The revival of containment

This week a dozen defense ministers will gather in Halifax for a conference with experts from more than thirty nations. They will consider the role of NATO and more broadly the major challenges facing the transatlantic community and its allies in Asia. They will discuss the most relevant strategies. The most prominent one will be containment. After eight years of strategic mistakes related to the strategy of preemption adopted by GW Bush, the Obama administration has clearly engaged into a strategy of containment. It may look wiser. Is it relevant ?

In 1950 along with George Kennan Paul H. NITZE invented containment through the famous NSC-68 document. That strategy worked against a major threat : global communism and after the Nixon rapprochement with China in 1970 against the Soviet Union, and its Warsaw Pact reluctant allies. It was based upon nuclear deterrence, massive conventional build-up and limited interventions to support allies in areas considered crucial according to questionable theories such as the “dominos”. Containment was not on the cheap. It created the “industrial-military complex”, as dubbed by President Eisenhower. Meanwhile the “hawks” criticized the passivity of that strategy, claiming for a more aggressive “roll back”. President Reagan’s “starwars” was indeed a high-tech version of the roll back.

Obviously the present environment is different. Therefore containment strategy, if relevant in principle should be adaptive bringing answers to the following questions : contain whom, from what, at what price ? Are the United States and their allies in a position to meet the challenge ? In these days of scarce resources is containment still an affordable strategy or is it an outdated luxury ?

China appears as the most obvious target of traditional containment. A nuclear military power, China is developing modern conventional capabilities ranging from submarines and missiles to the cyberspace. Such a rise creates concerns all around Asia and the Pacific Rim. Even if it is still a communist system, the ideology of the Central Government has become more and more nationalist for the last thirty years. An ideological risk could be linked to the spread of “national-confucianism” through the activity of large Chinese communities overseas.
The other potential targets of containment offer by far a much lower risk. Although Pyongyang shows little appetite for expansion, curbing the North Korean development of nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles is part of the containment of threats against the Allies of the United States in Asia. It is also a byproduct of the containment of China.
In the Middle East containing Iran may appear as the second, medium sized (less than China, more than North Korea) objective of the strategy. Iran has become a nuclear threshold power. It is unlikely that it will run the risk to go far beyond a regional reach. Even if one accepts the questionable existence of a “shiite ark” its dimension remains limited. Iran plays all the cards it has for its own national interest. Religious ideology has become a suitable flag. Tehran’s allies, who are much more reluctant to play in the hands of Iran than usually portrayed know that. Against Iranian “hegemonism”, the first tier of containment will not be provided by the US but by the religious influence and the political leadership of Arab states. Since the traditional “block to block” strategy has been replaced by a volatile diplomacy of alliances more or less reliable, is it conceivable and above all, achievable to implement a multifaceted selective containment ? Such a strategy could produce a negative counter reaction : the coalition of those who are supposed to be selectively contained. Indeed one of the major characteristics of the five recent years in the emerging powers is the division of political elites between two groups splitting into two strategic options. The first group, strengthened by the financial crisis attributed to the failure of the liberal capitalist system, considers that the West is in decline if not in free fall. Remaining cautious with the US, they bluntly argue that the EU has become a living wreck. The future belongs to Asia and some nations in Latin America and Africa.

The second group does not disregard the decline of the West but evaluates it as more relative. Therefore benefits can come from a fair redistribution of power through protracted tough negotiation inside the new multilateral bodies which, step by step, replace the aging order of 1945.

The risk is that the choice of containment against several emerging countries would weaken “the cooperants” and give the upper hand to the “all out emergents”. Even though divergences and competition weaken radical anti-westerners, they could converge on a common counter strategy. Therefore containment appears a robust option under one major condition. It should not replicate the “good old times” but rather elaborate a network of appropriate flexible sub-strategies addressing multipolarity and the increased number of ambiguous actors.