President Obama is setting in place a containment policy toward America’s challenges abroad that could last for several generations, similar to that of Harry Truman after World War II.
Just as Obama at first tried to reach understandings with potential adversaries abroad, so had President Roosevelt sought accommodation with the Soviet Union. But his successor, Harry Truman, faced an ever-more aggressive Russia. As the Moscow-based diplomat George Kennan put it in his famous “long telegram” to the State Department: “Permanent peaceful coexistence with the West” wasn’t what Joseph Stalin envisioned. His “neurotic view of world affairs,” and the “instinctive Russian sense of insecurity,” would keep Russia pushing until the West stood up to it. Containing Russia short of world war became the “Truman Doctrine.”
Obama, having tried and failed to set America on a new course with Russia, and realizing that there is no military option with that nuclear power, is now creating a long-game policy of containment to curb Vladimir Putin’s aggressive ambitions.
There are plenty of questions about past moves. Did the West err in humiliating Russia after the Soviet Union collapsed? Was it necessary to push NATO so far east? But that was then, and Obama has to play the hand he has. And that includes a Putin who is showing signs of some of the same neurotic world views and instinctive insecurity as Stalin, with a toxic mix of nationalism and victimization.
Obama’s long game is to rein in Russia through sanctions and political alliances, with military force as a deterrence in the wings. Obama is immeasurably helped by the collapse of oil prices on which Putin so depends. Russia will not give back Crimea, but it might be persuaded to desist in its aggression against Ukraine and other former Soviet states.
Obama’s normalizing of relations with Cuba plays into his containment policy. The announcement was made just before a hawkish Russian official was to make an official visit to Cuba. With Putin testing NATO’s defenses by aggressive flights that set NATO jets scrambling, the West does not want to see Russia regaining a foothold in Cuba.
As important as it is to contain Putin’s Russia, it is equally important not to let this escalate into the full-fledged Cold War that Truman faced. Putin is not Stalin, and his Russia is not the Soviet Union, a world power bent on domination everywhere. An Obama containment doctrine can still explore areas where cooperation may be beneficial. It also needs to not let America’s friends push us into unnecessary confrontation with Russia as Georgia tried to do during the last Bush administration. The Ukrainian parliament’s recent move toward NATO membership, for example, is not helpful at this time.
George Kennan, toward the end of his long life, told me that his policy of containment had become far too militarized during the Cold War. An Obama doctrine seeks to avoid the over- militarization of American foreign policy that preceded his administration.
The same long game will set the tone for a rising China’s newly aggressive nationalism. The US “pivot” toward Asia will seek to increase America’s naval presence in the China seas to protect the interests of our Asian allies and put a brake on China’s more aggressive tendencies, while also exploring areas of cooperation such as climate change and free trade. Obama’s doctrine seeks to avoid confrontation whenever possible, encouraging China to play by the accepted geopolitical rules as its power rises. At the same time, any move by our allies to drag us into needless confrontation will be discouraged.
The Muslim world is in turmoil, but the Islamic State no longer has the momentum it once had before American airpower began intervening. In this case, armed confrontation was unavoidable, but Obama doesn’t want to be sucked into a ground war again. The Islamic State’s dramatic beheading of American citizens was designed to create an overreaction that would bring in American troops and allow the Islamic State to portray itself as the sole defender of the faith against the infidels.
As General John Allen put it: “We are not just fighting a force. We are fighting an idea. . . an image of invincibility and an image of an advocate on behalf of the faith of Islam.” Ideas take a long time to defeat, but, like Communism, jihadist extremism will eventually defeat itself. And while the West can help contain extremism, only Muslims can rid themselves of it.
As Henry Kissinger once wrote of Kennan’s containment policy, Obama’s will be a “gradual process, a willingness to pursue one’s ultimate policy goal in imperfect stages,” rather than an unrealistic goal of quick victory that so beguiles his critics.
H.D.S. Greenway is a former editorial page editor of the Globe.