“The Cold War is over. The world has become much more complicated” – Vladimir Putin
“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 conceived in 1947 by George F. Kennan (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 applied1, then with the dissolution of the Soviet Union and “the end of history” in sight, the practice was put in the drawer, however, the world continued turning and so things went back to “business as usual”, well, kind of…
Towards the End of History?
In the late 1980s, when victory of the arms race was on the side of the Americans, a statement of 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
For sure one thing has changed in the last 30 years: the possibility of war.2
Even though the end of the Cold War signaled 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; the consequence? 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 unpredicted 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.3
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 in 2 blocks4 (maybe 3, 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, in 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?
In conclusion, the facts that Russia retook control in some parts of the former U.S.S.R., China acted to control maritime traffic (therefore commercial and military presence) in the western Pacific and Iran affects the destiny of the Middle-East’s oil, matter. These are facts that change American interests built during almost 80 years of post WWII history and which for the same token, have brought to 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?
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 change 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.
- Gaddis, John L. (2005). Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Policy during the Cold War. Oxford University Press.
- Mandelbaum, Michael (2019). “The New Containment”. Foreign Affairs Magazine, March-April 2019, p. 123-124.
- Mandelbaum, Michael (2019). “The New Containment”. Foreign Affairs Magazine, March-April 2019, p. 123-131.
- Mandelbaum, Michael (2019). “The New Containment”. Foreign Affairs Magazine, March-April 2019, p. 124.