February 12, 2019
The quarter century following the Cold War was the most
peaceful in modern history. The world’s strongest powers did not fight one
another or even think much about doing so. They did not, on the whole, prepare
for war, anticipate war, or conduct negotiations and political maneuvers with
the prospect of war looming in the background. As U.S. global military hegemony
persisted, the possibility of developed nations fighting one another seemed ever
Then history began to change course. In the last several
years, three powers have launched active efforts to revise security arrangements
in their respective regions. Russia  has
invaded Crimea and other parts of Ukraine and has tried covertly to destabilize
European democracies. China  has
built artificial island fortresses in international waters, claimed vast swaths
of the western Pacific, and moved to organize Eurasia economically in ways
favorable to Beijing. And the Islamic
Republic of Iran  has expanded its influence over much of Iraq,
Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen and is pursuing nuclear weapons.
This new world requires a new American foreign policy.
Fortunately, the country’s own not-so-distant past can offer guidance. During
the Cold War, the United States chose to contain the Soviet Union, successfully
deterring its military aggression and limiting its political influence for
decades. The United States should apply containment once again, now to Russia,
China, and Iran. The contemporary world is similar enough to its
mid-twentieth-century predecessor to make that old strategy relevant but
different enough that it needs to be modified and updated. While success is not
guaranteed, a new containment policy offers the best chance to defend American
interests in the twenty-first century.
Now as before, the possibility of armed conflict exerts a
major influence on the foreign policies of the United States and countries
throughout Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. The Cold War divided the world
into rival camps, with regions and even countries split in two. Today, similar
cleavages are developing, with each revisionist power seeking its own sphere of
influence separate from the larger U.S.-backed global order.
Now as before, the revisionist powers are dictatorships
that challenge American values as well as American interests. They seek to
overturn political, military, and economic arrangements the United States helped
establish long ago and has supported ever since. Should Vladimir
Putin’s  Russia succeed in reasserting control over parts of
the former Soviet Union, Xi
Jinping’s China gain control over maritime commerce in the western
Pacific, or Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Iran dominate the oil reserves of the
Persian Gulf, the United States, its allies, and the global order they uphold
would suffer a major blow.
But today’s circumstances differ from those of the past
in several important ways. During most of the Cold War, Washington confronted a
single powerful opponent, the Soviet Union—the leader of the international
communist movement. Now it must cope with three separate adversaries, each
largely independent of the other two. Russia and China cooperate, but they also
compete with each other. And while both have good relations with Iran, both also
have large and potentially restive
Muslim populations , giving them reason to worry about the growth of
Iranian power and influence. Cold War containment was a single global
undertaking, implemented regionally. Contemporary containment will involve three
separate regional initiatives, implemented in coordination.
The Soviet Union, moreover, presented a strong ideological
challenge, devoted as it was to advancing not just Moscow’s geopolitical
interests but also its communist principles. Neither Russia nor China has such a
crusading ideology today. Russia has abandoned communism completely, and China
has done so partially, retaining the notion of party supremacy but shedding most
of the economics and the messianic zeal. And although the Islamic Republic
represents a cause and not just a stretch of territory, the potential appeal of
its ideology is largely limited to the Muslim world and, primarily, its Shiite
None of today’s revisionist powers possesses the Soviet
Union’s fearsome military capabilities. Russia is a shrunken version of its
older self militarily, and Iran lacks formidable modern military forces.
China’s economic growth may ultimately allow it to match the United States in
all strategic dimensions and pose a true peer threat, but to date, Beijing is
concentrating on developing forces to exclude the United States from the western
Pacific, not to project power globally. Moreover, the initiatives each has
launched so far—Russia’s seizure of Crimea and Middle East meddling, China’s
island building , Iran’s regional subversion—have been limited
probes rather than all-out assaults on the existing order.
Lastly, the Soviet Union was largely detached from the
U.S.-centered global economy during the Cold War, whereas today’s revisionist
powers are very much a part of it. Russia and Iran have relatively small
economies and export mostly energy, but China has the world’s second-largest
economy, with deep, wide, and growing connections to countries everywhere.
Economic interdependence will complicate containment.
China, for example, may be a political and military rival, but it is also a
crucial economic partner. The United States depends on China to finance its
deficits. China depends on the United States to buy its exports. Containment in
Asia will thus require other policies as well, because although a Chinese
military collapse would enhance Asian security, a Chinese economic collapse
would bring economic disaster.
Together, these differences make today’s containment a
less urgent challenge than its Cold War predecessor. The United States does not
have to deal with a single mortal threat from a country committed to remaking
the entire world in its own image. It must address three serious but lesser
challenges, mounted by countries seeking not heaven on earth but greater
regional power and autonomy. But if today’s challenges are less epic, they are
far more complicated. The old containment was simple, if not easy. The new
containment will have to blend a variety of policies, carefully coordinated with
one another in design and execution. This will tax the ingenuity and flexibility
of the United States and its allies.
