13 July 2015 – Trento, Italy

by Scott Nicholas Romaniuk

“Containment” has once again become part of the geopolitical parlance of today. The striking use of this term is increasingly attached to China and its ambitions in its neighborhood. In some cases, India has been on the receiving end of the term and in other cases it’s a fulcrum in the US-led encirclement of China. The “New Cold War” and Russia probably offers the most vivid accounts of the old policy term and what it means for the US and European Union (EU)-built regional (security) orders.

Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation during the 'Opening Plenary of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2009'
Vladimir Putin, Prime Minister of the Russian Federation during the ‘Opening Plenary of the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting 2009’

Policymakers in Europe and the US have brashly pointed to the vulnerability of the EU and US power and interests, within the rising belligerence of Vladimir Putin in control of Russia, and a situation where Western power results in a reduction of Russian power and its marginalized role in regional and global politics. Despite the rich multi-polarity of the world now, for every winner there’s a loser, for every gain there’s a loss – at least some political elites see it this way.

Today, it is useful to reconsider (in the context of current geopolitical actors and issues) the value of returning to the Cold War policy of containment. Dis-aggregating the Russian authoritarian regime, the shifts taking place regarding the positions of Russia and Russian power in global politics, and the blatant tress of Russia’s armed aggression against its neighbors (Transdniestr [1992], Tajikistan [1992], Ukraine and Crimea [2004/5 and again in 2015, and 2014, respectively], and Georgia [Abkhazia and South Ossetia] [2008]) would be ahistorical and maybe focus too much on the (lack of) action on the part of the US and the EU. Of course, this list is somewhat reductive and doesn’t represent a more complex picture. It also focuses exclusively on Russian interference.

When the US called-off its active policy of containment, the decision granted the correctness of the assumption that the US and its policy triumphed over Communism as the number one threat and that US power was assured. Since 2001, the main threat has been terrorism – a tactic. Although during the Cold War the threat was an ideology, the US was closer to hitting mark. Perhaps the US’ most accurate response in the face of external aggression was Franklin Roosevelt’s request and receipt of a declaration of war against Japan. If we’re to apply George W. Bush’s response to al-Qaeda’s attack on the Twin Towers, his (Global) War on Terror ([G]WoT) would be akin to the US declaring war on air power in on 8 December 1941, not Japan.

Pools of budding literature on geopolitics and US foreign policy (as well as the foreign policies of such states as, Russia, China, Iran, and India) provide a promising point of departure for renewed scrutiny of the US’ geopolitical interests and position in the 21st century; for further discussion of US efforts to “contain” nascent threats associated with the uncertain future of America’s power today.

Close scrutiny of these subjects are further warranted by the changes that have been taking place in states and regions of the world previously assumed prostrate or impacting little on the directional flow of US geopolitical power and its position vis-à-vis what have been labeled “rising powers.”

Although the field of geopolitics and US foreign policy can rightfully be seen as a boundless constellation, it’s worth point to some major bedrock major. First, a leading problem with the US policy of containment is that it has been repeatedly measured retrospectively and ‘propagandistically’ (although understandably so) with the alleged Western “victor” over the Soviet Union (or Russia) during the Cold War (often simplistically book-ended by the events of 1947 [part of the initial phase of the Cold War and 1991 [the political dissolution of the Soviet Union]).

Second, despite the US’ short lived “victory” over the Soviet Union and attempts to maintain a militarily dispirited Russia, America (that is, the state, the country, and its society) perceived its victory as a result of its numerous strategies embedded within its containment policy, among other national policies enacted during the roughly fifty year-long ideological confrontation.

Flag and Map of the Commonwealth of Independent States
Flag and Map of the Commonwealth of Independent States

Yet, even in this vein (if it did indeed “win” the Cold War), it failed to operationalize its triumphant position, particularly in the face of Russia’s post-Soviet attempts (indeed some noteworthy marginal wins) to expand its power within and beyond the post-Soviet space, specifically the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS) – a sort of “loser” Soviet Union. This is a strong example of where and when the US failed to maintain its policy against the aggression of a once-powerful state that the US likened to water able to trickle into weak and unstable states located at various points around the world.

