The Myth of Containment

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The Myth of Containment
Published 28-02-2013, 05:31

Martin Sieff

Senior Fellow of the American University in Moscow
The great, late Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery, Britain’s greatest general of the past 200 years, was once famously asked to compile a list of the 18 most disastrous mistakes in world military history: He put way ahead of all the rest at Number One "Invading Russia: It is always a bad idea.”

Today, "Monty” who was one of the two main architects (with U.S. General and future President Dwight Eisenhower) of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, would surely raise "Containing Russia” – and China – to Number Two position on that list.

Albert Einstein would disagree too: It was Einstein who famously warned before his death in 1955, "Nuclear weapons change everything.” My friend Dr. Helen Caldicott of Australia, founder of the Nobel Peace Prize-winning International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War uses that specific quote from Einstein often.

What Einstein and Caldicott both clearly understood was that the old 18th and 19th century policies of "containment” were dangerously obsolescent in a world where major nations were armed with nuclear weapons.

George Kennan, one of the most influential – and controversial – American strategic thinkers and diplomats of the 20th century famously coined the term "containment to the policy he advised the United States and its Western allies to pursue towards the Soviet Union in the second half of the 1940's. Viewed through the distorting lens of a false retrospect, "containment” is now looked upon in the West, especially in the United States, as the policy that won the Cold War and caused the collapse of communism.

In fact, the opposite was true. In my six years as Soviet and Eastern European affairs chief correspondent and desk editor for the highly conservative Washington Times newspaper from January 1986 to January 1992, I enjoyed a privileged, bird’s eye view of the process of the disintegration of the Soviet Union and containment had nothing to do with it.

The truth was precisely the opposite. The Soviet Union bankrupted itself and collapsed from within not because it was contained but because it wasn’t. It died from the strategic curse of over-extension: It was the same global, over-reaching folly that the British Empire stumbled into, in the 1930’s, as the great historian Lord Correlli Barnett documented in his classic 1972 book "The Collapse of British Power.”

In the era of President Leonid Brezhnev, Soviet leaders, exhilarated by the humiliating U.S. defeat in Vietnam, poured their financial support and military resources not just to North Vietnam, but also into Cuba, Angola, Mozambique, Syria and Iraq. In doing so they drained their own national economy. Finally, they went a country too far: In December 1979, they sent the Red Army into Afghanistan to restore and then prop up their ally – in power. In doing so, they trapped their country into an unwinnable war for the next decade. National disillusion, cynicism, hunger for reform and plain despair came as the result.

The United States acted decisively to prop up its allies in Western Europe through the 1950’s and 1960’s through the NATO alliance. This did not "contain” the Soviet Union: It balanced it.

The Soviets on their side had their Warsaw Pact network of allied states in Europe. They maintained that too. What Brezhnev and his opposite number and surprisingly good friend, U.S. President Richard Nixon did from 1969 to 1974 was to strengthen the crucial bilateral relationship between the United States and the Soviet Union and drain it of the most dangerous tensions that could have led to the two nuclear superpowers stumbling into a nuclear world war.

For the United States to adopt a "containment” policy towards Russia, or China, or both of them today would be enormously reckless and dangerous. It would inevitably put Washington and Moscow on a collision course, just as the French Republic and Tsarist Russia slid into a collision course with Berlin by trying to contain Imperial Germany at the end of the 19th century. It took a quarter of a century, but those policies – and their mirror image ones in Germany – led to World War I, the collapse of European civilization and the horrific deaths of 10 million young men. With nuclear weapons, a slide towards such a conflict today would be infinitely more catastrophic in its potential consequences.

"Containment” did not "contain” the Soviet Union and lead to its collapse. When "containment” was applied in the Korean War, its cost was high, and in Vietnam, it failed totally. Kennan himself came to bitterly regret how his original concept was expanded and distorted by later policymakers to justify involvement in conflicts and crusades he openly opposed.

American policymakers need to learn these real lessons of modern history, instead of the simplistic myths being fed to them, as soon as possible.

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