Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Rediscovering Containment: The Sources of American-Iranian Conduct

Academic journal article Journal of International Affairs

Rediscovering Containment: The Sources of American-Iranian Conduct

Article excerpt

"[W]e are going to continue for a long time to find the [Iranians] difficult to deal with. It does not mean that they should be considered as embarked upon a do-or-die program to overthrow our society..." (1)

In July 1947, Foreign Affairs published an anonymous article entitled "The Sources of Soviet Conduct," which offered what would soon become the basis for U.S. policy toward the Soviet Union. The policy offered was that of containment, which would remain fundamental for the duration of the Cold War. The author of that now famous memo, George Kennan, opposed what he deemed at that time to be a continuing American appeasement of the Soviets. Kennan's prescription was one of firm opposition to further expansion of communist power, through collective, flexible and adjustable strategies of containment. As he reflected,

   The political personality of Soviet power as we know it today is
   the product of ideology and circumstances: ideology inherited by
   the present Soviet leaders from the movement in which they had
   their political origin, and circumstances of the power which they
   now have exercised for nearly three decades in Russia. There can be
   few tasks of psychological analysis more difficult than to try to
   trace the interaction of these two forces and the relative role of
   each in the determination of official Soviet conduct. Yet the
   attempt must be made if that conduct is to be understood and
   effectively countered. (2)

The puzzle of international affairs was not necessarily unique to American-Soviet relations, and certainly, Kennan's strategic prescriptions for solving those puzzles were not all that novel. One only has to go back to the works of the fabled Sun Tzu 2,500 years ago to identify the right path:

   Therefore I say: Know the enemy and know yourself; in a hundred
   battles you will never be in peril. When you are ignorant of the
   enemy but know yourself, your chances of winning or losing are
   equal. If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain
   in every battle to be in peril.
   Such people are "mad bandits." What can they expect if not
   defeat? (3)

What was unique and noteworthy about Kennan's "long telegram" was how he tailored this age-old treatment to address the chronic struggle between conflict and cooperation that the United States was facing at the time, a struggle that held the quality of life--if not life itself--of the country in its balance. His characterization of the problem of Soviet conduct, the sources of that conduct and the potential countermeasures the United States could take against it presented a possible remedy to this conflict. Kennan's triage and recommended treatment remain a textbook example of grand strategymaking, what I would describe as the development of a nation's comprehensive plan of action that coordinates and directs all political, economic and military means and their associated factors in order to attain large ends.

What Kennan's "long telegram" gave us was nothing less than (a) a psychological assessment of the adversary--the Soviet--and (b) an overarching blueprint to guide future U.S. interaction with that adversary. The strategy of containment offered U.S. policymakers and strategists the seed-corn they needed from which to grow a crop of strategies of containment--harvests slightly different year-to-year and era-to-era but nonetheless offering a consistent nourishment of the body politic.

Each strategy reflected the particular realities of the time period and demonstrated a "process by which ends are related to means, intentions to capabilities, objectives to resources." (4) It also sought to answer the three questions Kennan deemed essential to understanding and countering the Soviet:

1. Why do the Soviets behave the way they do?

2. What will the future of Soviet behavior likely turn out to be?

3. …

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