with an ideologically implacable foe, the West deals with mere authoritarian states.

The problem for strategy is that we struggle with the rise of modern authoritarian states whose political ideology is so small-minded and opportunistic. The best the West can do against authoritarian states is to resist or restrain their authoritarian excesses. We also can express disdain for their primitive and corrupt governments, asserting that the “ideology” driving these states is no more than a mask for opportunism for governments whose leaders have no greater ambition than buttressing their own personal power and wealth.

Economic Collapse of Containment

The second reason why containment is meaningless is the rise of free markets. Global trade and commerce, the lifeblood of free market economies, operates on an unprecedented scale.

As the global flow of goods and services expanded dramatically over the last several decades as the Soviet Union disintegrated, it was foreordained how difficult, if not impossible, it would be to contain states in economic terms – what we can call “economic containment.” Global commerce thrives precisely because of the free flow of finance, trade, and commerce. The scale is massive — literally trillions of dollars of goods and services move around the globe daily. The existence of truly global companies and consumers who drive economic commerce utterly eviscerates containment as equally outdated and impractical.

The logic of containment was to prevent economic exchanges from strengthening the Soviet Union and its clients. To properly contain a state economically, we had to prevent, or at least limit, the flow of goods and services to and from it. Operating in an economically interdependent and interlocked world, however, makes it impossible in practical terms to contain the flow of goods and services on any meaningful scale.

When states pursue economic containment, the instrument of choice is economic sanctions. In theory, states must be confident that they can contain the flow of goods and services to and from targeted states, but sanctions are no longer an effective tool of diplomacy. In reality, modern commerce is not conducive to containing states using economic instruments. Such actions are largely a waste of time, effort, and credibility.

Economic forms of containment fail precisely because states routinely work in highly coordinated ways to evade or undermine sanctions against themselves or others. Containment is bound to fail when states band together to undermine the sanctions that are designed to deny access to global goods and services. With systematic, coordinated, and highly successful efforts to undermine and evade sanctions, containment cannot succeed, as several examples illustrate.

Reports this summer suggested that Russian banks could help Syria  “evade U.S. and European sanctions on oil and financial transactions.”

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For years, China has provided North Korea with the energy and food needed to prevent its collapse. Despite the best efforts of the West to impose sanctions, Beijing helps Pyongyang evade such sanctions, thus guaranteeing that economic containment of North Korea will fail.

Iran is the cause célèbre for containment’s failure. For decades, Iran successfully evaded the West’s efforts to impose sanctions, which it imposes with varying degrees of enthusiasm, to prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons. However, as the New York Times reported, “harsh economic sanctions…have failed to slow Tehran’s nuclear program. If anything the program is speeding up.” Containment’s failure is evident as Iran marches inexorably toward developing nuclear weapons.

Containment no Longer “Fits”

No more than a slogan, “containment” generates headlines by perpetuating the illusion that states have a strategy or are simply “doing something.” However, it fails with embarrassing regularity.

The inescapable conclusion is that containment no longer fits our world. Where it once worked, containment no longer aligns with how the modern world is organized politically and economically. Simply put, it is no longer practical in a highly interconnected global economy in which states do not face a singular ideological threat.

States and individuals have unparalleled access to social media and technology, which provides total, absolute, and practically instantaneous connectedness. Such connectedness leads to levels of transparency that are historically unparalleled. Even extremist groups in states with a primitive infrastructure, such as Afghanistan, use cell phone networks to outmaneuver governments and evade efforts to restrain their activities.

Economic forces are so vastly more powerful than politics that we cannot contain states in a globalized “culture.” How precisely do we practice containment when modern states and individuals freely exchange the political ideas and economic goods and services that generate wealth and power?

Problems The International Community Cannot “Contain”: China, Iran, and Russia

Policymakers, scholars, and journalists continue to worship at the altar of containment, despite the fact that America faces foreign policy challenges that are beyond what we can “contain.” Several examples highlight this fundamental disconnect between containment and the modern world.

The first is China. With its economy now the second largest after the United States and growing military prowess, China is too deeply and tightly integrated into the global economy for containment to make any sense, much less succeed. While some U.S. policymakers talk about containing China – or to reassure China that we do not intend to contain it – its economic and military power are so significant that containment seems almost silly. Simply put, there is nothing about China in political or economic terms that is containable.

The second case is Iran. Its radical ideology, marked by extremist strains, is stridently and virulently hostile to the U.S. and Israel. Such reckless rhetoric, when combined with what many increasingly believe are its efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, should make Iran a prime candidate for containment. However, Iran is so tightly enmeshed in an economic and technological web of global connectedness that containment is an obsolete strategy doomed to fail.

States cannot contain Iran’s economic power, derived largely from its oil and gas exports, because Russia and China work diligently to undermine U.N. efforts to impose sanctions. We cannot contain Iran’s nuclear program because Russia actively supports it. Sanctions, once an integral element of containment, continue to fail while Iran accelerates its nuclear program.

