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Containment Policy of the United States

By Zehra Korkmaz-Kökdere


With the rise of China as a powerful country in world politics and the challenge to the hegemonic position of the United States, the US has once again put the policy of containment of China on its foreign policy agenda. Considering China's growing power as a dangerous development for its global hegemony, the US has tried to use all means to contain China from the economic, political, and ideological fronts. In other words, by increasing its contacts with various political actors surrounding China, such as Vietnam and India, the US aims to prevent China from becoming a superpower by limiting its expansion in East Asia as well as across the globe. This policy, which has a long history dating back to the early years of the Cold War, continues to be used intensively today. Thus, the main purpose of this paper would be to examine the history of containment policy and provide a detailed definition of this concept that still occupies the American agenda today.

The policy of containment was one of the two ways in which the United States was able to demonstrate and even use its power during the Cold War against the threat of the Soviet Union. While the first of these power strategies was nuclear deterrence, which was based on the country's military power as well as the political, psychological, and perceptual dimensions of power, the second power strategy developed during this period was containment. In this article, the focus will be on analyzing and understanding the main components of the containment policy by showing the strategies developed by the US during the Cold War. In doing so, it would be possible to explain the foreign policy attitudes of the US during this period, which were mainly derived from the speeches of George Kennan, who could be considered as the founding father of this policy.

Containment was an important policy pursued by the United States (US), especially in the early years of the Cold War. In addition to being considered a foreign policy of the United States toward the Soviet Union, it could also be considered a doctrine. The term containment was first used in 1946 by George Kennan, a senior US diplomat in Moscow, in the long cable he sent to Washington, which was published anonymously in the Journal of Foreign Affairs a year later under the name of "Sources of Soviet Conduct". The title of the article, published in 1947, indicates that the US containment doctrine aimed to explain the circumstances that directed or influenced the actions or behaviors of the Soviets during this period. Therefore, it could be considered as a guideline provided by Kennan in terms of warning US officials about the sources of threat in the Soviet Union that should be overcome by US strategies. The declaration of this policy was an important turning point in shaping the conduct of the Cold War, as it represented a shift in the policy attitudes of Franklin D. Roosevelt, the former president of the U.S., before the Long Telegram was sent. In order to understand this shift in political view, it would be useful to briefly define the political attitudes of Roosevelt's presidency. In this line, during Roosevelt's rule, which ended in 1945, the main objectives of US foreign policy were based on defeating and disarming adversaries, preventing a future global economic depression, establishing a collective security organization, and maintaining allies in peacetime. While achieving these policy goals, Roosevelt took a moderate approach to the Soviet Union, viewing it as one of the four policemen, including the U.S., Britain, and China, capable of maintaining and sustaining international order to prevent further conflict in the world. In addition, while acting towards these goals, Roosevelt also made efforts to gain domestic support to avoid a contradiction between his foreign policy decisions and their justification at home.

In this context, Roosevelt's project or plan could be considered different from the US containment doctrine. Declared a year after Roosevelt's death, during the presidency of Truman, the policy of containment significantly changed the course of events during the Cold War. The main reason for this shift is the new president's more skeptical approach to all totalitarian states, with the belief that any fascist or communist state would end up as a dictatorship, despite the possibility of developing relations with them as long as they kept their word. Truman's approach was in line with the containment policy proclaimed by Kennan, as he emphasized the ideology of the Soviet Union as a crucial element of its power and the basis for perceiving the Soviets as a threat to the US. According to Kennan, ideology is an effective way of legitimizing illegitimate governments and increasing the possibility of conquest through psychological means. In other words, the emphasis on ideology as a source of threat to the US was an important turning point in its foreign policy. Until Truman, no US president had emphasized ideologies as a threat to capitalism or liberalism. However, Kennan defined the Soviet ideology as based on the "evil" of capitalism and the belief in the power of the socialist regime as "the only true regime in a dark and misguided world." This situation shows that there was an ongoing hostility between the ideologies of the US and the Soviet Union, and each of the parties tended to define the other as an adversary.

