Containment: Myth and Metaphor

On November 17, 2016, the FPI Center for Military and Diplomatic History hosted a lunchtime event at Foggy Bottom, featuring Dr. Thomas Mahnken of CSBA as speaker and Dr. Seth Center of the State Department as moderator. Dr. Mahnken spoke about his article “Containment: Myth and Metaphor,” from the book “History and Statecraft: The Power of the Past,” edited by Hal Brands and Jeremi Suri. FPI Intern Oliver Thomas summarizes key points presented by Dr. Mahnken during the event.

In February 1946, writing under the pseudonym “Mr. X,” the American diplomat George Kennan diagnosed the geopolitical threat posed by communism’s global expansion. Kennan outlined what became America’s strategy of containment in his famous “Long Telegram,” which articulated the internal deficiencies of the Soviet political economy, critiqued the premises of Marxism, and proposed a foreign policy that would cause the USSR’s decay. Ever since the publication of the X Article, containment has been the most influential U.S. grand strategic concept, one that continues to find ways into policy makers’ lexicon.

Kennan’s containment strategy has often been credited with the downfall of the Soviet Union. Proponents have idealized and made a myth of containment strategy, which has resulted in ineffective strategies in a multipolar world. By molding and oversimplifying containment into a one size fits all metaphor for dealing with “revisionist” powers, American strategists have demonstrated a lack of imagination and insight. Policy makers should reexamine the telegram’s actual substance and the context in which Kennan crafted it if they wish to integrate concepts of containment into strategy today.

Kennan defined containment as a set of strategies to both frustrate Soviet power projection and take advantage of the USSR’s systemic, economic, political and infrastructural weaknesses. If the U.S. could harness the strength of market liberalism abroad, the rusted cogs powering the Soviet machine would eventually give out. Kennan based his conclusion on a highly granular net assessment of American and Soviet capabilities. He believed that understanding Soviet interests, strengths, and weaknesses depended on a serious evaluation of Russian history and Marxist ideology. While devising the best grand strategy to counter the USSR, Kennan and subsequent Cold War strategists also considered a number of other options such as appeasement, engagement, rollback, and isolation. America’s implementation of containment came as a result of comparative analysis and calculation. Containment strategy remained a nuanced, multidimensional and flexible approach to maintaining U.S. global supremacy. As events unfolded, America adjusted the degree to which it emphasized diplomacy and hard power projection as components of strategy.

President Richard Nixon practiced détente as an alternative to containment in the wake of American tactical failures in Vietnam. He hoped that détente would offer a broader array of opportunities to come to a peace with the Soviet Union. The Reagan administration also deviated from Kennan’s original containment strategy, repudiating elements of both détente and containment by utilizing offensive initiatives to redirect communist weaknesses against the Soviet Union itself. It was Reagan’s hardline grand strategy, in part, that brought the Soviet Union to its knees, rather than the original conception of containment.

Containment’s malleability as a strategy, and later as a policy, also made possible the integration of myriad agencies, departments, and military branches under America’s anti-communist crusade. Containment served as an easily understood and highly accessible plan of action that brought together the armed forces, Central Intelligence Agency, the Department of State and other organizations.

American policy makers’ failure to understand the manner in which containment strategy changed over time led to misuse of the term. By presupposing the resilience and transcendent worth of containment strategy, U.S. foreign policy makers placed state and non-state actors alike within a rigid, unwavering grand strategic framework. President Bill Clinton, for example, employed a policy of “dual containment” towards Iran and Iraq in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War, believing that it would halt Iran’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and undermine Iraqi WMD programs.

This transplantation of containment overlooked critical differences between discrete cases. Countries such as Iran and Iraq not only operated under drastically different governmental systems from the Soviet Union, they had distinct ideological makeups, and very different interests. Moreover, U.S. allies in the region did not entirely back American attempts to contain Iran. Without a coalition or military base to contain Iran or Iraq, American attempts to utilize containment in the Middle East were doomed.

Similarly loaded definitions of containment are currently applied to China. Though America has engaged with China economically since normalization under Nixon, the U.S. still wishes to blunt Chinese influence in Tibet, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. Beijing perceives America’s current strategy as an attempt to undermine Chinese interests. America’s current strategy, in some cases, overstates PRC military capabilities and expansionist intentions. Containment policy serves to provoke PRC military aggression and assumes that China lacks the capability to rise as a responsible world power.

America also misapplies the containment myth in formulating strategies for combating terrorist threats from non-state actors. Containing asymmetric adversaries does not translate well to actors such as ISIS and Al Qaeda and is not useful when based off of Kennan’s original prescription. ISIS and Al Qaeda have been able to transcend containment by operating across national borders and spreading into new countries.

Contriving containment terminology and strategy results in policy that lacks clear net assessment, a theory of victory, and the specific logistical means to obtain a desired strategic outcome. Policy makers and analysts do not necessarily have to leave containment on the trash pile of history, but should think more carefully about the manner in which the strategy manifests in policy. Integrating containment into today’s strategy toward America’s real and potential adversaries will require active U.S. participation with allies who have shared our interests historically. Washington should strive to avoid the use of containment as a substitution for rigorous analysis of regional affairs. Utilizing containment strategy effectively, therefore, hinges on America’s willingness to overcome anachronistic usages of the “Long Telegram,” a reassessment of adversaries’ objectives, and the recognition of containment’s evolution.

Mission Statement

The Foreign Policy Initiative seeks to promote an active U.S. foreign policy committed to robust support for democratic allies, human rights, a strong American military equipped to meet the challenges of the 21st century, and strengthening America’s global economic competitiveness.
Read More