The Return of Containment as Strategy

Othon Leon Analysis, Conflict & Security, Global

Containment” was the geopolitical strategy with which the U.S. responded to the movements of the U.S.S.R. in several regions of the world during the Cold War period. Mainly, it was the middle point between the ideas of detente and rollback. The term was coined in 1947 by George F. Kennan (a U.S. diplomat) when he submitted a report to the then U.S. Defense Secretary, James Forrestal; later, the term was popularized when it was used in an article published by a magazine. After WWII, this strategy was largely applied[efn_note]Gaddis, John L. (2005). Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War. Oxford University Press.[/efn_note], but with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and “the end of history” in sight, the practice was put in the drawer. In recent years, however, the geopolitical landscape’s evolution has once again brought the strategy of containment to the forefront of policymakers.

In Brief

What happened? 

The end of the Cold War has signified almost 30 years of peace among powerful nations, but ironically, the same western values that promoted and allowed progress for all the nations that were willing to embrace them, seem to have changed the direction of things, provoking the re-adoption and updating of the Cold War U.S. strategy of containment, mainly in view of the actions of three emerging powers: Russia, China, and Iran.

Why does it matter? 

The new world order is being shaped by the actions of the three nations that are revising security arrangements put in place after WWII, under the control of the U.S. for almost 30 years. The risk of conflict at some point and/or place increases as these arrangements are modified.

Towards the End of History?

In the late 1980s, when victory of the arms race was on the side of the Americans, a statement from Georgiy Arbatov, then director of the Soviet’s Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies, declared (to the United States): “We will do the most horrible thing to you; we will leave you without an enemy….”  Then, Francis Fukuyama’s 1989 article “The End of History?” which asked if the final moment of human socioeconomic evolution and the ultimate form of human government had finally arrived, seemed to signal a permanent era of peace, prosperity and new beginnings for all nations willing to embrace the Western way of life. For some years it seemed “clear” that Arbatov’s words were prophetic and that the answer to Fukuyama’s question was an affirmative one. Not so.

The Transformation of U.S. Foreign Policy 

The possibility of war has surely changed in the last 30 years.[efn_note] Mandelbaum, Michael (2019). “The New Containment”. Foreign Affairs Magazine, March-April 2019, p. 123-124.[/efn_note] Even though the end of the Cold War signalled around three decades of peace among the most powerful states, conditions have drastically changed. A new world order is in place. Post-WWII U.S. hegemony has been transformed, and consequently, the need for a new U.S. foreign policy has emerged.

History’s Change of Direction

Economic progress (implied in Fukuyama’s mentioned article and ironically promoted by western values), new technologies and unprecedented events fostered progress for some countries. Three states are rearranging security order and influence in their regions (therefore challenging U.S. dominance): the old rival, Russia, invaded parts of Ukraine, retook Crimea and carried out operations to affect democratic processes in Europe; the new rival, China, has set foot in vast regions of the Pacific and has economically rearranged Eurasia; the 40 years rebel, Iran, pursues nuclear development and influences countries such as Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, and Yemen.[efn_note] Mandelbaum, Michael (2019). “The New Containment”. Foreign Affairs Magazine, March-April 2019, p. 123-131. [/efn_note]

So Far, So Good. New Questions.

The rejuvenated containment strategy seems to work for the U.S., however, the probability of armed conflict (in a nuclear world) is changing security policies around the world. The Cold War divided the world into two blocks[efn_note]Mandelbaum, Michael (2019). “The New Containment”. Foreign Affairs Magazine, March-April 2019, p. 124.[/efn_note] (maybe three, if we consider the “third world”). Today, with at least three countries rearranging their spheres of influence, multiple stakes at play, new conditions fueling old rivalries (i.e. the recent Indo-Pakistani crisis), etc., containment is being focused in multiple directions. Questions arise: For how long can the U.S. maintain stability and influence, simultaneously, on all fronts? Will the U.S. containment strategy be enough to avoid military conflict in any scenario? Will hegemonic power coming from one state be once more the form of “victory” in this new context of multiple rivalries?

Russia’s revitalized control in some parts of the former U.S.S.R., China’s effort to control maritime traffic (therefore commercial and military presence) in the western Pacific, and Iran’s increased presence the Middle-East directly confront American interests built during almost 80 years of post-WWII history. In so doing, the latent emergence of a multipolar world has brought to the scene (once more) containment as the foreign policy strategy to maintain peace and hegemony for the U.S., but the question remains: Will it work this time?

About the Author

Othon Leon

Othon A. Leon is the managing director and senior research analyst at the Canadian Centre for Strategic Studies. A current student at the PhD program in Political Science at Concordia University, with three masters’ degrees from ITAM, Université de Montréal and HEC Montréal. He currently lectures in universities around the world. His fields of research include International Relations, Comparative Politics, and War Studies.

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