The Folly of a New Containment

The 2020s have seen the return and new appeal of “containment” thinking in U.S. grand strategy. Facing the erosion of unipolarity, the rise of China as a global power, and the newfound assertiveness of other regional and major powers such as Russia and Iran, some American strategists have resurrected and retooled this familiar Cold War concept. For instance, a recent Foreign Affairs article, “To Prevail, Washington Must Revive Containment”, proposes that America deal with its adversaries, especially Russia, through a “new containment”.

By advancing a particular reading of the original containment doctrine, the authors suggest a long-term U.S. strategy that will (1) create a cordon sanitaire around Russia globally while avoiding direct conflict, (2) contest Russian influence in the Global South through development assistance, trade, and investment, and (3) simultaneously contain China as well as Russia. According to the authors, all these objectives could be accomplished by demanding that more of Europe’s military expenditures be marshaled against Russia so that America’s resources can subsequently be shifted to the Indo-Pacific region to counter China.

Such an approach would also pave the way for Ukrainian “victory”, the authors claim, if not through the recapture of lost territory, then through Ukraine’s military and political integration with the West. This would leave Russia dealing with the long-term consequences of a failed invasion, which might just lead to the type of problems that contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union after Afghanistan (one can only imagine how thrilled the Ukrainians will be with this comparison). Furthermore, the authors hope that persistent sanctions on Russia will eventually create an economic crisis of the kind “the Soviet Union experienced in the 1980s,” weakening the country’s resolve. Despite favoring containment, however, the authors suggest that the U.S. and Russia should still find a way to have meaningful dialogues on arms control, cyber-warfare, and regional conflicts, and even cooperate on issues such as climate change.

Such talk of New Containment seems like a wasteful exercise of pouring new wine into old wineskins and is increasingly fanciful given the current trajectory of the Russo-Ukrainian War. Fully assessing the problems of New Containment, however, requires a firm grasp of the older, Cold War containment model and the different types of containment strategies one could adopt.

Containments Old and New

Firstly, the Old Containment made strategic sense for the West because the alliance faced a military rival that was highly selective about where it actually intervened, not to mention one that did not threaten our core interests. Since both sides were equally concerned about avoiding threats to the core interests of the other side, our counter-measures to Soviet expansionism could be varied. Initially, Washington focused its resources on promoting economic development and strengthening the political stability of its important allies in key regions. As they grew more confident, American policymakers also adopted an indirect military approach that deliberately avoided or minimized the risk of direct superpower confrontation—orchestrating proxy wars in specific geopolitical chokepoints where (with few major exceptions such as Vietnam) our power projection capabilities were generally superior to those of the USSR.

Today, however, NATO is attempting to project power into areas where Russian power projection capacity is practically unlimited, and which Russia has repeatedly declared to be of vital interest to its national security. It has also demonstrated in Ukraine that it is willing to defend these interests at the cost of tens of thousands of Russian lives, and even near-total isolation from the West. The risks associated with countering Russia’s “escalation dominance”—the notion that, in regions adjacent to it, Russia has an insurmountable military and logistical advantage over its rivals—wisely deterred the Obama administration from direct and overt intervention in Ukraine in 2014. Such careful and sensible risk management appears to be wholly missing from the outlook of “new containment” proponents.

Secondly, various countries agreed with Washington’s Old Containment policy, because they regarded the West as offering a superior socio-economic model and the potential for economic prosperity, particularly by the 1980s. Most importantly, America and its allies enjoyed a monopoly over access to cutting-edge technologies, which developing countries desperately needed. Today, that is no longer the case. A growing number of countries are willing and eager to invest in alternative political and economic models, such as the BRICS+, that they believe better serve their interests.

