The Return of Containment
What the Cold War policy means for our current moment.
One of the most successful U.S. foreign policies of the last 50 years may well have been containment, which the United States used from 1947 until the end of the Cold War to block the expansion of Soviet power and influence. Today, as pundits and politicians talk about a new cold war erupting between the United States and China and Russia, it’s worth asking whether some version of containment could once again make sense for the coming decades as well.
To be sure, there are vast differences in the nature of the threat facing the United States in the 1950s and that today. But there are plenty of reasons to give the policy a second look, too. And an approach that relies more on the positive aspects of the original policy—promoting multilateral cooperation, eliminating trade barriers, and adopting market principles among allies—than the negative ones, such as military deterrence and economic embargoes, could go a long way toward securing U.S. interests.
The diplomat George F. Kennan introduced the United States to the idea of containment in 1946 with his “Long Telegram” to the State Department, in which he, as chargé d’affaires in Moscow, laid out his perspective on how to counter the rise of the Soviet Union. In 1947, he published those views anonymously in a Foreign Affairs article. In the latter, Kennan recommended a “long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies.” If the United States frustrated Soviet expansionist tendencies long enough, he believed, Moscow might “mellow,” allowing for a negotiated settlement with Washington. Kennan’s idea appealed to U.S. President Harry Truman, who formally made containment U.S. policy in March 1947, during a speech to Congress in which he outlined what is now known as the Truman Doctrine.
Truman’s speech was occasioned by a formal request from Britain that the United States take over responsibility for financial and military assistance to Greece and Turkey. London’s finances were under severe strain after World War II, and the government was retrenching from part of its overseas empire—including, as noted in its February 1947 request, Greece. U.S. Undersecretary of State Dean Acheson viewed the British communiqué as another indicator of the empire’s imminent demise. If the United States did not step in as the new world leader, he thought, the Soviet Union would fill the vacuum. For the United States to act on Britain’s request, though, the administration would need authorization and funds from a Republican-led Congress that was determined to cut government spending.
Acheson oversaw the drafting of Truman’s address, which would see the president request $400 million in economic and military assistance to Greece and Turkey. He placed his appeal for funds in a larger context, reminding lawmakers that the United States had recently fought Germany and Japan to prevent despotism. “I believe that it must be the policy of the United States,” Truman declared, “to support free peoples who are resisting attempted subjugation by armed minorities or by outside pressures.” This support would mostly take the form of economic and financial assistance to help promote economic stability and orderly political processes.
Even as they discussed aid to Greece and Turkey, Acheson and other U.S. officials were actively considering how to apply the new policy to Western Europe, which was on the verge of economic collapse. The Truman administration feared that the Europeans might turn to communism out of desperation, despair, and demoralization. To head off that threat—including from powerful communist parties in both Italy and France—U.S. Secretary of State George Marshall crafted an aid program with the advice of a group of exceptional diplomatic and military officials, including Kennan and others.
The resulting Marshall Plan’s economic help had conditions. Recipients would have to reduce trade barriers among themselves and adopt market principles. The European countries would need to build a unified and integrated economic strategy. And to prevent U.S. money from indirectly going to the Soviet Union, the Truman administration persuaded recipients of the Marshall Plan to cooperate in a strategic embargo of goods that could strengthen Soviet military power. Although the economic assistance was meant as a substitute for U.S. political and military obligations, France and Britain refused to take the risk of economic interdependence with other aid recipients without U.S. participation in a collective defense pact. France was also concerned about the long-term consequences of rebuilding German power. Truman and Marshall were willing to adapt and agreed to a multilateral alliance under the North Atlantic Treaty, which was ratified by the U.S. Senate in July 1949, creating NATO.
Containment enjoyed substantial support within the United States. The appeal to anti-communism resonated with isolationists and internationalists alike. And the principal components of containment—the Truman Doctrine, Marshall Plan, and NATO—all received bipartisan approval from Congress. Public support only grew, moreover, as containment enjoyed a series of successes, including Western Europe’s rapid economic recovery (a 60 percent increase in industrial production from 1947 to 1952 for Marshall Plan recipients), the marginalization of the communist parties in Italy and France, and the economic integration of West Germany. Containment received its final validation when the Soviet Union fell apart in December 1991. The Soviet Union, just as Kennan had predicted, had mellowed.
With the United States once again facing down great-power foes, the idea of containment—that the United States can box out its foes well enough that they will stop directly challenging its power—is appealing. But there are many key differences between today and the immediate post-World War II years that complicate the picture.
During the Cold War, for example, the United States could use economic containment in the form of embargoes on the Soviet bloc and China to prevent its rivals from acquiring machinery and equipment that would strengthen their military power. But attempting something similar would make less sense today. The United States would find it much harder to cut off trade, investment, and student exchanges with China, in particular, because the U.S. and Chinese economies are so interdependent. Washington would also struggle to prevent third countries from trading and investing in China, as it did during the Cold War. Something similar goes for Russia. Although that country sells little to the United States, it does deal extensively in goods and gas with Europe.
Short of an embargo, the United States could put more limits on the export of technologies that might endanger overall U.S. military superiority, especially artificial intelligence, robotics, and quantum computing. Such strict controls were used during the Cold War but then relaxed in the 1990s—after all, China could by then obtain such technologies from plenty of third countries, and the United States wanted a piece of the trade pie. Imposing a new round of export limits would require cooperation with allied states that are concerned about China’s use of new technologies to spy on them—something that has been difficult to muster so far, especially in regards to Chinese 5G technology.
