Strategies of Containment, Past and Future

Monday, April 30, 2001

Despite what historians like to claim on their book jackets, there is no such thing as a definitive account of any historical episode. Responsible scholars can disagree on what the documents show. New documents can always surface. And for those of us who were writing Cold War history while the Cold War was still going on, there was a special problem: we were attempting to chronicle an event without knowing its outcome. My book Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of Postwar American National Security Policy appeared in 1982 under just these circumstances.

Despite its age, the book is still widely used in history and political science classes, and I’m often asked how I would write it differently now. A revised edition is not in the works: life is too short, and the list of other interesting projects is too long. But it might be worth sketching out what seem to me now to be some of the shortcomings in Strategies, not least because "containment" remains a tempting framework for thinking about the post–Cold War world.

Symmetry versus Asymmetry

I was writing the book during the late 1970s and early 1980s, the last point at which it was still possible to think that the Soviet Union might somehow prevail in the Cold War. The inadequacies of American policy were painfully obvious. Vietnam had been a disaster; and the Nixon-Kissinger détente, which appeared for a while to have repaired the damage, was beginning to fall apart. Both the 1976 and 1980 presidential election campaigns had seen strong criticisms by the victors of what their predecessors had done. Disarray, as a consequence, seemed the dominant theme.

From the onset of the Cold War, the U.S. goal had been to persuade the Soviets to change their behavior so that there would be nothing left to contain. No president has a better claim than Ronald Reagan to having accomplished that task.

The most influential architects of containment, George Kennan and Paul Nitze, were still active at the time; but although they remained personal friends, they quarreled bitterly over the meaning of that strategy and viewed each other’s policy recommendations with undisguised alarm. The idea that Kennan might one day praise the diplomacy of Ronald Reagan, or that Nitze would come around to favoring the abolition of nuclear weapons, would have seemed, back then, wildly improbable. It was, I’m sure, this general climate that led me to see greater discontinuity than consistency in American grand strategy and therefore to frame Strategies in terms of an oscillation between what I called "symmetrical" and "asymmetrical" containment.

Asymmetrical containment, I argued, involved confronting an adversary at times and in places of one’s own choosing (to paraphrase John Foster Dulles). The idea was to retain the initiative: in the terrain upon which the contest was to take place, the means by which it was to be conducted, and the balance between the costs encountered and the benefits derived.

Examples of asymmetrical containment included Kennan’s own strategy, largely implemented by the Truman administration between 1947 and 1949, with its emphasis on an economic response to the Soviet political-military-ideological challenge in Europe and on resigned, if not benign, neglect elsewhere, as in China; the Eisenhower-Dulles "new look" strategy, with its implied threat to respond to limited aggression in one location with alternative means—nuclear weapons, alliances, psychological warfare, covert action—in others; and the Nixon-Kissinger strategy of détente, which used the concept of "linkage" to regain the initiative in the wake of the Vietnam debacle through the opening to China, arms control negotiations with Moscow, and at least the implied assurance of economic assistance to the Soviet Union in return for geopolitical restraint.

All of these strategies, I argued, assumed limited, relatively inelastic means on the part of the United States and hence the need to bring interests into line with capabilities rather than the other way around. That, in turn, meant differentiating clearly between vital and peripheral interests.

Symmetrical containment, conversely, sought to address two glaring weaknesses of asymmetrical containment: its neglect of apparently peripheral areas that could, under unexpected circumstances, become vital, as had happened in 1950 with South Korea, and the apparent narrowness of the choice, in Korea and similar situations, between escalation, on the one harnd, and doing nothing at all, on the other.

Nitze’s policy paper, NSC-68, completed just before the Korean War broke out, stressed both of these points: it refused to regard any part of the world as peripheral but also denied the need to choose between escalation and inaction. The United States had to develop the capability to respond in all locations and by any means, the document argued, and through the stimulative effect of defense spending on the national economy, it could afford to do this. The Truman administration quickly embraced this strategy, with the result that defense spending tripled within a year.

The classic public statement of symmetrical containment was of course John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address, with its commitment to "pay any price, bear any burden." It was Kennedy who insisted on the capacity for "flexible response": the ability to respond wherever and in whatever manner aggression took place but to do so without either backing down or dangerously escalating the conflict. The proving ground for this strategy turned out to be the war in Vietnam, which Lyndon B. Johnson justified because he believed that the means available to the United States could be expanded as needed and that the means of what appeared to be an insignificant adversary could not.

