What Is “Containment”?

Like most other subjects, international relations quickly degenerates into an infinite regress of questions, competing theories and interpretations once one thinks about it for longer than a few minutes. In no field is the word “expert” less appropriate than in that which takes the entire globe as its laboratory.

Some of the confusion derives from the ambiguity of certain words and concepts in political theory. Since these words continue to influence the foreign policy of the United States and its allies, it is important to revisit this vocabulary on a regular basis. For instance, in a piece in Commentary back in February, Seth Mandel touched on the problem when he wrote:

Has there ever been a celebrated American official whose contribution to a successful policy has been more overrated than George Kennan? I can’t think of one. Kennan is, and it seems he will forever be, credited with crafting Harry Truman’s “containment” policy toward the Soviet Union. What actually happened–which Kennan tried to explain–was that Kennan provided the outline of an approach to foreign policy that Truman and various other advisors refashioned into a successful policy that Kennan deplored and never truly understood.

Mandel implies, correctly, that the word “containment” has referred to different policies followed at different times in U.S. history. Kennan is, for this reason among others, an odd and misunderstood figure. His name has been linked to policies with which he vehemently disagreed. This happened because these policies were all lumped under the vague umbrella term “containment,” a word that Kennan popularized with his anonymously written article for the July 1947 edition of Foreign Affairs. In that article, Kennan wrote that “Soviet pressure against the free institutions of the Western world is something that can be contained by the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce…”. Since this is, in a very general way, what the West did until the Soviet Union dissolved, Kennan is ipso facto assumed to have been the author of every anti-Soviet measure the United States undertook during the Cold War.

The best study of containment is doubtless John Lewis Gaddis’s Strategies of Containment, which was first published in the early years of the Ronald Reagan administration and updated in 2005. (Gaddis is, by the way, also the author of a Pulitzer Prize-winning biography of Kennan.) When I first read this book, as a graduate student at Yale University, I was immediately struck by how the word had shifted in meaning, if subtly, throughout the post-WWII era, not just in policy circles but in academia as well. Many scholars have used it to refer to just about every foreign-policy decision the United States made between 1947 and 1991, regardless of the often stark differences between those decisions.

For instance, “containment” has been used to refer both to the more dovish aspects of U.S. Cold War policy—détente under Richard Nixon and the human-rights universalism of Jimmy Carter—and to its more hawkish aspects—say, Ronald Reagan’s invasion of Grenada. (The latter is, strictly speaking, “rollback,” but the point is that many scholars and writers are utterly inconsistent with the terminology.) The result is that people often talk past one another when speaking about “containment,” since different people have different policies in mind when they hear the term.

This is not nearly as parochial a concern as it might appear. The equivocal nature of the word continues to confuse people today, and the affect of this confusion on policy is considerable. The most relevant issue is U.S. strategy toward Iran. Those who use the word “containment” today vis-à-vis Iran’s nuclear ambitions (e.g. Rand Paul) are sometimes accused of appeasement, as though containment were code for letting the actions of unfriendly nations go unopposed.

Kenneth Pollack, a scholar at the Brookings Institution, has recently published a wonderful book on the Iranian nuclear question, entitled Unthinkable, in which he addresses this very problem. Pollack, too, advocates a containment policy toward Iran, but he devotes a significant portion of his book to explaining that there are different “flavors” of containment from which to choose, and that these need not be synonymous with appeasement or latent pacifism.

The critics of those who push for containment do make valid points, however. There is indeed a contingent of people who often mask their apologetics for Tehran (and Moscow, and Damascus, and Beijing, and Pyongyang, etc.) in the language of realpolitik. Those who, like me, think a war with Iran would be a horrendous disaster have to remain aware of this unfortunate fact. We can, among other things, do what Gaddis and Pollack have done: rigorously enforce the distinctions between different ideas that history has saddled with one vague term.

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