Kennan’s Containment Strategy: A Consensus on What Not to Do

Kennan’s Containment Strategy: A Consensus on What Not to Do

American foreign policy elites have adopted a partial myth about containment in order to worship at the altar of grand strategy before declaring that such a sweeping approach is no longer possible. Both propositions are false and are driven partially by nostalgia.

Even after the divisions created by the Vietnam War, unity on certain issues across parties and administrations was still possible. For example, from the time of Nixon’s visit to China in 1972 and the ascension of Donald Trump as president in 2017, a period just shy of half-a-century, the American approach towards China and the Far East, in general, was more or less uniform, no matter which party was in power and no matter the divergence on other foreign policy issues. President Bill Clinton during his first term experimented with a more assertive human rights policy towards Beijing, but eventually he retreated toward the elite consensus: which was a go-along, get-along Business Roundtable interpretation of realpolitik, given all the investment opportunities that a post-Mao China was offering.

The Chinese reality encouraged this consensus. China, though still nominally communist, was in the latter decades of the twentieth century becoming increasingly less repressive, with more collegial rule at the top. It was becoming the geographic, demographic, and economic organizing principle of the Far East: a nuclear power, no less, as well as an ancient civilization now reasserting itself. It required absolute seriousness in policy and the post-Vietnam remnants of the establishment rose to the occasion. Policy towards East Asia just did not fluctuate from one administration to the next the way it did towards the Middle East, or even the way it did towards Europe, where Republicans were markedly less fervent regarding human rights than were the Democrats. (It wasn’t an accident that the humanitarian interventions in the Balkans occurred under a Democratic administration.)

However much the China consensus wobbled, it held—until the Trump administration broke it. Trump signaled that U.S. policy toward China had been far too accommodating. And thus a deep fissure emerged between foreign policy centrists in the United States, who supported the status quo, and those on both the Right and the Left, who blamed China and its alleged manipulation of globalization for the American workers’ loss of income and position.

The end of a unified foreign policy elite heralded by the Trump administration has been a long time coming. The American-led alliance system of almost seventy-five years was a grand success. But it had, in the course of that success, naturally built-up problems and incongruities, as allies did not always rise to the challenge in providing for their own defense, even as standards of living and the quality of life in their own countries, in quite a few cases, surpassed that of the United States.

The American foreign policy elite is now more or less divided between activists and neo-isolationists (or put another way, between interventionists and non-interventionists), and more broadly between internationalists and nationalists. The very expanded size of the present policy class has also created a divide between a comfortable establishment oriented around the Council of Foreign Relations and edgy intellectuals writing in small journals, clawing from the outside at the guardrails of this establishment. There is not even agreement on Russia, a great power rival of the United States whose previous incarnation as the Soviet Union had united the American foreign policy elite for many decades. Liberal Democrats tend to believe the Russia threat is practically existential; conservative Republicans tend to believe it has been exaggerated. Rarely in recent times has the domestic partisan divided entangled itself so in foreign policy.

Then there is the creeping advance of “they,” when referring to Americans, rather than “we.” An increasing number of institutions—particularly leading media and analytical firms in New York that service and influence the opinions of the foreign policy establishment—now tell their employees that their particular media organ or firm is no longer “American,” but “global.” I have personally experienced such guidance.

GIVEN ALL of this, the possibilities of creating unity around a grand strategy tied to American national interests are rather small. Kennan’s clubby world is gone forever. However, there does exist a substantial community of defense and security experts oriented around the Pentagon, that still use “we” instead of “they” when referring to Americans. This defense community is sufficiently homogeneous in its goals and values, despite the many differences of opinion within it, because there is an overriding assumption in this community that U.S. interests should be primary and that America faces a variety of new and old threats that must be countered. In Kennan’s day, the primary threat was the Soviet Union and world communism. In this new era, the primary threat is China and its particular brand of authoritarianism, mixed as it is with high-technology surveillance and economic and military aggression. China has gone from a post-Mao enlightened authoritarianism which the American business, policy, and media establishments tolerated and were somewhat comfortable with, to becoming a sharp-edged dictatorship under one man, Xi Jinping, armed with a cult of personality. The dream of gradually luring China into a post-Cold War, made-in-America system of globalization is over. This new China represents a stark and unambiguous threat. Like Kennan’s Long Telegram and X article, a successful grand strategy towards China should describe the root of the problem, the sources of Chinese regime behavior, and lay out a plan emphasizing what not to do. Concentrating on what not to do will eliminate extreme viewpoints, and identify practical constraints on our China policy: constraints originating, as with Kennan’s containment theory, with an implicit understanding of what the American people can tolerate and what they can afford.

Robert D. Kaplan holds the Robert Strausz-Hupé Chair in Geopolitics at the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia. He is the author of nineteen books on foreign affairs, including The Good American, The Return of Marco Polo’s World, The Coming Anarchy, Asia’s Cauldron, The Revenge of Geography, and Balkan Ghosts. For thirty years he was a foreign correspondent for The Atlantic. He served on the Defense Policy Board and the Chief of Naval Operations’ Executive Panel.

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