I liked Graham Fuller’s post on containment at LobeLog quite a bit:
Containment has been a reasonably sensible way of dealing with hostile states that cannot be readily defeated militarily except at potentially huge military cost to the US itself—especially if it risks nuclear war. Both the Soviet Union and China for many decades were “contained” due to their perceived radical ideologies and hostility to the US-dominated world order. These two states also supported many radical leftist revolutionary movements around the world that ideologically opposed the US. (Often these movements had good reason to be hostile and revolutionary, frequently due to terrible domestic conditions in their own countries—and under regimes often supported by Washington. Cuba, Chile, and Nicaragua come to mind, although US eventually made efforts to overthrow them after their revolutions.)
He raises several interesting questions. The first is who is containing whom?
If we were then to settle on any one single description of the psychology that characterizes Chinese and Russian strategy these days it is indeed “containment” of the US. The EU too, for example, increasingly believes it needs to take its relations with Russia into its own hands, rather than potentially be led into a military confrontation with Russia via dubious NATO exercises on Moscow’s borders. Supporting US “credibility” is not high on the European foreign policy wish list (except understandably for those few small neighbors sadly doomed to eternal life next to the Russian Bear.) South Korean leadership too finds playing the US card sometimes diplomatically useful, but posing a huge danger if Washington is actually willing to unleash war—in which Seoul has everything to lose. Indeed, the one state in the world that tends to completely support US military action almost anywhere in the world these days is Israel.
I do have one question of my own. Has containment ever actually been successful anywhere? One of the examples he gives of a U. S. policy of containment is Cuba. Over the last 50 years Cuba has become the leading member on the United Nations Human Rights Council, founded the Bolivarian Alternative for the Americas, hosted a summit of the Non-Aligned Movement of which it is one of the key members, and intervened militarily in Nicaragua, Chile, Angola, and Ethiopia. Cuba was and is a small, poor country. What would it have done had it not been contained? If Cuba cannot be contained, how can Russia or China?
Has our policy towards North Korea been one of containment? How successful has it been?
Here’s his greater question:
How wise is it to maintain lists of enemy states and leaders who require containment? Few other states do so, partially because declaring another state to be an enemy has obvious negative consequences that easily lead to self-fulfilling prophesy. This phenomenon is fundamental to the very psychology of human relationships. If we signal to someone that we consider them a threat or an enemy, the chances are very good that the other party will reciprocate and that mutual relations will predictably deteriorate. That is why shrewd “good neighbor policies” represent more than just naive feel-goodism. Yet the US still spends a great deal of time drawing up and announcing lists of who is an enemy, or a rival, and who must be punished or contained.