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The New Containment

  • Published
  • By Dr. Christopher Rein

In 1947, George F. Kennan famously outlined in the pages of Foreign Affairs what became the “containment strategy.” Kennan’s argument, that the West and its allies must confront aggressive Soviet expansion anywhere, set the stage for much of America’s foreign policy throughout the Cold War, successfully shoring up Europe’s eastern and southern flanks, but unhelpfully leading to counterproductive engagements elsewhere, especially in Southeast Asia. The West also chose some strange bedfellows in Africa and Latin America that arguably allowed the communists to profit from ongoing decolonization to insert Marxist ideologies in places as diverse and remote as Cuba and Angola. But overall, the strategy of confronting Soviet expansion is generally viewed as a successful approach, leading to the ultimate collapse of the Soviet state and the declining influence of communist ideologies around the globe. Today, only five nations (China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam) still adhere to the anti-liberal, anti-freedom, anti-humanity ideology of communism.

In the place of the single Soviet threat, the world now faces two rising hegemons, with aggressive Russian military action in Eastern Europe and Chinese expansion in the South China Sea and on the Asian landmass. Both nations are also contesting the information domain and conducting influence operations across the globe to undermine the western liberal democracies, in campaigns that respect no geographic boundaries. The rapprochement between Beijing and Moscow suggests a new Europe-Asia axis similar to the one the West confronted in Germany and Japan almost a century ago. To effectively contain these twin threats, the United States and its allies must view them as inextricably linked, and take steps to erect a barrier by strengthening existing coalitions to effectively seal off this new containment zone before it can metastasize and endanger the world.

A tenet of geopolitics is that “geography is destiny,” and, for all the challenges the new Russia-China axis presents, one advantage is its remarkable geographic compactness. Indeed, most of the major security challenges facing the West, when one includes a nuclear-capable North Korea and an unsettled Iran intent on joining those ranks, can be circumscribed in a geographically contiguous area spanning much of Asia, from the Arctic to the Himalayas, and from the Sea of Japan to the Black Sea. This new “containment zone” measures roughly 4,000 miles at its greatest extent north-south and 5,000 miles east-west. Tracing a border around this area, one would follow the boundary between new NATO member Finland south to the Baltic States, including or excluding Belarus as the people of that nation might decide, continuing along the already hotly contested border between Russia and Ukraine, and crossing the Caucasus to the Caspian Sea, where it would then extend south along the border between Iraq and Iran to the Arabian Gulf. This “western flank” would remain the primary responsibility of NATO proper, including the current and future member states, potentially even Ukraine, or whatever portion of it survives the current incursion.

Failing North African and Middle Eastern states such as Libya, Syria, Yemen, and Somalia represent problematic islands outside of the containment zone, but can be effectively isolated, especially with the aid and assistance of Pan-Arab and Pan-African organizations such as the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) or the Pan-Sahel Initiative (PSI). European partners have worked assiduously to contain Russian aggression while simultaneously attempting to stabilize the various humanitarian crises that emerge from these regions but invariably wash up on its shores. While supporting these efforts, Europe’s primary focus must be to continue the economic, political, and even cultural isolation of Russia, including extending the current ban on Russian soccer from the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) by expelling the nation altogether and allowing Russian club and international teams to seek affiliation with their new bedfellows in the Asian Football Confederation (AFC).

From the Strait of Hormuz, the containment line runs east along the northern shore of the Gulf of Oman before jutting inland, including or excluding Pakistan as that nation chooses, then along the Hindu Kush and Himalayas until it reaches a point on the South China Sea east of Hanoi. From there, it would hug the western coast of China, cut across the Korean peninsula at the DMZ, and continue across the Sea of Japan to the Kamchatka Peninsula, and the Bering Strait. These southern and eastern flanks are the primary responsibility of the “Quad,” or the coalition of India, Australia, Japan, and the United States (or, if one were to include South Korea, the Korea, Australia, India, Japan, U.S. alliance, or KAIJU!) destined to battle the Chinese dragon for supremacy in the region. Already, effective alliances have confronted expansive Chinese aggression in the region and protected vulnerable states in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands, including Taiwan.

The third front, along Russia’s northern coast in the Arctic, reflects a flank of NATO’s responsibility, as member states Canada, Denmark, Norway, and the United States all have vital interests in the region. However, the Arctic is a unique region, and becoming more so daily. Global warming is accelerating historic declines in sea ice coverage, opening new trade routes, and the loss of glacial ice exposes terra nova for mineral extraction and exploitation. The Arctic properly deserves its own special focus (and perhaps a new geographic command, or at the very least a focused organization under NORTHCOM’s shield, along the model of the highly effective NORAD) and partnerships to contest Russian and Chinese expansion and influence in the Far North.

Terrestrial and nautical circumcision would isolate Russian and Chinese influence from freedom-loving people around the globe, but without control of the uninhabited skies and space above, and the ubiquitous information and cyber domains, the new containment zone would be a fortress without a roof. Actively contesting these domains by exposing propaganda will prevent Russian and Chinese influence from escaping its sarcophagus and infecting the rest of the world.

This mental model of a new containment zone highlights the importance of cooperation and deconfliction between NATO and Quad members to both meet the growing threat and eliminate wasteful duplication of effort. While a continuing focus on Europe and Asia has the potential to ignore significant security challenges in Africa and South America, the threats posed on these two continents lack the existential threat of the twin Asian powers. Still, coalitions of western nations should work to counter both influence operations by their primary competitors, as well as regional threats such as human and narcotics trafficking, trans-national terrorism and extremism, and environmental decline and catastrophe to avoid the emergence of any backfires behind the main containment line in places such as Venezuela and the Sahel.

This “new containment” model will provide a geographical framework for confronting the twin, inextricably linked threats emanating from Russia and China, and other rogue Asian states, especially Iran and North Korea. The strategy places a heavy reliance on American resources, and it is imperative that the Atlas of the New World remain as healthy as possible, so that it can continue to bear the strain unhampered by any debilitating infections within the body politic. Having suffered through and survived a mild dose of isolationism and authoritarianism, one can only hope that the United States is now fully vaccinated against and prepared for future outbreaks. If European states can lift more of the burden on that continent, that will free more resources for the vital Pacific Front, where there are fewer partners in more exposed locations. A strong strategy of direct confrontation will help protect emerging and established democracies from imperial and authoritarian threats and help ensure a third century of relative global peace and order, following the Pax Britannica of 1815-1914, and the Pax Americana enjoyed since 1945.

Dr. Christopher M. Rein
Dr. Christopher M. Rein is the Managing Editor of Air University Press at Maxwell AFB, AL. He is a retired officer who has served as a navigator aboard the E-8C JSTARS, as a faculty member in the history department at the US Air Force Academy, and as an associate professor at the Air Command and Staff College. He is the author of Alabamians in Blue: Freedmen, Unionist, and the Civil War in the Cotton State (LSU Press, 2019) and the forthcoming The Dixie Division in Peace and War: The 31st Infantry Division and World War II (University of Alabama Press, 2022). The thoughts and opinions expressed are entirely his own and should not be construed as representing official positions of Air University, the Department of the Air Force, or the Department of Defense.

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