Containment has become the easy button for many who want to deal with Washington’s most pressing national security challenges with a light touch. No idea could be more misguided.
What most “strategists” think they know about containment is myth rather than a realistic application of ends, ways and means.
Myth #1: The U.S. practiced containment during the Cold War.
They called the strategy containment, but that’s not how it worked in practice. Moscow meddled where and when it wanted, using proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam. In the 1970s, when the Kremlin thought the U.S. was on the ropes, it started underwriting state-sponsored, transnational terrorism in the Middle East and anti-capitalist insurgencies in Latin America and Africa. The Soviets collapsed because they overreached, not because they were contained. We out-competed Moscow; we didn’t box it in.
Myth #2: Containment is a cheap, low-risk strategy.
If put into practice, containment would be incredibly expensive. It would require building up and using power to block any enemy on every front. If the U.S. wanted, for example, to contain an Islamic State-state or Iran, it would require a much heavier footprint not less. Further, the U.S. would have to be prepared to maintain that footprint for decades.
Myth #3: The enemy doesn’t get a vote.
If a force is rising like ISIS or China that means they have power. If they can’t be stopped from rising, it’s folly to assume they could be any easier to contain in the future. Containment makes more sense for declining threats or enemies that have a critical vulnerability that can be exploited (like attenuated access to energy). Even weak enemies, however, aren’t going to passive. They are going to look for a breakout or an asymmetrical response. Beheadings, for instance—both in theater and abroad—are the ISIS response to drone attacks. It’s their way of saying: “You can reach out and touch us? Well, we can reach out and touch you.”
That’s not saying there is no place for a strategy of containment. ISIS is a case in point. If ISIS were stopped in Iraq, defeated and driven back across the border into Syria, a version of containment might—at that point—make sense. Having been reduced to a lesser threat, ISIS then could be confined to a small geographical war zone where they would spend most of their time fighting for survival. But the notion of avoiding a major regional sectarian war by somehow containing a terrorist state with the size and resources of Iraq? That’s nonsense.
Containment also doesn’t work very well for nuclear-armed adversaries. When your enemies have nukes, there is always that concern that, if they are contained too much, it might trigger a nuclear confrontation.
Containment also doesn’t work well for competitors whose economies are intertwined with our own. Under these circumstances, pressing containment can damage all parties.
China and Russia are both nuclear-armed and economically linked to the West. That’s a huge problem for containment fans.
If the U.S. signs a deal with Iran that lifts sanctions and doesn’t—with absolute certainty—eliminate Tehran’s ability to engineer a nuclear breakout, then containment will be an impossibility regarding that regime as well.
Of course, Washington has the means to change the terms of the competition. It could build a missile defense system that makes nuclear weapons irrelevant for us and our allies. Or, it could disengage the American economy from adversarial powers. But these alternatives are both heavy lifts.
The U.S. need not adopt one strategy to deal with a sea of ever-evolving threats. It would do far better to find the right strategy for each adversary.
- James Carafano is Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy.
Originally appeared in Defense One