New Kids on the Bloc: Revisiting Kennan's Containment in a Pre-Emptive World. (Perspectives

By Smith, Adam M. | Harvard International Review, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

New Kids on the Bloc: Revisiting Kennan's Containment in a Pre-Emptive World. (Perspectives


Smith, Adam M., Harvard International Review


The publication of the US National Security Strategy in September 2002 and the consequent embrace by US President George Bush's administration of its most divisive aspect, pre-emption, has instigated a fundamental shift in tactical thinking, force deployment, and resource mobilization for the United States. Yet the most sweeping aspect of the document is its dismissal of containment as the backbone of US security thinking. First presented in George Kennan's 1947 Foreign Affairs article "Long Telegram," known as the "X Article," containment called for the United States "to hold the line" and firmly resist Soviet and Communist expansionism by providing a counterpoint to their "shifting geographical and political maneuvers." The success of this policy during the Cold War is widely recognized, but for the Bush administration, the new war, the "war on terror," makes such an apparently placid approach anachronistic.

Despite the different contours of the Cold War and the war on terror, the new strategy fails to persuasively identify the differences between the two threats that mandate a change in defensive posture. In fact, using Kennan's rubric, a thorough analysis of Islamic Fundamentalism, or Jihadism, the ideological competitor to Western Liberalism in this conflict, reveals that 1940s Communism and today's ideology share central characteristics. Further, the aim of US engagement remains: regime change is important; real victory is derived via ideological change.

Given the structural similarities between the Cold War's threats and goals and those of the current war, the rejection of containment reflects a false assessment of new threats and an inflated notion of pre-emption's benefits. Consequently, turning away from containment neglects its successes and adaptability and dispatches the United States on an increasingly risky undertaking. The key assumption in the Bush Doctrine's pre-emption syllogism contends that in the post-Soviet era, the prime threats facing the United States come not from established states, but from rogue, weak, and failed states that foster terrorist groups in the anarchic world outside institutional authority. However, as manifest by recent engagements, the new loci of threats have not altered Cold War models of behavior.

Indeed, despite its claims, the classification of a state has not impacted the administration's reaction. Other factors, notably the potential damage that a state could inflict on US interests, have been the key drivers of US action. The same weighing of potential benefits and harms of reprisal was used in the Cold War and lies behind the diverse treatment the United States has given to Iraq and North Korea.

Further, the document provides no compelling argument as to why containment and deterrence break down. Historically, rogues like Iran and Iraq have been contained and US losses in weak states, such as Somalia, have come about only when the United States has attacked. Even the fallout of failed states has largely been contained since September 11. Moreover, the strategies the United States has used in dealing with extremists are the continuation of Cold War approaches for dealing with the terrorism.

Given the maintenance of Cold War logic, it is apparent that the new state forms have not altered the landscape as fundamentally as the White House's National Security Strategy suggests. Even more, the difficulty, expense, and enmity generated by US pre-emptive efforts suggest that it is wise to re-examine a strategy that could produce results while incurring less cost and risk than pre-emption.

Containment as a Response

For Kennan, the logic of containment derived from his analysis of the Soviet system, leading him to contend that containing the threat of Communist expansionism was the best option. An analysis of Islamic Fundamentalism today reveals a strikingly similar political history and common internal weaknesses. …

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