Third, even if the US was neither the winner nor the loser of the Cold War, it managed to avoid the Soviet Union on the battlefield (notwithstanding nuclear exchange, which lends itself easily to the competing theoretical assumptions of neo-realists and constructivists within the field of International Relations [IR]). In 1991, the US made the monolithic mistake of allowing its idealism, eventually assuming an institutionalized narrative in the form of American exceptionalism, to be over-exported around the world in a renewed “policy of crusading activism.” In fact, it went far beyond this: the formulation and implementation of the bellicose WoT macro-securitzation arrangement – eventually and ironically re-branded as the “Overseas Contingency Operations” (OCO) by Barack Obama not long after he assumed office. Proliferation of such references emerged during a time when the changing global order around 2009/10, in which the financial crisis was a cardinal feature, was noted as a critical factor in Obama’s call for limited US foreign policy.

To be sure, if Bush laid the groundwork for the haphazard engagement in global politics, Obama succeeded in deeply internalizing the chaotic and simply hit-or-miss approach of post-9/11 US foreign policy. Like the old policy of containment, the WoT/OCO foresaw the growth potential of enemy operations almost entirely unidimensionally. First, it understood the “battlefield” existing where enemy action already befell. Second, where there was no major enemy action, security endeavors alone systematically cultivated the weakness and instability in states precisely as the US expected Communism would.

There are numerous examples to fall back on: ISIS in Syria and Iraq, Donbass, talk of the US’ return to Iraq, Yemen, Pakistan and numerous others. Then there are the not-so-hot spots that the US neglects (maybe refuses) to treat with strategic calculation. New approaches to containment today cannot be based on the ranking scheme that has led to successive folly in US decision-making and action overseas. Still, the risk of US military engagement (in the wrong places), nuclear proliferation, and terrorism, are the leading criteria for judging the importance of US interests.

When Anne Applebaum wrote figuratively about building a wall around Donbass in an attempt to contain what’s out there and protect what’s in here, as was the case with West Germany, she provided a very nice observation that the US should broaden its view to see where its other “West Germanys” now lie.

The Zhdanov Doctrine received a prompt response by the US in 1946 when George F. Kennan penned the “Long Telegram,” the assertions of which reflect the opposite reality of many of the US’ principle adversaries of today’s geopolitical world. Russia and China (certainly as are violent non-state actors [NSAs] like ISIS and al-Qaeda can be added to this relationship) are strategic and venturist, with premeditated plans often evolving in the advent of shock events and responses not thoroughly calculated. They are mainly risk leaning (with the exception of China, which often tests the waters but doesn’t really take major risks).

Communism wasn’t the primary adversary in this process, rather the issues presided over the possible and worrying erosion of state power, authority, and control over actors, actions, and activities in the word that may have changed as a result of, even pervasive, (albeit discursive) threats like Communism.

Pervious to reason and oftentimes indifferent to the logic of force demonstrated by the most liberal democratic states and politico-military alliances, post-Soviet Russia and the US’ longstanding and new (violent) NSA, as enemies, have not demonstrated a propensity to withdraw in the face of overwhelming material and immaterial odds. To this end, the US is unable to assure its domestic constituents or external friends and allies of the character of many of its present day enemies.

Commonly accepted descriptions of what might be seen as a new containment policy by the US betrays the reality of the US’ old policy, and remain, therefore instantiations of containment. This doesn’t imply that the US got it entirely wrong in the post-9/11 world. Having entered the post-post-9/11 period, there are fruitful opportunities for the US to (re)conceptualize its approach to containment, which is deeply needed, but without the aggressive characteristics that typified the WoT/OCO – they came close to mirroring the old Cold War policy only in terms of being all-encompassing and pervasive, permeating nearly every societal facet.

Major states still matter, but so do minor ones, as well as NSAs. Containing Russia and other rising powers requires a reexamination of the concept of power. Problematizing the concepts, that were seen for so long as having the greatest impact on global politics, needs to be a priority, instead of leaping and traipsing forward with the myopic view that global politics is a “clash of titans.”


Feature Photo – President Obama and President Putin walking in Ireland, Wikipedia Commons, 2015

Inset Photo – Vladimir Putin at World Economic Forum 2009, Wikimedia Commons, 2015

Inset Photo – Flag and Map of the Commonwealth of Independent States, Wikimedia Commons, 2015

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By Scott Nicholas Romaniuk

Dr. Scott N. Romaniuk received his PhD in International Studies from the University of Trento. He holds an MRes in Political Research, an MA in Terrorism, Crime and Global Security, and an MA in Military Studies (Joint Warfare). His research focuses on asymmetric warfare, terrorism and counterterrorism, international security, and the use of force.