The Specter of Containment

Throughout his life, George Kennan felt a great love for the Russian people. He was an admirer of Anton Chekhov's plays and enjoyed taking long walks in the Russian countryside. However, he had no illusions about their despotic leaders. During the Stalinist trials, Kennan worked as an interpreter for the U.S. ambassador and witnessed "the dictator's madness and demonic suspicion," writes Nicholas Thompson in his new book, The Hawk and the Dove: Paul Nitze, George Kennan, and the History of the Cold War.

Kennan's understanding of the complexity of the Soviet Union and the savage brutality of Stalin led him to create an enduring doctrine known as "containment," in the late 1940s which "was used more than any other to describe America's Cold War policy," Thompson writes. The strategy was seen as a way to avoid a nuclear world war, and it continues as a theme in U.S. foreign policy today, with analysts relying on containment as a way of dealing with possible threats from Iran and North Korea.

Last week, the United States disclosed information about a uranium-enrichment plant near the Iranian city of Qum, and Americans have expressed their dismay over the country's nuclear ambitions. Officially, Iran was supposed to disclose its work in this area -- but it failed to do that, prompting the International Atomic Energy Agency's director general Mohamed ElBaradei to announce, "They have been on the wrong side of the law." Meanwhile, the North Koreans conducted another nuclear test this year, and the United Nations Security Council has tightened sanctions against their nuclear-development programs. Now the question remains: How does the United States handle the nuclear issue with these states? Could containment be the solution?

In his book, Thompson takes the reader back to the primal struggle of containment, long before Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Kim Jong-Il were problems. Back then, it seemed to U.S. officials, you could go two ways. You could nuke 'em -- or at least forcefully threaten them with the prospect -- which was the policy that was espoused by state department official Nitze, who was Thompson's grandfather. Or, you could use diplomatic and political channels to curb their aggression, as Kennan recommended: "The main element of any United States policy toward the Soviet Union must be that of a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansive tendencies," he wrote in Foreign Affairs in 1947, defining the policy that the United States would follow for decades.

Containment policy was not always followed in the way that Kennan envisioned, however. Journalist Walter Lippmann, for example, conflated Kennan's argument for containment with the Truman Doctrine, explaining that that the policy meant that the U.S. should intervene in other countries in order to curb the aggression of the Soviet Union, regardless of the location.

A militarized version of containment eventually led to the U.S. involvement in Vietnam, which was seen as a way to fend off communism and the encroachment of the Soviet Union on other parts of the world. In fact, Kennan did not support a militarized doctrine, believing instead that "containment meant propaganda and aid, not pistols and tanks," writes Thompson. In fact, Kennan argued for "forbearance" during almost every military conflict that the U.S. had gotten involved in from the 1950s through 2003.

Kennan was right about the Soviet Union, of course: He had argued that its leaders were thugs but not insane and that they would not start a nuclear war if properly deterred. Today, nobody thinks there will be another arms race between the United States and Russia. "American does not want it," Pavel Felgenhauer, a defense analyst for the Moscow-based newspaper Novaya Gazeta tells me. "Russia cannot." Nevertheless, Kennan's approach has cast a long shadow on the two nations' relationship; Russian leaders were relieved when the U.S. scrapped its plans to establish missile defense facilities in the Czech Republic and Poland, for example, because they saw it as an aggressive form of containment. Indeed, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates pointed out that "the radar that was going into the Czech Republic looked deep into Russia and actually could monitor the launches of their ICBMs [intercontinental ballistic missiles] as well." For better or worse, the specter of Kennan's policy has influenced Russians and Americans for decades.

In his book, Thompson leaves unanswered the question whether containment was truly effective during the Cold War or whether there might have been a better approach to dealing with the Soviets. Likewise, he does not address how the doctrine of containment applies to present-day threats such as Iran and North Korea. Some analysts, however, have been bolder in their assessment of containment and its relevance to the current dangers in the world.

"The best way to blunt that threat," Newsweek's Fareed Zakaria writes, < > referring to a nuclearized Iran, "has always been deterrence and containment, a policy that worked against [Joseph] Stalin and Mao [Zedong] and works against North Korea, a far more unstable and bizarre regime." Others, however, believe that trying to make sense of Iran's nuclear strategy by turning to the strategy of containment with the Soviets is not only misguided but dangerous.

"Analogies to the Cold War are mistaken. The Islamic Republic does not seek territorial aggrandizement or even, despite its rhetoric, the forcible imposition of its revolutionary ideology," stated the authors of a May 2009 RAND monograph about Iranian power. "A more useful strategy, therefore, is one that exploits existing checks on Iran's power and influence."

Kennan knew that the Soviet leaders were rational, but the leaders of a nuclear rogue state are a different story: Surely, it is highly unlikely that Iranian leaders would bomb a city like Chicago even if they could, but U.S. diplomats have a very different view of them compared to the one that Kennan had of the Soviets. For example, Iran has only an unofficial embassy in Washington, since it does not have official relations with the United States. Meanwhile, Kim Jong Il looms as a more immediate threat. Some experts argue for a more aggressive stance toward North Korea, sending additional inspectors in order to look for hidden sites and intercepting shipments in various waterways to check for nuclear technology. Others think the country's nuclear capacities should be simply obliterated -- by force -- although this is a radical view and unlikely to be carried out. Should containment really be considered a good strategy in the case of North Korea when it seems that their leader could be determined to go out in a blaze of glory?

In his book, Thompson does not answer the question of whether Kennan's policy works as a general principle, and he is right to be cautious in his assessment. The current global situation is vastly different from the one that his grandfather and Kennan faced, and it would be a mistake to rely too heavily on the Cold War model of containment, however successful it may have been with the Soviet Union. Back then, the policy of the United States was based on the understanding that the enemy was interested in self-preservation. When it comes to the nuclear states of today, that may no longer be the case.