After Containment, What?

The period between the close of hostilities in 1945 and the demise of the Soviet Union – nearly half a century – can be called the Age of Containment. The Grand Strategy of the United States was to contain the Soviet Union and its influence in the Third World (the First World being the West and its minions, the Second being the Soviet Bloc and its minions). Many theorists and academics look back on those days with nostalgia, forgetting how they fretted about the end of the world at the time. The reasons are two – there is something seemly about the symmetry of a bipolar world; and, we had “Containment” – a cohesive, cogent, and viscerally understandable Grand Strategy. The evaporation of the Soviet Union has yielded, not a “peace dividend”, but an unseemly, Hobbesian world, opaque to the neat geopolitical theories of the Cold War. George HW Bush, facing the most favorable prospects ever for the use of American power in the international arena, spoke grandly of building a “new world order”, but neither defined it nor did anything to bring it about.

We need a new Grand Strategy.

Yale’s professor John Gaddis[1] has his own definition – not necessarily shared by his colleagues[2] – that a Grand Strategy is the calculated relationship of means to large ends[3]. Although means-matching is an integral part of a Grand Strategy, it is to me the first bullet-point under the heading. In formulating the survival strategy of State, one should match means to ends, not ends to means[4]. I prefer the thinking of Barry Posen[5] and Andrew Ross[6], who outline four general approaches to a Grand Strategy: neo-isolationism; selective engagement; cooperative security; and primacy[7]. These each describe an appropriate American response to a perceived “world order”, and included in each is a statement of “American interests”, how best to pursue them, and the probable reaction of the rest of the world to those interests and those pursuits. That is a Grand Strategy. What we have been exhibiting since the end of the Cold War is an ad hoc collection of policies, arbitrarily related to one another if at all.

The neo-isolationists have embraced a constricted view of US national interests that renders internationalism not only unnecessary but counterproductive, essentially pulling up the drawbridge to Fortress America. National defense – the protection of “the security, liberty, and property of the American people” – is the only vital American interest. They subscribes to a fundamentally realist[8] view of international politics and thus focuses on state power, but their version of realism is minimal. Its strategic imperatives are even more limited than those of the minimal realism outlined by Christopher Layne[9], who distinguishes between maximal and minimal realism. He views a balance of power approach (which Posen and Ross call “selective engagement”) as minimal realism, and links the doctrine of primacy with maximal realism.

But with intercontinental air service, strategic submarines and ballistic missiles – and remembering the pathology of 9/11 – Fortress America no longer has a moat. Isolationism would almost assuredly mean giving up command of the commons (international air, sea and space), which has been instrumental in the promotion of overall peaceful coexistence and the increase in worldwide prosperity since the end of World War II. Two things are historically unavoidable – the industrial revolution has dramatically reduced poverty worldwide, and free trade has drastically assisted in that effort. Eighty percent of the world lived on the equivalent of a dollar a day at the end of the 18th century (roughly the beginning of the Industrial Revolution). That number is down to ~20% today. The advent of manufacturing and the distribution of those goods have had more to do with that decrease than any other factors in-play during that span. American isolationism could only retard that process by yielding the commons to regional squabbles and colloquial protectionist tendencies. I don’t see neo-isolationism as a rational possibility given 21st century realities.

Selective engagement endeavors to ensure peace among powers that have substantial industrial and military potential – the great powers[10]. This is, by and large, a mutation of the Cold War concept of the balance of power and obviously enjoys an almost pure realist component. By virtue of the great military capabilities that would be brought into play, great power conflicts are much more dangerous to the United States than conflicts elsewhere. Thus Russia, the wealthier states of the European Union, PRC, and Japan matter most. The purpose of American engagement should be to affect directly the propensity of these powers to go to war with one another. These wars have the greatest chance of producing large-scale resort to WMD, a global experiment that the United States ought to try to prevent. These are the areas of the world where the world wars have originated, wars that have managed to reach out and draw in the US in spite of our strong inclination to stay out.

Had we been practicing a Grand Strategy of selective engagement, for example, we would not have intervened in Kosovo, but would have come to the defense of Georgia. We knew that Russia was adamant about keeping Western militaries out of the Balkans, and would likely seek to rebalance the relationship somewhere else. The invasion of Georgia was a cut-and-dried case of the breach of one state’s sovereignty by another. It is almost conventional wisdom that Kosovo caused Georgia, thereby legitimizing the thought that had we not intervened in Kosovo, Russia would not have invaded Georgia.

