Credible Leadership Should Seek More Than Containment

Tuesday, April 1, 2014
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Smit, Shutterstock

U.S. Cold War presidential directives coalesced around precepts that defense experts and foreign policy elites advocated: Mutual Assured Destruction (having enough nuclear retaliatory power so that the adversary would not risk a first strike); containing Soviet expansionism, especially in key industrial centers; nuclear arms control negotiations at all costs; the policy of linkage—tying U.S.-Soviet negotiations on one front to bilateral progress on other fronts; and preemptive concession making to demonstrate goodwill toward the Soviet Union.

All of that changed when President Ronald Reagan signed National Security Decision Directive 75 on January 17, 1983. The directive on “U.S. Relations with the USSR” abandoned the national security canon for anticlassical thinking about grand strategy. In addition to containment, the U.S. would seek to “reverse Soviet expansionism by competing effectively on a sustained basis with the Soviet Union in all international arenas.” Encouraging “the process of change in the Soviet Union toward a more pluralistic political and economic system in which the power of the privileged ruling elite is gradually reduced” was another priority. Finally, engaging the Soviet regime in negotiations on “the principle of strict reciprocity and mutual interest” would guide U.S. policy.1

NSDD-75 was an unequivocal strategy: “The heart of U.S. military strategy is to deter attack by the USSR and its allies against the U.S., its Allies, or other important countries, and to defeat such an attack should deterrence fail.” To make this type of deterrence credible, “long-term growth in U.S. defense spending and capabilities—both nuclear and conventional” would be needed.

The directive was classified until the mid-1990s, but its substance was publicly conveyed by Secretary of State George Shultz in his June 1983 testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and by the president in his address to the nation on January 16, 1984.2 In other words, the Soviet government knew where the U.S. had set its red line and just how far the U.S. would go to maintain credibility.

Today, the United States is the only superpower on earth and it continues to be the leader of the West. Thus, any decision-making on Putin’s Russia among Western nations and others that desire freedom must start with the United States. Ideas that constitute grand strategy and the commitment to use that strategy to guide action contribute to a nation’s credibility, and credibility is the coin of the realm in international relations. In the absence of a modern-day NSDD-75, there is no stopping Putin.

1.National Security Decision Directive Number 75, “U.S. Relations with the USSR,” January 17, 1983, accessed May 20, 2014,

2.U.S. Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, U.S.-Soviet Relations Hearing, Part I, June 16, 1983, accessed May 20, 2014,; and President Ronald Reagan, “Address to the Nation and Other Countries on United States-Soviet Relations,” January 16, 1984, accessed May 20, 2014,