What this led to, though, the advocates of asymmetrical containment might well have anticipated: relinquishing the initiative. Because the United States resisted either escalation or withdrawal, it got stuck in a conflict in which the enemy controlled the nature and extent of the competition at every stage. The home court advantage was Hanoi’s, all the way through.

The Reagan Anomaly

Strategies of Containment ended with the Ford administration, although there was a brief epilogue on the Carter years. What about Ronald Reagan, many people have asked? Wasn’t his an administration that believed that means were expandable, and yet opted for an asymmetrical strategy that placed a premium on retaining the initiative? Doesn’t that undercut the whole theory of symmetrical versus asymmetrical containment? My answers are, respectively, yes and no.

Yes, because the Reagan administration, unlike any other in the post–World War II era, did significantly increase the defense budget but without confining itself to responding in times and at places chosen by adversaries. Rather, in a series of instances—the shift from SALT to START, the 600-ship navy, the Strategic Defense Initiative, the Reagan Doctrine, Central America, Grenada, covert action, human rights—it sought itself to determine the nature and the arena of competition. The home court advantage was not to go to the other side.

No, because my distinction between the two forms of containment was never a theory of grand strategy, meant to apply in all situations in which there was an adversary to be contained. I intended it only as a generalization about the behavior of a particular set of American administrations—a pattern from which, as it turned out, Reagan and his advisers departed.

In doing so, they came closer to accomplishing the original objective of containment than any other administration during the Cold War. That goal, as Kennan had formulated it in 1947, had been to persuade the Soviet leadership to change its own behavior so that there would be nothing left to contain. No president has a better claim than Reagan to having accomplished that task.

The interesting question is whether this happened because his administration broke the mold—believing in both expandable means and asymmetrical response at the same time. Or was he just lucky, with events inside the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe having more decisively shaped the outcome? The answer is probably some of both, although without full access to the archives it’s difficult to say in just what proportion.

Why Containment Won in the End

It is, however, possible to say something about the adequacy of the symmetrical versus asymmetrical distinction as a way of understanding the history of containment, especially in light of what we have learned since Strategies of Containment first came out. For it’s clear to me now that there were greater sources of strength on the Western side of the conflict—and elements of continuity in American grand strategy—than had been apparent at the time I wrote my book. The most important of these were as follows.

First, an implicit agreement, within the American foreign policy establishment, on the fundamental purposes of containment: on its projected end point. That was—for both Democratic and Republican administrations and for both symmetrical and asymmetrical "containers"—to persuade the Soviet Union to alter its view of the world in ways that would benefit the West but to do so without appeasement at one end of the scale or war at the other.

Even the Reagan administration, which otherwise seems so anomalous, shared this view: I don’t think it was ever its objective to destroy the USSR but rather to encourage it to evolve in a radically different direction. That was certainly the view of the Bush administration. Witness Bush’s own concern (and apparently genuine regret) when it became apparent at the end of 1991 that Gorbachev and the country he led weren’t going to survive.

This single, simple, and continuous priority provided a kind of ballast, a center of gravity for American Cold War strategy: whatever the oscillations between parties or between approaches, this fundamental objective always remained. To see the difference this makes, you need only look at the record of U.S. foreign policy since the Cold War ended, where there has been no such ballast and therefore no consensus on basic purposes and therefore some would say (I am one of them) no grand strategy in the sense that we have traditionally understood that term.

Second, the strategy of containment was always linked to a multilateral rather than a unilateral conception of interests. One of the most remarkable aspects of the United States in the world in the second half of the twentieth century has been the accumulation of so much power with so little resistance, just the opposite of what traditional balance-of-power theory would suggest.

This was, of course, partly a result of the fact that the alternative—the Soviet side—was so unattractive. Not entirely, though, for such an explanation would imply roughly equal capabilities on both sides, and we are now coming to realize that the superpower relationship didn’t work that way. Power was never evenly distributed between Washington and Moscow, and yet the disproportionate power the Americans enjoyed failed to generate the resistance one would have expected. It was not just, then, as Dean Acheson once said, that we were fortunate in our adversaries.

For the strategy of containment had its own appeal, resulting largely from its successful incorporation of Woodrow Wilson’s call for political self-determination, economic integration, and a set of international institutions that would monitor, mediate among, and eventually perhaps even surpass the authority of states themselves. Wilson’s grand design failed within his lifetime—not least because his own country repudiated it—but one of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s most important accomplishments during World War II was to revive a modified Wilsonianism as a basis for planning the postwar world. He thereby created an extraordinary asset for the United States and its allies.

