In the defining geopolitical contest of this century, the U.S. is a superpower without a plan. The last two presidents have declared that our country is engaged in a historic competition with China—one that will shape the world order and the fate of human freedom. But neither Donald Trump nor Joe Biden has publicly explained what a more “competitive” policy aims to achieve, nor has either offered more than the barest outlines of a strategy for success. We appear to be embarking on a long, dangerous journey without knowing where we are trying to go or how we will get there.
The challenge is, admittedly, complex because China is so deeply integrated into the very system that its hegemonic ambitions threaten. But Washington has a precedent to draw on, if only it could set aside the endless—and superficial—debate over whether the U.S.-China relationship is a “new Cold War” and instead engage more deeply with the strategic insights developed in the original Cold War.
In the decades after World War II, the U.S. waged and won a multigenerational struggle against an authoritarian rival. It devised, at the outset, an elegant strategy—containment—that guided the actions of successive presidents of both parties. Today’s rivalry with Beijing isn’t an exact replica of the Cold War, of course. China is far more economically dynamic and technologically sophisticated than the Soviet Union was. Xi Jinping isn’t Stalin or Mao, although he admires the former and increasingly emulates the latter. But the best strategies have qualities that transcend particular eras and places. To succeed against a rising China, the U.S. must relearn the lessons of containment.
Containment yielded an epochal U.S. victory because it was well-suited to long-term rivalry—the very quality that makes it relevant today.
Containment emerged as a response to a dilemma that today’s policy makers would recognize: A powerful tyranny that the U.S. had tried to mold into a “responsible stakeholder” threatened to destroy the system instead. During World War II, Franklin Roosevelt allied with Stalin’s Soviet Union and sought to make it a partner in building a stable peace. By 1946-47, however, fears of a third global war were widespread, as U.S.-Soviet tensions spiked and Moscow’s power loomed menacingly over a shattered world.
The basic problem, as State Department official George Kennan explained in a pseudonymous 1947 essay in Foreign Affairs, was that a witch’s brew of traditional Russian insecurity, communist ideology and Stalinist paranoia made the Kremlin relentlessly hostile to the capitalist world. But if the Soviets weren’t reconcilable, Kennan argued, they were deterrable. Stalin understood that the U.S.S.R. was still weaker than the U.S., and his confidence in the eventual victory of communism meant that he would back down rather than fight prematurely.
America’s best strategy, then, was one of “firm containment”: checking Soviet power through “the adroit and vigilant application of counterforce at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points.” If Washington denied Moscow the benefits of expansion, Kennan argued, the inner weaknesses of the communist system—the irrational command economy, the vicious absurdities of its totalitarian politics—would eventually take their toll. The result would be the “breakup or gradual mellowing of Soviet power.” A patient strategy, he insisted, would produce transformative results.
Kennan initially offered few details about how, where and with what tools Soviet power should be contained. In the late 1940s, the Truman administration would begin devising specific policies—aid to Greece and Turkey, the Marshall Plan, the creation of NATO—that made containment a reality. Later presidents, from Eisenhower to Reagan, put their own twists on the idea, taking widely varying approaches to issues such as negotiations, nuclear strategy and countermeasures against communist inroads in the developing world. Throughout the Cold War, the overarching goal of American strategy remained fixed, but the methods were subject to endless revision and debate.
In fact, containment was a more controversial—and taxing—doctrine than we often remember. The strategy led Washington to fight ghastly “limited” conflicts in Korea and Vietnam. The U.S. had to prepare continually for an apocalyptic global nuclear war just to preserve an unsatisfying peace. Containment entailed profound moral compromises, such as supporting brutal Third World dictators; it involved open-ended commitments and expenses beyond anything America had borne before.
The era’s doves deplored the perpetual peril that containment promised, while hawks abhorred the semi-permanent stalemate that it implied. At certain points, such as during the 1960s, a world-wide quest to curb communist gains led the U.S. into disastrous overreach. At others, namely the late 1970s, the combination of surging Soviet power and crippling Western self-doubt seemed to jeopardize the entire project.
