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HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchWhy Containment Can Stop the China Threat

Why Containment Can Stop the China Threat

Author: Hal Brands

Affiliation: Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS)

Organization/Publisher: The National Interest 

Date/Place: April 23, 2021/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 3748


Keywords: Containment, George Kennan, Walter Lippmann, US-China Rivalry, and Cold War’s Lessons


The article draws on the author’s forthcoming book, entitled: “The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Teaches Us about Great-Power Rivalry Today” (2022). Hal Brands reviews here the advantages and disadvantages of the containment strategy for the United States during its long-term rivalry with the Soviets, calling for reconsideration, especially since many American scholars and officials are invoking this approach today when they talk about the long-term competition the US is entering with China and the best strategy that should be adopted. The containment approach was associated with George Kennan, who sent it in the form of a long telegram in 1946 while he was a diplomat in Moscow, then it was published in the Foreign Affairs under an anonymous name (X). This approach is seen today as the most successful American strategy, but it was subjected to sharp criticism at that time. Some crises proved the credibility of those critics such as the Vietnam War, until Kennan himself questioned it and called for a halt to the Cold War escalation. The author recalls here the sharp criticisms made to containment by Walter Lippmann, one of the most prominent American realists at that time, in his book “The Cold War: A Study in U.S Foreign Policy” (1947), and he argues that the debate sparked by that criticism provides us today with useful lessons in formulating the optimal strategy for long-term competition with China. Lippmann described containment as a “strategic monstrosity” and as a dangerous prescription for a geopolitical malady, expecting its failure with a great price that would cost the US its essence and position, as his criticism clarifies the many dangers and tragedies that accompany global competition. Lippmann also argued that Kennan miscalculated the nature of the Cold War due to his emphasis on the ideological roots of hostility (the anti-capitalist communist ideology), while Lippmann viewed the struggle from a geopolitical perspective linked to the unsatisfactory outcomes of World War II for Washington, especially in the depths of Europe in which Stalin’s imperial army was located. Lippmann predicted that the containment policy was exceeding the US’ ability to implement, causing the loss of the initiative’s capacity, and making its policy mere reactions to the Soviets’ moves. He also saw that containment requires Washington to defend the weak positions everywhere instead of focusing on the most valuable ones, which inevitably leads it to enter into partnerships with unsavory clients whose allegiance was a source of weakness rather than strength. Thus, containment will carry Washington into unfavorable competitive areas that make the strategy unsustainable. Moreover, Lippmann argued that American democracy (with its lumbering decision-making procedures) would not be suitable for long-term competition, but rather is a hindrance to containment whose characteristics and requirements for success are more commensurate with authoritarian regimes. Furthermore, he rejected containment theory’s basic assumption that the Soviet power is weak and impermanent in nature; he saw that mere wishful thinking. On the other hand, he called for activating diplomacy with the Soviets to avoid a long Cold War, as “better an imperfect peace than an indefinite struggle America could not win.” Lippmann’s criticism was harsh, but he was not alone, as many officials and scholars supported it, such as Henry Wallace, Robert Taft, Herbert Hoover, Bertrand Russell, and Winston Churchill. Containment for them would only present an unlimited confrontation and exhaustion in marginal regions in the era of nuclear danger, and it would take more than fifteen years, contrary to what Kennan claimed. Although Lippmann had looked prescient (especially in the wake of Vietnam), Kennan (the 1947 version) proved that he was more prophetic. The Cold War did not end as Lippmann had expected, with a mutual de-escalation, but instead with a Soviet mellowing and concessions that the West had been seeking for decades, and then a Soviet breakup due to the irrationality of its system and the many internal obstacles (demography, economy and governance model) that stood in its way, as Kennan had expected. The author here wonders about the reasons behind Lippmann’s misjudgment despite his great knowledge of the Soviet Union and the major issues, arguing that the answer to this question reveals to us many aspects related to long-term competition and what makes the US, during the post-Cold War era, very capable of fighting it. Here the author presents six reasons. First, Lippmann missed the fact that the dynamics of the US economy and the legitimacy of democracy had prepared the US well for a long-term geopolitical war of attrition. He failed to see the opponent’s weaknesses associated with its fragile authoritarian model. At a time when democracy gave the US the ability to correct its mistakes, the authoritarian regime in Moscow darkened its problems until they exploded with time. Second, democracy was more appropriate to competition, contrary to what Lippmann claimed. The combination of democracy and a free-market economy generated a degree of wealth and innovation that the Soviet system could never match. Democracy was a tactical disadvantage, but it was a long-run strategic blessing for the United States. Third, he failed to anticipate the extent to which containment could combine purpose with flexibility. Containment was never a fixed set of policies. Rather, it was a concept that provided direction while permitting flexibility and strategic choice. Containment was developing in ways that Kennan himself did not anticipate, as the feature of resilience is what has allowed containment to continue and triumph. Fourth, Lippmann did not understand well the ability of containment to combine ideology and realpolitik. The US’ focus on defending American values and a free way of life brought popular support for containment and attraction to allies, especially in Western Europe. Fifth, Kennan expected that successful diplomacy would follow power politics rather than precede it (contrary to what Lippmann called for), which is what actually happened. The settlement with the Soviets came at the end of the 1980s after a long period of competition and American power politics. Sixth, Lippmann focused his criticism on the evils that could result from containment. This led him to overlook the advantages of this approach. Here, the author argues that the extended dangerous competition could be a way to avoid something worse, as the advantages of containment are greater than the disadvantages. In the end, the author concludes some useful insights from the Kennan-Lippmann debate as the US enters another dangerous, long-term competition with China. Of course, there are differences between the current US-Chinese rivalry and the Cold War in terms of opponent power and contemporary conditions; however, the author cautions against the temptation of viewing containment as a glorious and bloodless victory without considering its exorbitant costs and grave risks that have led the US to numerous moral and strategic traps. It would be foolish to think that competing with China would be easier and morally cleaner than the Cold War, so Lippmann’s warnings should always keep us awake. Fortunately, the author finds that the Kennan-Lippmann debate reminds us of America’s prospects in such a competition: its performance was more worthy than what Lipmann and Kennan had anticipated, as it demonstrated that many of its weaknesses were, in fact, among its greatest strengths such as democratic politics and the market economy. The author concludes his article by praising the containment approach as a balanced and right strategy that blended strength with sobriety, ambition with equanimity in a time of long competition, where the costs of war or appeasement could be truly horrific.


By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate



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