R.I.P. Containment
Image Credit: Office of the President: Iran

R.I.P. Containment


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.

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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.

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.

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