Yet in the end, containment paid almost exactly the returns that George Kennan had promised. Imperfect as it was, the West’s long effort to resist Soviet aggrandizement eventually forced a new generation of Kremlin leaders to radically reduce their ambitions. Accumulating internal problems triggered desperate reforms that unintentionally brought the system crashing down. Denied easy expansion, Soviet power mellowed and crumbled, leading to the emergence of a world more secure, prosperous and democratic than ever before.
The strategy endured, through four decades and nine presidencies, because it blended brutal clarity with great flexibility.
Containment yielded an epochal strategic victory, without the catastrophic war that such triumphs had typically required. It managed this feat because it was well-suited to long-term rivalry—the very quality that makes it relevant to today’s U.S.-China contest.
Containment endured, through four decades and nine presidencies, because it blended brutal clarity with great flexibility. Kennan pulled no punches regarding the severity of the Soviet threat and the persistence needed to defeat it. He specified a bold, if distant, objective—the breakup or mellowing of Soviet power—and a straightforward approach to achieving it. Yet because containment, as Kennan expressed it, was an indication of direction rather than a detailed road map, it left room for maneuver along the way.
American presidents periodically expanded or contracted the country’s defense perimeter; they dialed up or down the intensity of the contest. During the 1970s, for instance, a superpower exhausted from Vietnam sought a breather through diplomatic detente. A decade later, a re-energized Reagan administration sought victory by pressuring the Kremlin on all fronts.
Kennan later regretted the capaciousness of containment and felt that the doctrine had evolved in ways that he hadn’t intended. But containment’s conceptual simplicity ensured its endurance through a long conflict, even while its malleability kept it responsive to the Cold War’s twists and turns.
Today, the U.S. needs the clarity that makes such flexibility possible. “Competition” is a geopolitical reality, not a strategic objective. The objective should be stopping China from overturning the balance of power and building a future in which authoritarianism is dominant. Put another way, the U.S. must contain China’s ability to reshape the international order produced by the U.S. victory in the Cold War. The fact that this rival, like the Soviet Union before it, is driven by a potent combination of grievance and ambition—angry nationalism, intense autocratic insecurity, the grandiose designs of an emperor-for-life—suggests that its challenge to the U.S. will persist until Chinese power fades or the nature of the regime changes.
Such an objective leaves scope for choice on how best to defend the Western Pacific, to vie for influence in developing countries and to blend competition and diplomacy with Beijing. It doesn’t preclude the U.S. from running hard at certain stages of the rivalry and slowing down at others. As the history of containment shows, strategic clarity should function not as a straitjacket but as a compass.
Containment also succeeded because it deployed U.S. strengths to reveal the enemy’s weaknesses and to discredit the enemy’s strategy. Kennan understood that Stalin needed external victories to mask internal failures. Soviet officials believed that they could attain those victories because the capitalist world, having twice torn itself apart, couldn’t hold together for long.
By denying Moscow the geopolitical triumphs it needed, containment brought the infirmities of the Soviet system into the open. At the same time, the U.S. continually cultivated the health and solidarity of non-communist countries, to show that history wasn’t on the Kremlin’s side, after all.
Today’s China isn’t the Soviet Union, but the country’s formidable strengths conceal grave weaknesses. Slowing growth, political sclerosis and looming demographic catastrophe threaten the regime. Through his belligerence, Mr. Xi has made rivals of countries near and far. His strategy, such as it is, appears to involve seeking near-term wins—subduing Taiwan and weakening U.S. alliances in the Pacific, establishing a technological sphere of influence encompassing countries around the world—to offset, and perhaps even reverse, the accumulating effects of longer-term problems.
If Washington can block those advances, then Mr. Xi’s narrative of inevitable Chinese ascent will start to look hollow. And his successors will someday have to turn inward and address, through domestic reform and diplomatic moderation, the country’s growing isolation and the clutch of economic, political and social tensions that Mr. Xi’s policies are accentuating.
Working with like-minded countries, the U.S. can generate collective pressure that will throw Beijing on its heels.
