The roots of America’s traditional geopolitical strategy known as “containment” lie in a rare opportunity afforded to a mid-level American foreign service officer stationed in Moscow to express his views on the Soviet Union to the upper echelons of American power in 1946. His name was George Kennan. In what is known as the “Long Telegram,” Kennan conveyed a very basic argument and message to the American power elite, which was that the differences between America and the Soviet Union could not be resolved through compromise because of the inherent differences in each system’s worldview as well as in each system’s basic way of life. Kennan added that the difference and thus the irreconcilability of America’s system with the Soviet system lies in the fact that America’s sociopolitical and socioeconomic system is based on the principle of individual freedom and liberty, whereas the Soviet system is based on collectivist dictatorship. Thus, it would be difficult to reconcile two completely different ways of life and as a result there would be a prolonged struggle between the United States and the Eastern bloc that would be inescapable until there is a clear outcome and a clear victor.
In Kennan’s case as well as in another document titled “NSC-68” which was authored by Paul Nitze, a policy planner in America’s national security council during the Cold War, the struggle of “containment” was premised on moral grounds. In the end, Kennan’s “Long Telegram” as well as Nitze’s “NSC-68” would serve as the foundational documents of America’s geopolitical strategy known as “containment” to this day. Nitze framed the struggle between the West and the rest as a struggle between freedom and oppression. In NSC-68, Nitze wrote that “a defeat of free institutions anywhere is a defeat everywhere.” Thus, “containment” was not solely about geopolitics because the idea that America stood for freedom and liberty everywhere was seen by many as America’s core mission and raison d’etre. The idea that America stands for freedom and liberty everywhere is even embedded in America’s “Pledge of Allegiance.” On the other hand, the view in the United States for the most part is that the former Soviet Union as well as China today are the embodiment of oppression and totalitarianism.
Thus, more than anything, the strategy of “containment” was premised on a never-ending moral struggle between forces of freedom on one hand and forces of oppression on the other hand. What undergirded the containment strategy was a military alliance led by the United States which was constructed along the Soviet periphery as in the case of NATO, SEATO, and the alliance with South Korea and Japan for defensive purposes. In relation to both the former Soviet Union and China today, the United States is superior in both the air and sea, whereas the Eastern bloc has the advantage on land. There is also an assumption underlying the containment strategy that there is both military and political pressure put on by the adversary at certain geographical points which needs to be contained and counteracted by America and its allies, thus the term “containment.”
In a containment strategy, diplomacy is dictated by what is known as the “balance of power.” But as Hans Morgenthau wrote, the balance of power is in a constant state of fluctuation and this can only be stabilized through subjective political decisions rather than rational or scientific considerations. While there is a physical component to power, the psychological aspect of power is preponderant, and as a result power is in a constant state of flux. Given that a containment strategy in the idealistic sense means inducing the collapse and conversion of the adversary, diplomacy is impermissible until the other side is ready to adopt the principles of the dominant side, according to Henry Kissinger.
But as we are experiencing today with American “relative decline” vis-à-vis Russia and China, the only way to put a lid on the endless fluctuations of the balance of power and thus stabilize the international system is by virtue of a political settlement or a “grand bargain” with the other major powers that takes into consideration the respective interests of all sides. In this day and age, the major powers in the international system aside from the United States are Europe and China. It is perhaps worth noting that in the initial stages of the Cold War between the United States and the former Soviet Union, it was Sir Winston Churchill who suggested to the Americans that there be a political settlement between the two sides which drew “spheres of influence.” When U.S. President Harry Truman retorted that the United States would not settle for an accommodation with the Soviet Union because the United States had the advantage as afforded by the atomic bomb, Churchill countered Truman by suggesting that the advantage would eventually be erased once the Soviet Union acquires their own set of atomic bombs.
Also, hegemony is a rare situation by which one single country becomes so strong in the international system that the balance of power is essentially suspended, as was the case with America during its “unipolar” moment in the 1990’s and early 2000’s. But due to American “relative decline” vis-à-vis Russia and China resulting from largely unwarranted wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, the balance of power within the international system is re-emerging. Thus, the core and defining concept of politics and international relations, as it always has been, is the concept known as the balance of power. The key, then, is to maintain the peace on a global scale by maintaining the natural equilibrium within the balance of power scheme that is inherent in the international system.
Nevertheless, “containment” is a combination of both realist and idealist notions, namely, power and morality. But the ultimate decision that needs to be made in regards to a containment strategy is the ultimate objective of such a strategy, which boils down to a choice between peaceful coexistence with an adversary or the inducement of its collapse. But from a historical standpoint, America’s record of containing the Chinese within Asia has been poor when taking into account the experiences in Korea, Vietnam, and perhaps even Afghanistan in recent years. When implementing a containment strategy vis-à-vis China, will the United States focus on preserving critical areas of the global economy and global security system such as Western Europe and Northeast Asia? Or would the containment strategy be pursued in every jungle and valley of Asia?
There is also the question of whether China seeks global dominance or regional dominance, the answer of which would determine the geographical scope of an American geopolitical strategy. As the late Zbigniew Brzezinski wrote in “The Grand Chessboard,” China at most could become a regional hegemon, not a global hegemon, due to limitations on military and economic capabilities as well as an American presence in Northeast Asia. But tacit acknowledgement of China’s inherently regional geopolitical scope on the part of the United States is reflected today by America’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Philippines, as well as the recent dialogue with North Korea and the preservation of the “One-China” policy after a number of decades. As Brzezinski wrote, “a Chinese sphere of regional influence is thus in the making.” Brzezinski also added that China always held the view that American hegemony would eventually diminish, and that its total reliance on Japan as a security partner in East Asia would tarnish America’s reputation in Asia, thus prompting a rise in China’s credibility in the region in the long-run which in turn would force America’s hand into working with China on global issues.