Thirdly, the Old Containment’s solution to what George Kennan deemed the USSR’s “implacable” ideological challenge offered hope to the Russians themselves, rather than demonizing them. Containment anticipated the fall of communism in the Soviet bloc but promised their people eventual reintegration with the Western community of nations: it represented a ray of light at the end of a dark tunnel. The post-communist era would signify a return to normalcy, with even Russia welcomed into the global community of nations. Today, given the Manichaean portrayals of our strategic conflict with Russia, this possibility looks increasingly difficult to achieve. Western publics are being encouraged to reject all things Russian, and even to recast elements of Russian culture as originally belonging to other countries. The objective now, it sadly seems, is to erase the memory of Russians having ever been part of Europe and Western culture. While this is probably not the intent of the authors of the Foreign Affairs piece, it will be an almost inevitable consequence of any New Containment policy.

Whereas the Old Containment could appeal to the patriotism of average Russians, by pointing out, as the late Alexander Solzhenitsyn often did, that it was communism that had prevented Russians from being able to worship as they choose, express their political beliefs, or take pride in their history, the New Containment denies them any accomplishments at all, leaving Russian patriots without even the prospect of future partners in the West. The New Containment thus suffers from a devastating absence of any hopeful vision of the future. Were Kennan alive today, we suspect he would advise Western leaders that, while they should denounce Russian aggression, they should be very careful to avoid condemning in the same breath the entirety of Russian art, culture, history, and religion. Indeed, Kennan might have counseled the transatlantic elites to laud Russia’s civilizational contributions to the human story, and stress their anticipation of a time when these achievements could once again be celebrated as part of the West’s common cultural heritage.

It remains to be seen whether current efforts in the West (and more recently in Russia) to simply erase that shared European heritage will succeed, but its immediate result has been to solidify the view in Russia that this is a struggle that it cannot afford to lose. It has also created a new reservoir of sympathy for Russia in the non-Western World, which has long been subjected to similar deculturation and dehumanization by Western elites.

In Russia, and indeed much of the world, the absence of any positive vision beyond containment that would eventually reintegrate Russia confirms that what we are witnessing is a last-ditch effort to preserve the dominance of the liberal international order, now euphemistically referred to as “the rules-based order”. While the ruling class in select nations may buy into this approach, hoping to ride the West’s coattails and thereby maintain themselves in power,  one would be hard-pressed to find many leaders committing to such a reactionary vision over the long term. 

Different Containments

To better understand the dangers inherent in the New Containment, we must also shed the mythology surrounding its current usage and recover what it meant historically and its varied forms.

Back in the Cold War era, there were two iterations of Containment used by America’s Cold Warriors. The first, as proposed by Kennan himself and repeatedly clarified in the intervening decades, was about “the political containment of a political threat” posed by the aggressive global expansionism of Soviet ideology and its universalist eschatology. Kennan, a classical realist, “recognized the limitations of a force-based approach” to political and ideological challenges and “worried about overly-broad and militaristic definitions of U.S. interests.” The second strand, which became the dominant approach in Washington after the Korean War and was promoted by the more hawkish strategists like Nitze, interpreted Containment in global, military, and strategic terms. While the former sought to contain Soviet territorial expansion by neutralizing the appeal of Soviet ideology and the USSR’s propaganda in Western societies, the latter relied on the threat of military confrontations across the globe just short of nuclear war.

By the 1980s, with the rise of Ronald Reagan and Neoconservatism in the United States, Containment was dovetailed by liberalism, which sought to use America’s global image and galvanizing soft power to internally transform Soviet culture and society through persistent campaigns hyping the glamour of the Western way of life. “Rollback”, an aggressive variant of military containment strategy that created global flashpoints against which the Soviets became increasingly over-extended, was thus combined with an expanded and deliberate push for a cultural capture of the USSR by Western values, the spread of which the Soviets could hardly contain. This proved a successful recipe for dismantling the USSR, but it had the long-term cost of recasting Western societies themselves in terms of an ideology, that of “liberalism”.

Kennan’s original intuition—also reflected later by French social scientist Emmanuel Todd who predicted the fall of the USSR—was that the internal contradictions and societal dislocations inherent in Soviet ideology would eventually cause its downfall. All the West had to do, therefore, was to carry on long enough for that ideology to self-destruct under the weight of its own problems. It was Kennan’s particular view that, once this transformation had occurred, and the communist regime was overthrown, it would be wise to leave Russia alone—to give it time to heal until it could re-emerge as a normal, non-ideological, Great Power. But America’s descent into ideology in the intervening years made that a moot prospect, and Washington instead sought in earnest to liberalize and Americanize post-Soviet societies.