As during the Cold War, containment today requires American
military deployments abroad. In Europe, ground troops are needed to deter
Russian aggression. The Putin regime has already sent forces into Georgia and
Ukraine. The United States is committed to protecting its NATO allies. These
include the Baltic states, tiny countries on Russia’s border. By defending
them, the United States could encounter some of the same difficulties it did
defending West Berlin, including, in the worst case, having to decide whether to
bring nuclear weapons into play rather than accept military defeat.
East Asia requires a robust U.S. naval presence to fend off
China’s campaign to dominate the western Pacific. The United States is
committed to protecting allies such as Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan and
maintaining open sea-lanes, and it conducts what it calls
“freedom-of-navigation operations” in international waters newly claimed by
China to make clear that the rest of the world does not accept Chinese claims
and Chinese dominance there.
And in the Middle East, American naval and air forces are
needed to safeguard shipments of Persian Gulf oil to Europe and Asia and to
support a successful rollback of the Iranian
nuclear program , should that become necessary. American troops on
the ground are not required; it is local forces that must check Iranian efforts
at regional subversion (which are carried out by local militias).
Diplomatically, Washington needs to maintain or assemble
broad coalitions of local powers to oppose each revisionist challenge. In
Europe, NATO was created to carry out this very mission and so should be the
pillar of the United States’ strategy there. In Asia and the Middle East, the
“hub and spoke” pattern of American Cold War alliances still exists, even as
regional powers have begun to collaborate among themselves.
Working with partners exploits Washington’s greatest
strength: its ability to attract allies and create powerful coalitions against
isolated opponents. Coordinating with other countries also endows American
foreign policy with a legitimacy it would otherwise lack, showing that the
United States is not simply acting for itself but defending broad principles of
international order that many others support.
The dependence of the revisionists on access to the global
economy gives the United States and its coalition partners a potential source of
leverage. Washington and its allies have tried to exploit this through sanctions
on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, tariffs on China for its trade practices,
and sanctions on Iran for its nuclear weapons program. But interdependence cuts
both ways. Russia has tried to pressure Ukraine by restricting Ukrainian access
to Russian energy. China has placed targeted embargoes on Japan and Norway to
express displeasure with specific Japanese and Norwegian policies. Moreover,
economic instruments have at best a mixed record in achieving political goals;
the broader the sanctioning coalition is, the greater its impact will be.
MAKING IT OFFICIAL
The prospect of a twenty-first-century triple containment
strategy raises several questions. Since the United States is already doing much
of what is required, how much change in American foreign policy is needed? Is it
necessary or feasible to confront all three revisionist powers at once? And how
does all this end?
As for the first, explicitly committing the United States
to containment would build on many existing policies while reframing them as
part of a coherent national strategy rather than the products of inertia or
inattention. A public commitment to containment would enhance the credibility of
American deterrence and lower the chance of opportunistic attacks by opponents
hoping for easy gains (as happened in Korea in 1950 and Iraq in 1990). That, in
turn, would reassure actual and potential allies and increase their willingness
to join the effort. Adopting containment as a strategic frame would also help
restrain Washington’s occasional impulses to do more (try to transform other
societies) or less (retreat from global engagement altogether).
As for confronting all three at once, geopolitical logic
and historical experience suggest that reducing the number of threats is the
best course, as the United States did by joining with the Soviet Union to defeat
the Nazis and then aligning with Mao Zedong’s China to defeat the Soviet
Union. Post-Soviet Russia would have been a natural partner for the West. But
Moscow was needlessly alienated from its logical geopolitical partnership by
NATO expansion, which brought foreign armies to its doorstep over its
objections. At this point, all three revisionist regimes rely for domestic
support on nationalist hostility to the United States specifically and Western
democracies more generally and reject being part of a U.S.-led coalition.
Fortunately, Russia is much weaker than the Soviet Union, China is restrained by
both deterrence and the knowledge that military conflict would damage its
economy, and Iran is a regional power. So the United States can afford to pursue
the containment of all three simultaneously (so long as it does so as part of
Cold War containment was an open-ended policy with a
hoped-for eventual outcome. The same will be true for the new version: the
policy should continue as long as the threats it is intended to counter
continue, and ideally it will end similarly. Constructive regime change, for
example, especially the advent of democracy, would alter the foreign policy
orientations of the revisionist powers. Such a change would have to come about
through internal processes and is unlikely to happen anytime soon. Still, none
of the regimes can be confident of its longevity; repeated outbreaks of
political turbulence over the years have shown that each faces significant
domestic opposition, maintains itself in power through coercion, and fears its
people rather than trusts them. Situations like that can shift rapidly. A
well-executed policy of containment could increase the chances of disruption by
creating an external context that would encourage it. But when or, indeed, if it
would bear fruit is impossible to predict.
BEWARE OF FREE RIDERS
The biggest obstacles to a new policy of containment come,
ironically, not from the powers being contained but from the countries doing the
containing. The United States needs to relearn how to manage durable coalitions
of allies and persuade its own citizenry that the exercise of global leadership
is still worth the effort required.
