What would George Kennan think of “Containment 2.0”?

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Writing in the New York Times recently, Peter Baker suggested that the Obama administration is now, in the wake of the annexation of Crimea, shifting toward a 21st century application of the Cold War policy of containment. Obama is “retrofitting for a new age” the strategy first set out in the 1940s by George F. Kennan, then chargé d’affaires in the US embassy in Moscow. The President of the Council on Foreign Relations and former U.S. State Department official, Richard N. Haass, recently penned a piece titled “The Sources of Russian Conduct,” a take on Kennan’s original “X” Foreign Affairs piece, “Sources of Soviet Conduct.” In it he opined that a policy of containment is precisely what is needed to check Russian power in Ukraine and elsewhere on its borders.

Although Kennan was credited with the formulation of the doctrine of containment in his pseudonymously authored “Mr. X” piece and in the “Long Telegram” that came before it, he was disappointed with the manner in which containment was implemented. For Kennan, containment would outlive its usefulness once the excesses of the Stalin period came to an end. Kennan considered these conditions to be met after Stalin’s demise and after the Sino-Soviet split led the two major communist powers to adopt openly adversarial relations with one another. By a check on Soviet power, he did not mean a policy that was overly military in character, nor did he see it as a strategy of any utility beyond the industrial centres of Europe and Japan. Instead, from the Truman administration onwards, containment of a monolithic communist threat was applied from the Fulda Gap to regions like Indochina that Kennan and other strategists of the era thought were inconsequential to the East-West balance of power. Containment was, Kennan asserted in his Memoirs, a principle — not a rigid doctrine.

Whereas the 1995 NATO Study on Enlargement saw the Alliance as one of the pillars of a new security architecture in Europe capable of transcending erstwhile “dividing lines” in Central Europe, Russia saw a stable balance of two rival blocs replaced by an order in which a single alliance (NATO) underwrote the security of former Warsaw Pact states and even ex-Soviet republics.

Just as Kennan was disappointed with the manner in which his vision of containment evolved in the early years of the Cold War, he would be dismayed with its application in 2014. His dismay would stem from his perception of the shift to containment as the consequence, at least in part, of what he saw as the deeply flawed policy that was NATO’s membership enlargement. Kennan warned the world in 1997 — the year the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland were invited to begin accession talks — that NATO’s expansion would be “a fateful error.” In fact, such a mistake would constitute, in his estimation, the largest policy blunder of the post-Cold War period. Enlargement would, in Kennan’s eyes, lead to a recrudescence of nationalist sentiment in Russia, a deterioration in Russia-NATO relations and the steering of Russian foreign policy in directions that would be unpalatable to Western powers. These tendencies have been present, to varying degrees, in recent years.

If not suitable for the post-Stalin Soviet Union, it is hardly likely that Kennan would have seen containment as an antidote to Russian revanchism in 2014. The expansion of NATO close to Russian frontiers was, for Kennan, a policy marked by unrealism. US policy-makers endorsed enlargement without serious consideration of the implications of the collective defence commitments that were being undertaken in the region. Whereas the 1995 NATO Study on Enlargement saw the Alliance as one of the pillars of a new security architecture in Europe capable of transcending erstwhile “dividing lines” in Central Europe, Russia saw a stable balance of two rival blocs replaced by an order in which a single alliance (NATO) underwrote the security of former Warsaw Pact states and even ex-Soviet republics. This would in effect establish new dividing lines on Brussels’ and, perhaps more importantly, on Washington’s terms. Kennan was at pains to point out to the NATO foreign policy establishment how Moscow saw these developments and counselled that it was only a matter of time before the Kremlin reacted to enlargement. Having passed away at 101 in 2005, he did not live to see the Russian return to Crimea — but he would not have been surprised by this sudden turn of events.

Kristian Kennedy

About Kristian Kennedy

Kristian A. Kennedy, MSc London School of Economics and Political Science, is deputy-chair of the NATO Association of Canada Program Committee.  His writings on international security have appeared in several publications, including the Toronto Star.