As such, since the end of the Cold War, we have slowly witnessed the genesis of a third kind of Containment, mostly theorized outside of the West, that interprets the concept in civilizational terms. The supposed goal of this new variant of containment is to defend or inoculate traditional and non-Western societies against the homogenizing force of Western progressive values and the deracinating effects of the liberal form of life. This civilizational containment model has only accelerated in the aftermath of the Russo-Ukrainian war. The upshot is that, while Western leaders have employed the language of “clash of civilizations” to paint Russia-West relations in ideological binaries as a contest of “democracy” vs. “authoritarianism”, Kremlin-friendly Russian elites such as Aleksander Dugin have begun to identify Russia as a civilizational Katechon meant to contain the spread of liberal Western ideology (which ironically brings to mind the earlier liberal resistance against the spread of Leninism).

Although a defense of cultural particularity against the modern onslaught of Western universalism informed the original appeal of civilizational containment, the perception in Russia of a Manichaean and liberal Western crusadism is now producing, as Maria Engstrom has observed, an equally Manichaean reaction couched in Russia’s own Christian messianic tradition that also sees the world in stark black and white terms. This new ideological framing increasingly pathologizes the initially non-aggressive form of cultural realism that was adopted by Russian intellectuals to affirm and defend the distinctiveness of Russian civilization, allowing Russian hawks to justify “a new wave of militarization and anti-Western sentiment” in Russia.

This unfortunate development ultimately poses a far greater challenge for the West than simple strategic competition among great powers, particularly as each side seems to be increasingly defining the ideological/civilizational encroachment of the other as an existential threat to itself. On the one hand, Russia (along with many other regional and civilizational powers in the Global South) aims to protect its cultural sovereignty; on the other, the West seems to regard any resistance to its cultural hegemony as reactionary, revisionist, and adversarial. Furthermore, the fact that the West threatens the so-called rogue states with an ever-expanding list of generally ineffective or counterproductive sanctions has also put into doubt the supremacy of the dollar as the world’s reserve currency.

As Europe uses the war in Ukraine to establish its territorial expanse to the exclusion of Russia, and Moscow turns increasingly hostile to the West, the schism between Russia and Europe appears to be calcifying. A potential ontological othering between Russia and the West would create a permanent us vs. them dynamic that could raise anti-Westernism in Russia and Russophobia in the West, reducing both civilizations into ideological effigies justifying endless cycles of conflict and escalation. 

Confronting this bleak possibility—especially in a multicivilizational-multipolar world order that is currently taking shape—necessitates, therefore, abandoning the exhausted, antiquated containment framework for a fundamentally new approach informed by cultural realism: one that affirms both the uniqueness of different forms of life and their plurality, and which aims for a global modus vivendi based on strategic empathy, civilizational engagement, and diplomacy.

From Containment to Concert of Civilizational Powers

The advocates of a New Containment yearn to restore the Cold War’s supposedly Golden Age of relatively peaceful discontent in which a permanent quest for global hegemony appeared both normal and possible to attain. The closest the Western and Soviet elites ever came to such coexistence, however, was during the brief détente of the Nixon era. The rest of the time, both sides were plagued by neuroses and anxieties that they sought to suppress by spending more and more money on their respective military establishments. The comforting familiarity of this remedy forms, perhaps, a large part of containment’s appeal today.

Nevertheless, it is important to remember that, by the end of the 1990s, the two inspirational godfathers of containment, Kennan and Nitze, both strongly opposed NATO expansion and warned against adopting an aggressive stance against Russia. They saw these policies as undermining half a century of painstaking efforts to cultivate in Russia the view that the West was ultimately not its enemy even if it did not always have the most friendly or honorable of intentions. Today, however, our policies have left us both overextended and with few friends inside Russia (and similarly in China).