The third case is Russia. Under Putin, Moscow uses increasingly strident rhetoric against the West, employs energy as a foreign policy weapon, threatens to attack the West preemptively over missile defenses, dismantles its democracy and drifts toward authoritarianism, and supports such authoritarian regimes as Iran, Syria, and North Korea. If the strategy of containment still worked, Russia would be an ideal target.

Russia, lacking a politically coherent ideology, is governed by an authoritarian ethos. However, it does not pose a threat to the West principally because it is not a serious economic power, lacks significant military capabilities (other than nuclear weapons), and is so far behind the West in advanced technology that few states truly fear Russia militarily. States do worry about Moscow’s willingness to use energy as a foreign policy weapon. On several occasions, it withheld energy from states in Eastern Europe. These states depend so highly on Russian energy exports, which are so integral to the global economy, that containment of Russia in energy terms is not a meaningful or practical option.

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Principles for Grand Strategy

When policymakers in the U.S. or the West refer to containment, their words admit, in effect, that they do not have, but should be desperately searching for, a strategy.

If we stipulate that the United States has failed to develop a coherent and modern strategy, our first step is to outline several organizing principles that provide a positive strategy for American foreign policy. As early thoughts on what will be developed in a subsequent essay, I believe that America’s grand strategy should be organized around three broad principles.

First, our world remains more dangerous and unstable than many observers anticipated. The list of dangers grows increasingly lengthy and ominous: nuclear proliferation, rising authoritarian states, fears in Asia that China’s ascent will threaten regional security, extremism and violent anti-Americanism in Egypt, the Middle East, and Asia, uncertainty as the global economy continues to suffer, and dependence on energy from authoritarian, often potentially unstable, states. The list goes on.

Since there is no shortage of serious risks and problems, the United States can no longer afford to define its foreign policy in terms of containment. This “old think,” as we have discovered, is worse than ineffectual. The imperative for Washington is to define its strategy not in terms of containing problems, but of restraining forces that contribute to instability, chaos, and war.

Second, we are well past the time when the United States must devote greater time, attention, and resources to rebuilding the domestic foundations of its national power. Beginning with World War II, the United States used its national power to engage globally on an unprecedented scale. Completing work begun in the 1930s, we rebuilt our world-class infrastructure – industry, roads, bridges, schools, energy, and so forth – during the decades after World War II.

For most observers, unfortunately, grand strategy is about foreign and defense policy. But the emphasis in grand strategy on rebuilding the domestic foundations of America’s national power, which dates back to the administration of George Washington, has been central to deliberations in virtually every administration since then. Grand strategy is about much more than foreign policy because its influence derives directly from the free market economic foundations of our national power.

In reshaping its grand strategy, the United States must have world-class roads, bridges, electric power grids, national broadband, and mass transit systems. To compete economically, these will be as important instruments of national power as armies, navies, and air forces are for defending our interests. Nor can we forget the importance of education, health care, and retirement systems as elements of ensuring broad opportunities for every American. Our grand strategy cannot be effective until we restore the infrastructure and social safety nets that assure all Americans of their opportunity to compete and succeed. All of this is as central to foreign policy as anything we do.

Third, the time has come, despite being mired in a painfully slow recovery from the “Great Recession”, for the United States to exercise greater world leadership. Such problems as China, Russia, Iran, Syria – and now Egypt and the rest of the Middle East – demand more active and assertive leadership from Washington. However, this principle must be balanced with the realization that Americans do not have unlimited power – we cannot do everything, everywhere, all of the time, for the rest of the world.

Americans willingly carried the mantle of global leadership for decades –from winning in World War II and the Cold War to strengthening our security against extremism after 9/11. But they may be reluctant once again to carry that burden once again, especially considering current economic difficulties. The baby boom generation has been as active as its predecessor – and as generous in spirit when asked to help. This generation now faces the prospect of having to postpone retirement, care for aging parents, and support children who, facing high unemployment, increasingly live at home.

The two extremes – where America engages less as expressed by “leading from behind,” or where America takes the lead on all issues – are unacceptable. Now is the time for other states in the West to rise to the occasion and to share the burden of leadership than to criticize from the sidelines.

The United States must exercise greater leadership, while noting that we can passionately if politely debate how much of the burden we should bear. And we can hope for a new bipartisan consensus on foreign policy. But if Washington fails to lead, then it must be prepared for the consequences if other states, whose interests may be radically at odds with its own, take the lead. My instinct is that neither Americans nor their allies would find this world much to their liking.

In the end, the West cannot contain states and the problems they cause, but it is well within our capacity to limit or restrain their more dangerous and destabilizing policies rather than relying on the obsolete strategy of trying to contain these states.

Dr. William C. Martel is an Associate Professor of International Security Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is the recent author of “Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Strategy.” Follow him on Twitter: @BillMartel234.