The strategies employed by the US are significant in comprehending their foreign policy, rooted in the containment doctrine during the initial years of the Cold War. This viewpoint helps to comprehend both the objectives of US foreign policy and the inconsistencies in the strategies advocated and backed by Kennan. To start, it is worth mentioning that containment policy is primarily carried out with the belief that "the United States' approach to the Soviet Union needs to be one of enduring, determined, and watchful containment of Russian expansionist aspirations." Kennan's proposed strategy should combine both patience and firmness. This means that the US should refrain from resorting to hard power initially in response to the Soviet Union's expansionist ambitions beyond its borders. Kennan called this approach a "counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographic and political points" against Soviet actions.

Kennan sought to abolish the Soviet threat and identified the foreign policy goals of the United States as maintaining national security and promoting the welfare of its populace. To attain these objectives, he recommended two methods to safeguard security. The universalistic approach involves establishing shared values among states through the creation of artificial institutions that bind them together and strengthen cooperation. This approach can be viewed from the perspective of the neo-liberal institutional order. The universalistic approach aims to establish a constitutional order that preserves the rights of each actor involved by empowering international political and legally binding institutions. This decreases the likelihood of states using power and promotes cooperation. On the other hand, there is a second strategy to achieve foreign policy objectives known as the particularized approach, which Kennan described as a method in which relationships between states are largely based on power or power conflict. The particularistic approach is largely founded on a realistic view of the world as the main regulatory factor in state relationships is considered to be power.

Although Kennan discussed both approaches, he ultimately favored the latter, revealing his realist stance on foreign policy. According to Kennan, the world was a place of diversities rather than harmony among distinct actors. Kennan opposed universalism for several reasons. He believed that achieving harmony of interest among actors was impossible. He also believed that universalism could not eliminate armed conflict and that the institutions proposed by universalism were diminishing the influence of states to support their national interests. Additionally, Kennan became a realist statesman due to his proposition on resolving conflicts between nations. He argued that ensuring security and stability requires creating a balance against unreliable world powers. The balance-of-power strategy is essentially a realist approach since it distributes power among the states. By emphasizing the significance of a contextual approach and emphasizing the role of interest and power, Kennan demonstrated his inclination to view the state of nature with suspicion and doubt when it comes to fostering collaboration.

Keeping in mind the need for a balanced approach, the main strategies for achieving a balance of power against the Soviet Union include boosting self-reliance in threatened countries, limiting Soviet influence in other regions, and adjusting diplomatic relations with the Soviets. If the US were able to implement these strategies, it could garner international support and increase the probability of forming alliances against the Soviet threat. Kennan's belief in the stabilizing effects of the balance of power demonstrates that the US did not intend to become a dominant power in the world. However, Kennan, despite his realist approach, opposes the idea of utilizing direct force against the Soviet Union to alter their orientation toward "tolerating and even encouraging diversity." Although Kennan had conflicts with the Soviets, he supported the prioritization of diplomacy and negotiations in achieving a change in their policies. This viewpoint could be classified as liberal as liberal nations are less inclined to use hard power directly. Although the US has implemented a policy of conflict or pressure, utilizing peaceful means to approach the opposing party would deviate from a realist approach to US foreign policy.

In conclusion, the assessment of containment policy illuminates two key insights into US attitudes during the early years of the Cold War. These insights demonstrate that the containment doctrine, unveiled by George Kennan in 1946, represented a significant shift in US foreign policy. Prior to the mid-1940s, US views of the Soviet Union were primarily focused on its potential as a critical ally in establishing global stability. In other words, initial cooperation with the Soviet Union was viewed optimistically. However, during Truman's presidency and the adoption of the containment policy, the Soviet Union became defined as a threat, primarily due to its communist ideology and desire to expand its sphere of influence. Therefore, Kennan's proposed strategies aimed to contain the Soviet Union and prevent its expansion by establishing a balance of power rather than through cooperation. The second argument that can be deduced from an in-depth analysis of containment policy is that Kennan employed a particularistic approach towards the Soviet Union rooted in realism, yet he still maintained the liberal stance of the United States by suggesting improved negotiations and the use of diplomacy instead of resorting to total warfare against the Soviet Union. Kennan rejected the idea that establishing binding institutions among states, which is a form of universalism, would be effective. He believed that the major strategy to be pursued should be the balance of power. Despite emphasizing the role of military power, Kennan argued that to affect and change the behavior of the Soviets, it should be based on deterrents and inducements, which he called “counter-pressure.” Therefore, it can be concluded that Kennan and, consequently, the strategies of US foreign policy were not carried out as solely realist policies towards the Soviet Union.


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