Coalitions are difficult to manage in the best of
circumstances. It was hard to hold the Western alliance together during the Cold
War, even though it faced a single powerful threat. Building and maintaining
comparable coalitions today, confronted by diverse smaller threats, will be more
difficult still. In Europe, although all countries are wary of Russia, some are
more so than others. Those closest to Russia’s borders most strongly support
an enhanced Western military presence. Years of crisis over Europe’s common
currency, meanwhile, have taken a political toll, increased intra-European
tensions, and made cooperation of all kinds more difficult. The continuing
Brexit drama will only compound the problems.
In Asia, the Philippines and South Korea have sometimes
taken a more benign view of Chinese power than other countries in the region.
And among those agreeing on the need to check Chinese ambitions (including
Australia, India, Indonesia, and Japan), developing common policies is difficult
because they are an amorphous, heterogeneous group.
In the Middle East, crucial American allies, such as Qatar
(which hosts a U.S. air base) and Saudi
Arabia , are sharply at odds. The government of Turkey, a member of
NATO, identifies with the Muslim Brotherhood, which Egypt and Saudi Arabia
regard as a mortal enemy. Ironically, the one unproblematic member of the
anti-Iran coalition is Israel, a country that for decades was anathematized as
the root of all the problems in the Middle East but that is now recognized as a
dependable counterweight to Persian power.
All coalitions encounter free-rider
problems , and the dominant members usually pay more than their
fair share of the costs involved. So it will be with the new containment. The
imbalance will be most glaring in Europe, where a tradition of letting
Washington carry much of the burden of collective defense has persisted for too
long; it originated when U.S. allies were weak and poor but continued even after
they became strong and rich. During the Cold War, every American president
tried, without much success, to get European countries to pay more for NATO, but
none pushed the issue hard because the priority was to maintain a common front
against the Soviet threat. There may be a lower tolerance for such free-riding
today, as U.S. President Donald Trump’s comments make clear.
The Asian countries wary of China have increased their
spending on defense. Still, the United States is destined to take the lead in
opposing China because the most pressing threat the People’s Republic presents
is a maritime one—one that requires major naval forces to contest, of the kind
that only the United States commands.
In the Middle East, Israel has capable armed forces. Saudi
Arabia has purchased expensive military hardware from the United States but has
not demonstrated the capacity to use it effectively. Turkey has a formidable
military, but the present Turkish government cannot be counted on to use it to
WILL AMERICA LEAD?
The weakest link in the chain may be the most powerful
country itself. There are reasons to expect the American public to support a
leading role in the containment of Russia, China, and Iran. The United States
has a long history with such a foreign policy. The approach has geopolitical
logic behind it, promising to protect American interests in crucial parts of the
world at a reasonable price. But there are also reasons for skepticism.
Today’s threats appear less urgent, coping with them will be more complicated,
and the country’s attitude toward foreign entanglements has understandably
soured over the last two decades.
The United States was pulled into both world wars by
external attacks, and Americans gave their support to a foreign policy of global
reach during the Cold War because they were persuaded it would head off yet
another world war. After the Soviet collapse, many of the Cold War arrangements
persisted through inertia and gained support because they seemed to entail
little expense or risk. Now that the expenses and risks of such a policy have
increased, many Americans may reconsider their support.
The skepticism has deepened because of the county’s
recent misadventures abroad. The interventions in Afghanistan ,
Iraq, and Libya turned out poorly, and the public has little taste for more.
This view has much to recommend it. But it need not threaten the prospects of a
new containment, because that course is quite different from the failed crusades
of recent decades. Those involved efforts to transform the internal politics and
economies of weak states. Containment involves the opposite, checking the
external conduct of strong states. If national leaders can appreciate and
explain the difference, they may be able to bring the public along.
The resurgence of populism, finally, makes any such project
more difficult. The essence of populism is hostility to elites, and the design
and conduct of foreign policy are elite activities. The foreign policy
establishment favors a robust American role in the world. That may be a good
enough reason for antiestablishment rebels, including the populist in chief now
residing in the White House, to oppose one.
So the future direction of American foreign policy is
unclear. Washington might forgo leading coalitions to contain the three
revisionist powers, in which case their strength will increase. Emboldened by
the American abdication, they may grow aggressive and try to coerce their
neighbors. Those neighbors currently rely on the American nuclear arsenal to
protect them; if they come to doubt the credibility of American security
guarantees, they may follow Israel and opt to develop or acquire their own
arsenals in order to protect themselves. An American retreat would thus make the
world more dangerous and nuclear proliferation more likely.
Thanks to the size, geography, and power of the United
States, Americans for many generations have been able to pay less attention to
American foreign policy than have the citizens of other countries, whose lives
and fortunes that policy has more immediately and directly affected. Should the
country turn decisively away from its global role and allow the revisionist
challenges to advance unchecked, however, Americans’ happy detachment from the
world beyond their borders may disappear. And by the time they realize what they
need to protect, it may be too late to do so without great difficulty and high