The New Containment Handling Russia, China, and Iran

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By Michael Mandelbaum

The quarter century following the Cold War was the most peaceful in modern history. The world’s strongest powers did not fight one another or even think much about doing so. They did not, on the whole, prepare for war, anticipate war, or conduct negotiations and political maneuvers with the prospect of war looming in the background. As U.S. global military hegemony persisted, the possibility of developed nations fighting one another seemed ever more remote.

Then history began to change course. In the last several years, three powers have launched active efforts to revise security arrangements in their respective regions. Russia has invaded Crimea and other parts of Ukraine and has tried covertly to destabilize European democracies. China has built artificial island fortresses in international waters, claimed vast swaths of the western Pacific, and moved to organize Eurasia economically in ways favorable to Beijing. And the Islamic Republic of Iran has expanded its influence over much of Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen and is pursuing nuclear weapons.

This new world requires a new American foreign policy. Fortunately, the country’s own not-so-distant past can offer guidance. During the Cold War, the United States chose to contain the Soviet Union, successfully deterring its military aggression and limiting its political influence for decades. The United States should apply containment once again, now to Russia, China, and Iran. The contemporary world is similar enough to its mid-twentieth-century predecessor to make that old strategy relevant but different enough that it needs to be modified and updated. While success is not guaranteed, a new containment policy offers the best chance to defend American interests in the twenty-first century.