FDR had intended this vision to apply universally: the Soviet Union would be included within it. When it became apparent that this would not happen, though, the Americans did not reject Roosevelt’s plans but instead found ways to integrate them with their Cold War geopolitical objectives, most notably in the Marshall Plan and in the democratization and rehabilitation of occupied Germany and Japan. Idealism and realism turned out not to be, from Washington’s perspective, incompatible.

Paradoxically, democracies turned out to be more efficient than autocracies in conducting the Cold War, not because they centralized power but because they feared it.

Of course this multilateral conception of security was self-serving, as a generation of New Left historians of the Cold War used to delight in pointing out. It has now become apparent, though, that it also served a wider common interest, and that helps explain why the remarkable extension of American power that took place during the Cold War did not produce greater resistance. Strategies of Containment did not do this complementarity of idealism and realism sufficient justice. I hope my 1997 book, We Now Know: Rethinking Cold War History, has.

Third, my own analysis of containment did not pick up an important point that Aaron Friedberg has documented, very impressively, in his new book, In the Shadow of the Garrison State: America’s Anti-Statism and Its Cold War Grand Strategy. Cold War historians of all persuasions used to deplore the size and inefficiency of the American military-industrial complex. It perpetuated the Cold War, the argument ran, even as it strained democracy at home. I focused in Strategies on the concerns that Truman (before 1950) and Eisenhower (always) had about this danger.

Friedberg’s work shows, in contrast, that the traditional American fear of big government, a tendency Cold War historians had neglected, limited what successive administrations could do to mobilize the national economy for a protracted competition with the Soviet Union. This forced reliance on private industry, which in turn opened up a creative mix of bottom-up and top-down stimuli for technological innovation that the Soviet Union, with its exclusively top-down system, was unable to match.

Paradoxically, democracies turned out to be more efficient than autocracies in conducting the Cold War, not because they centralized power but because they feared it. That, surely, was an important part of the strategy of containment as well, even if—like the multilateral approach to security—it reflected more the culture of the country rather than its sophistication in devising grand strategy.

Is Containment Still Relevant?

All these are ways, then, in which I would revise my treatment of the grand strategy of containment in light of what we’ve learned since the Cold War ended. But what is left—or ought to to be left—of the strategy of containment today? There’s a tendency for grand strategists as well as generals to want to fight the last war, and that pattern in itself ought to inoculate us against any easy assumptions that containment will work in the post–Cold War era. But let me suggest some additional reasons for holding this view:

• First, the strategy of containment was targeted against a single source of clear and present danger: the Soviet Union, its allies, and their ideology. A situation like the present, when the sources of danger are multiple, murky, and potential, is quite a different ball game. For this reason alone, the old strategies for winning it should not automatically apply.

• Second, the strategy of containment was always conceived as having term limits: it was meant to expire when its purpose—bringing about a change in the fundamental character of the Soviet Union—had been achieved. That change has now taken place, far more thoroughly and peacefully than the architects of containment could ever have imagined. It is not at all clear, therefore, how this old strategy can continue to be applicable to this new situation.

• Third, the strategy of containment benefited greatly from two "tilts" in the playing field that lay beyond the control of the United States and its allies but from which they greatly benefited: one was that the overall climate for democracy and capitalism was more favorable in the second half of the twentieth century than in the first half; the other was that the Soviet Union and its allies behaved with such a remarkable combination of brutality and incompetence as to dissipate whatever appeal they once had.

The first "tilt" is still there, but the second one isn’t. The United States no longer enjoys the benefits of what we might call the "nurse syndrome": in the words of a subversive children’s poem, "always hold on tight to nurse / for fear of getting something worse." For an increasing number of people in the post–Cold War world, the Americans—not through their brutality but through their self-centeredness—are themselves becoming the "something worse." It is not clear under these circumstances, then, that the benefit of the doubt accorded Washington in the old strategy of containment can be counted on today.

That’s why I’d be skeptical of any attempt to use my old book as a guide to the new situation confronting us. As an analytic history of containment, with the qualifications mentioned above, it still holds up reasonably well. As a theory of containment, it certainly doesn’t and was never meant to. And anyone who might see that strategy—or my book about it—as a blueprint for what the United States should do as we enter the second decade of the post–Cold War era should, I think, proceed very cautiously.

The principles of grand strategy may be transferable across time and space, and we would do well to study them. The copying of grand strategies, however successful they may once have been, is quite another matter. For principles must be adapted to contexts, and contexts are never quite the same: thought is therefore required. Copying substitutes for thinking by ignoring context altogether. Plagiarism in scholarship is bad enough. Plagiarism in strategy could indeed be something far worse.