The West’s obsession with the complete military defeat of Russia in Ukraine makes it glaringly obvious, in the rest of the world if not in Washington, that this is a fight to preserve America’s global dominance. Under the veil of moralistic and rhetorical language lies a contest for expanding the West’s power and sphere of influence, not values. Moreover, the view that Ukraine must continue to fight, no matter the costs, rather than negotiate for peace, brings to mind the famous quote of an American Major after the battle of Ben Tre, Vietnam, that “it became necessary to destroy the town to save it.”

The truth is that the Uniparty in Washington is still wedded to the idea of global hegemony, setting the ultimate aim of U.S. grand strategy in terms of maintaining an unchallenged global position—as the world’s sole permanent superpower. The bipartisan consensus in the Beltway continues to insist, despite all evidence to the contrary, that America can achieve this impossible target by weakening our great power competitors through war and conflict. The trouble, as George Washington presciently warned, is that strategic entanglement in such distant conflicts actually weakens us in the process.

Russia, after all, is already reduced to a regional power that is struggling even to retain its sphere of influence in its near-abroad. Russia is not the Soviet Union, nor is it a great power: it is nonsensical to marshal resources to try to “contain” an already-diminished power. By insisting on Containment in this new strategic environment, we reveal ourselves to be guided by our ideological and ontological constructs instead of reality, while manufacturing security dilemmas that have real, lasting consequences. We also convey to the Russians that we seek their total subordination to American (Western) interests, in much the same manner that the defeated Axis powers were subordinated to the United States after the Second World War. Such a Western posture only makes the ongoing conflict appear more existential for Russia, as a fight for the very survival of its way of life.   

Containment, old or new, therefore functions on antiquated presumptions about how the world used to work. It perpetuates two false narratives: 1) that Moscow has no agency or strategic autonomy and can only ever react to Western policies, and 2) that Russian ontological insecurity in relation to Western actors is unimportant in the formation of Russian strategy and geopolitical behavior. These assumptions are compounded by the blithe premise that Russia, despite every evidence to the contrary, will suffer irreparable losses if isolated by the West, and therefore must eventually yield to our will. Beneath the containment logic, there also exists an equally fanciful belief that China and BRICS+ nations will also eventually be forced to see the world as we do.

This is all wishful thinking. By attempting to isolate Russia, we have managed to isolate ourselves. Not only has Russia decisively turned its back on the current generation of Western leaders, but it is fast forging new relations and bonds with the rest of the world. The new global dynamic is accelerating the Great Transition to multipolarity and will increasingly undermine Western influence if it fails to adapt to this new world, ending not only its geopolitical but also its cultural hegemony. A Zeitenwende indeed!

New Containment cannot meet the challenge of a changing world order and a new balance of power that benefits Russia, China, Iran, and the other middle powers in the “non-West”, because it is out of step with the new structural realities—accelerated by multipolarity and our own highly costly and myopic strategic culture. It is also bound to fail, because, fundamentally, as power becomes more evenly distributed in a multiplex system, a shrinking fraction of the world cannot contain the whole.

There is a better way to enhance both American security and global stability that abandons the familiar but problematic logic of bloc-thinking and its zero-sum framing of the world for a cultural realism that emphasizes global cultural pluralism, the importance of dialogue and engagement among civilizations, mutual recognition of interest, and strategic empathy. Building on what Richard Hass and Charles Kupchan have called a “global concert of powers”, such a realist and interest-based, neo-Metternichian approach prioritizing a global equilibrium could give way to a “concert of civilizations” that advances peaceful co-existence and global stability in the multipolar world.

How to develop this new strategic mindset, that reconceives America’s role in the world in alignment with the “Concert”, would require a cultural reset as much as anything. But that is a topic for future discussion. For now, though, we must create space for diplomacy and engage in dialogue with our adversaries to resolve the ongoing global conflicts that threaten to spiral out of control—to allow us to reach that time of fundamental reconceptualization in one piece.

Dr. Nicolai N. Petro is a Senior Washington Fellow at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy and a Professor of Political Science at the University of Rhode Island.

Dr. Arta Moeini is Director of Research at the Institute for Peace & Diplomacy.