In the initial stages of America’s containment strategy, only two scenarios would justify war with the adversary, namely, an invasion of Western Europe or a direct attack on the United States. Containment, as defined by General Douglas MacArthur and Former Secretary of State Dean Acheson, did not extend into the Asian mainland. Therefore, the very concept of “containment” as well as its geographical scope has to be defined before anything else. Containment either has to be premised on the preservation of very specific interests, or it has to be based on the very broad application of a principle such as freedom and liberty, which in turn casts a wide net in terms of foreign policy initiatives and perhaps the desire to sustain these efforts exceeds the capabilities. After all, “logistics is for the professionals, and strategy is for the amateurs.”
For the most part, containment is a middle path between détente and rollback, but without any real geographical scope. Nevertheless, the struggle to define and to establish the contours as well as the geographical scope of this concept of containment has been a perennial one in the body-politic of the United States ever since the outbreak of the Cold War at around the midpoint of the 20th century. While there are a number of idealists, there are also many people in the United States who consider individual freedom and liberty as befitting only for the United States and that the promotion of these principles overseas is a futile exercise and a moral “crusade” that overlooks the cultural and social realities of other countries. Perhaps this latter view is the prevalent one in America’s current administration led by Donald Trump.
However, in the idealistic and moralistic notion of containment, the basic assumption is that if the principles of individual freedom and liberty were to be fought for and promoted overseas and if the superstructures of dictatorship and oppression were to be toppled in Asian societies, then these societies would transform into societies predicated on the organizing principles of freedom and liberty. But as we saw in the cases of Russia and the resurgence of Putin, as well as the resurgence of Pashtun nationalism in Afghanistan as embodied by the Taliban, along with the rise of Shia authoritarianism in Iraq as well as the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and Syria, the assumption that societies will transform into liberal democracies if one were to topple the superstructure of dictatorship and oppression in Asian societies proves to be a faulty one. Moreover, virtually all of the Central Asian republics that were once part of the Soviet Union are still dictatorships.
Also, a number of governments that the United States supported through the course of the Cold War such as Pinochet’s government in Chile, the military dictatorship in Brazil, Argentina’s military dictatorship, the Egyptian military government, Turkey’s military government, Saudi Arabia’s authoritarian monarchy, the Shah of Iran’s military dictatorship, Pakistan’s military government, Mobuto in what was then Zaire, and even the Pol Pot regime in Cambodia were brutal and undemocratic and by no means did they espouse the principles that are thought to be exportable by the idealist wing of the American foreign policy apparatus. Thus, the moral aspect of containment, when taking into account America’s own relationship with undemocratic societies, can only be a pretext or a justification for considerations that are based purely on power as well as specific interests pertaining to economics and national security.
Today’s so-called idealists in the American foreign policy apparatus are not the same as the idealists of the past such as Kennan and Nitze. Today’s so-called idealists are largely scam artists who are looking for easy contracts and profits. There are also certain analysts who would contend that the Cold War as well as today’s competition with China has been driven by a single objective factor, namely, the “security dilemma,” which dictates that in an anarchic and chaotic world, a state can never be secure enough and thus efforts to secure oneself are endless. In an imperfect world with imperfect people, the imposition of ethics and morality is impossible on individuals, let alone an entire society.
Initially, what prompted President Harry Truman’s rollout of the containment strategy in the late 1940’s was Soviet “behavior.” But how does one change the cognitive behavior of an individual, let alone an entire society? Moreover, military action as a tool for changing a society’s behavior has its limits, and the risks associated with military action are higher than before because of a strategic context defined by “Mutual Assured Destruction” (MAD) and nuclear weapons in addition to cyber warfare. In essence, what we want reality to be is different than what it actually is. Thus, containment cannot be achieved everywhere. Perhaps it can be achieved in places where vital American interests are at stake such as Europe and Japan which serve as forward operating bases in the event that Russia and China attack the American mainland, in addition to the Persian Gulf region where the lifeblood of the world economy – oil and natural gas – flows abundantly.
There should also be a renewed focus on the Western Hemisphere, which initially was America’s primary security zone as set up by the historic “Monroe Doctrine.” But determining what constitutes a “national interest,” especially in a democracy like the United States which is independent in every sense of the word and is largely self-sufficient, is perhaps a matter of subjective interpretation. Aside from preserving political independence, economic vitality, as well as territorial sovereignty and physical security, all of which are cushioned by two oceans and isolation from Afro-Eurasia, the subject of what constitutes American “national interests” is up for debate.
In essence, America has no concrete plan or strategy when it comes to engaging with the broader world. When it comes to engaging with the world, successive American administrations have done so in a largely ad hoc and spontaneous fashion without a concrete or definite rationale. Truman’s decision to intervene in Korea was largely out of personal sentiment, given that his top advisers had publicly stated that Korea was not part of America’s security zone. Also, when asked why he prolonged the war in Vietnam, Lyndon Johnson grabbed his genitals and suggested that his sense of manhood got in the way of his decision-making.
Whereas other countries have well-defined vital interests, the United States has the luxury of being flexible when it comes to defining its national interests by virtue of being an independent and self-sufficient nation. Perhaps the Harvard Professor Stephen Walt is correct in asserting that America should assume the role of “offshore balancer” wherever it is needed in order to maintain the peace around the world. But after decades of having a free hand in international affairs to an incredible degree, the United States might have to acknowledge for the first time in its history a set of natural laws, principles, and first causes that have long been defied by the can-do spirit of American culture and the idealism that is embedded in the American way of life.