Answering China will simultaneously require American leaders to emulate another virtue of containment—pursuing unilateral advantage through multilateral means. Communism, Kennan wrote, was a parasite “which feeds only on diseased tissue.” In the late 1940s, the Soviet threat was so severe because famine, radicalism and instability were rampant. In response, the U.S. engaged in one of history’s most audacious undertakings: Working with dozens of countries to create a vibrant free world.
Washington rebuilt shattered societies and anchored a flourishing Western economy. It promoted, if not always consistently, democracy as a source of political stability and common moral purpose. The U.S. forged alliances that protected the non-communist world from its enemies and from its own historic divisions. It outplayed the Soviet Union by remaking the globe around it—by creating a Western community whose cohesion Moscow couldn’t break and whose power it couldn’t equal.
The best check on autocratic aggression remains the strength and unity of the democracies. Knowing this, Mr. Xi longs to separate Washington from its friends. Any narrowly nationalistic American approach to competition will thus fail. The U.S. will need instead deeper cooperation with like-minded countries—on trade, technological innovation and defense—to build collective resilience against Chinese aggression and to generate the collective pressure that can throw Beijing on its heels for a change.
Indeed, containment reflected another fundamental truth of long-term rivalry: It is hard to win while remaining wholly on the defensive. The strategy was primarily defensive, and this contrast with the Kremlin’s more expansive aims is one of the reasons that so many countries accommodated Washington’s power and resisted Moscow’s. But containment bolstered a strong defense with a selective offense, meant to keep a dangerous adversary off-balance and under strain. To this end, U.S. information warfare highlighted the crimes and failures of East-bloc regimes. Diplomatic wedge strategies helped to split Moscow from Yugoslavia’s Tito and China’s Mao. The Reagan administration used anticommunist insurgents to roll back an overextended Soviet empire.
The U.S. never seriously sought to overthrow the Soviet regime. That is a line it shouldn’t cross with China, either. But Washington does need ways of taking the fight to an enemy that is certainly taking the fight to it.
The U.S. can work with allies to slow Chinese innovation through technological denial policies that limit its access to cutting-edge semiconductors, vast troves of American data and other crucial goods. It can complicate China’s overseas expansion by highlighting the corruption, authoritarianism and local resentment that its Belt and Road Initiative often fosters in developing countries.
Not least, by quietly manipulating the technical vulnerabilities of China’s Orwellian, AI-enabled domestic security systems, and by publicly sanctioning Communist Party officials engaged in heinous abuses, America can make repression pricier for Mr. Xi’s government. If Beijing responds with self-defeating “wolf warrior” outbursts—as it did in early 2021, reacting so furiously to multilateral sanctions imposed due to its persecution of the Uyghurs that it derailed an EU-China investment deal—so much the better.
The most effective long-term strategies aren’t simply passive: They bait an enemy into blunders and drive up the costs that it must pay to compete.
A strategy of this nature will make for a tense, sometimes frightening struggle. But containment emerged in the first place and ultimately prevailed not because it was ideal but because it was the best of bad alternatives. Few observers in the late 1940s or after welcomed a long slog against Moscow. There was little joy in a fraught contest conducted in the shadow of Armageddon.
Only when containment was compared to other possibilities—a replay of the appeasement that had preceded World War II, or a military showdown that would cause World War III—did its merits become clear. Containment offered a way of navigating unacceptable extremes, showing that sharp but patient competition could allow the free world to avoid disastrous confrontations as well as disastrous defeats.
Containing Chinese influence implies a return, for the foreseeable future, to Cold War-style tensions and crises. It requires, once again, discarding the dream of “one world”—a single, seamlessly integrated global order—and accepting the grim realities of competition in a divided one.
Beijing is trying to become the globe’s dominant power and usher in an autocratic century. If it succeeds, the world that America built through its Cold War victory will be consigned to history. Undertaking another urgent, enduring effort to contain an advancing rival won’t be easy, but it is the best way of averting a still darker future.
Mr. Brands is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. This essay is adapted from his new book, “The Twilight Struggle: What the Cold War Can Teach Us About Great-Power Rivalry Today,” which will be published by Yale University Press in January.
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Appeared in the December 4, 2021, print edition as ‘Containment Can Work Against China, Too – Containing a New Adversary.’