On the Cold War’s End
It would be a very sad and hopeless situation if we were to convince ourselves that the peace of the world depended on the ability of the rest of us to prevent the Soviet Union indefinitely from acting like a great power.
—George F. Kennan
The great powers now have the opportunity to end, on terms that protect their common interests and European stability, the great confrontation that has divided the Continent.
Since the birth of the Soviet state, foreign observers have often used the terms “Russian” and “Soviet” as if they were interchangeable. Now, with the vast, multiethnic Soviet state a shambles, many are wondering about the future of a post-imperial Russia.
[Those who lived under it] emerged from communism shocked to find that many of the claims their governments had made about capitalism were in fact true—the crime, poverty, and drug addiction of capitalist societies were not merely propaganda.
The military component of containment would also be complicated to apply today. During the Cold War, it took the form of the deterrence of a Soviet invasion of Western Europe through the mobilization of the NATO alliance and the threatened use of nuclear weapons to convince the Soviets that the costs of aggression would exceed any benefits. The strategy’s success rested on clear lines between East and West and between war and peace. If Soviet tanks had rolled through the Fulda Gap into West Germany, it would have quickly led to World War III—and everyone knew it.
Today, by contrast, the dividing lines aren’t so clear. In the South China Sea and Western Pacific, for example, U.S. and Chinese ships frequently intermingle. And the question of whether Ukraine belongs, in a sense, to the West or to Russia has sparked seven years of tension and intermittent bloodshed with no resolution in sight. Conflicts in these areas no longer rise to the level of conventional war. Instead, China and Russia have favored so-called salami tactics, where they make incremental steps, each too small to warrant firm opposition, but that, over time, can lead to a major shift in control. China, for example, has dredged up sand to turn coral reefs and submerged marine features into seven islands, which it has then loaded up with radars, runways, and surface-to-air missiles. Although no project in particular crossed the threshold to provoke a war, altogether these small steps have given China the ability to control the South China Sea. Russia’s use of hybrid warfare—which relies on conventional and irregular warfare, disinformation, cyberattacks, covert action, and local forces to stir up low-level conflict—is likewise unsuited to traditional military deterrence.
For actions like these, which fall below the threshold of military conflict, incentives to cooperate—the very opposite of containment—could be more useful than threats. For example, Russian President Vladimir Putin would like an end to sanctions, which have proliferated under successive U.S. presidents without real clarity on how they could ever be lifted. The United States could set conditions for rolling them back and then follow through, which could lead to better results than threatening more and more sanctions.
A final problem with containment is that, if misapplied, it could provoke a dangerous backlash. Both Russia and China see themselves as trying to restore their status as global great powers. For China, that means continued economic development and what it sees as legitimate influence on the world stage. Russia, meanwhile, is not looking to expand its writ in Europe; what it wants instead is for the West to recognize its privileged interests—a sphere of influence—in countries that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. Given all this, the dangers of misapplying containment are illustrated by Russia’s reaction to the enlargement of NATO to include former members of the Soviet Union and the Eastern Bloc, which provoked an enduring sense of grievance in Moscow and feelings of being unjustly excluded by the West. Similarly, attempts to cut off trade with China would reduce U.S. leverage and could lead to the division of the world into rival economic blocs, as happened during the Cold War.
But before putting containment back on the bookshelf, there are elements of the policy that could be tailored to today’s great-power competition. As originally conceived, containment was not aimed at promoting regime change as much as preventing countries from falling into the enemy’s orbit. Applied today, that would mean accepting that the United States does not have the power to change China’s or Russia’s regime. It has to deal with both states as they are, even as it cooperates with aligned states to balance their power.
Containment was not a purely negative doctrine, moreover, but also included a forward-thinking liberal component, especially through the Marshall Plan and NATO, of encouraging multilateral cooperation, eliminating trade barriers, and adopting market principles to strengthen the “first world” relative to the “second.” Today, the United States might recommit to multilateral institutions and free trade itself. That could induce China to alter its unfair and predatory economic tactics.
There was also economic assistance to help Western Europe rebuild and create what Acheson called “situations of strength” in strategic areas. Today, the United States could revive this aspect of containment by providing an alternative source of investment to China’s Belt and Road Initiative, with fewer strings attached, for developing countries so that they would not be dependent on the United States’ rival.
To work today, containment would need to be adapted to the reality that the challenges presented by China and Russia are different from those during the Cold War. A containment strategy that merely thwarts China’s or Russia’s status aspirations is likely to be viewed by both states as illegitimate and is likely to provoke pushback. Each should be provided an avenue for more constructive behavior.
Today’s containment would be more complex and contingent than the original. It would rely more on the positive aspects than the negative, and it would eschew regime change. As in the Cold War, though, the goal would be to avoid war while discouraging major challenges to U.S. interests until a negotiated settlement is possible. Since the term “containment” is toxic for both China and Russia, the United States could call it something different—rebalancing, perhaps. Yet, if done correctly, the result would be the same as in the 1950s: healthy partners capable of standing up to coercion and intimidation on their own.
Deborah Welch Larson is a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.