The most important distinguishing feature of cooperative security is the proposition that peace is effectively indivisible[11]. Cooperative security, therefore, begins with an expansive conception of US interests: America has a huge national interest in world peace. Cooperative security is the only one of Posen and Ross’s strategic alternatives that is informed by liberalism rather than realism[12]. Advocates propose to act collectively, through international institutions as much as possible. They presume that democracies will find it easier to work together in cooperative security regimes than would states with less progressive domestic polities.

Cooperative security does not view the great powers as a generic security problem. Because most are democracies, or on the road to democracy, and democracies have historically tended not to fall into war with one another, little great power security competition is expected[13]. A transitional Russia and an oligarchical PRC remain troublesome, but the answer there is to help them toward democracy as in the Clinton administration (arguably “neoconservative”) formulation of “Engagement and Enlargement.” The motives for great powers to collaborate are presumed to be greater than in the past, and the barriers to cooperation are presumed to be lower. A functional United Nations is the Holy Grail of cooperative security.

Primacy, like selective engagement, is motivated by both power and peace. But the particular configuration of power is key: this strategy holds that only a preponderance of American power ensures peace[14]. The pre-Cold War practice of aggregating power through coalitions and alliances, which underlies selective engagement, is viewed as insufficient. Peace is the result of an imbalance of power in which US capabilities are sufficient, operating on their own, to cow all potential challengers and to comfort all coalition partners. It is not enough, consequently, to be primus inter pares (first among equals), a comfortable position for selective engagement. Even the most clever Bismarckian orchestrator of the balance of power will ultimately fall short. One must be primus solus (sole primacy). Therefore, both world order and national security require that the United States maintain the primacy with which it emerged from the Cold War. The collapse of bipolarity cannot be permitted to allow the emergence of multipolarity; unipolarity is best.

Charles Krauthammer[15] has his own list of major schools of American foreign policy: isolationism, liberal internationalism, realism, and democratic globalism. Isolationism and liberal internationalism (i.e., cooperative security) are the same as Posner and Ross’s, and realism is roughly equivalent to selective engagement. Democratic globalism, however, is a distinctive classification[17]. Often incorrectly called “neoconservatism”, democratic globalism sees the spread of democracy – the “success of liberty”, as President Kennedy put it in his inaugural address, as both the ends and means of foreign policy. This school sees a commonality of values as the driving force behind global security. It sees itself as an improvement on realism because it understands the utility of internal processes (democracy) as a means to global security and stability, whereas realism is indifferent to the internal makeup of individual states, only their relative power projection potential.

So we have five candidates for consideration of a workable Grand Strategy – six if you include our post-Cold War rudderless ad hoc approach to foreign policy, four if you exclude it and isolationism, and three if you likewise exclude primacy.


[1] (PhD) Robert A Lovett Professor of Military and Naval History, and Director of the Brady-Johnson Program in Grand Strategy, Yale University.

[2] Paul Kennedy, J Richardson Dilworth Professor of History, Yale University; and Charlie Hill, Diplomat-in-Residence and a lecturer in International Studies, Yale University.

[3] See John Lewis Gaddis, What Is Grand Strategy? [3], Karl Von Der Heyden Distinguished Lecture [Duke University], February 26 2009.

[4] The doctrinal convention of Mutually Assured Destruction, for example, was a matching of means to the ends of “Containment” when the Soviet Union reached nuclear parity with the United States.

[5] Ford International Professor of Political Science, MIT; director, Security Studies Program, MIT; author: Inadvertent Escalation: Conventional War and Nuclear Risks and The Sources of Military Doctrine.

[6] Professor, National Security Affairs, US Naval War College.

[7] See Barry R Posen and Andrew L Ross, Competing Visions for US Grand Strategy[7], in International Security, Winter 1996/97, pp. 3-53.

[8] Realism emphasizes the primacy of power in international relations. It recognizes the international system is a Hobbesian state of nature, not to be confused with the settled order of domestic society that enjoys a community of values, a monopoly of power, and most important, an enforcer of norms – all of which are missing in the international system.

[9] Less is More: Minimal Realism in East Asia, in National Interest, Spring 1996, pp. 64-77.

[10] Robert Art, A Defensible Defense: America’s Grand Strategy After the Cold War, in International Security, Spring 1991, pp. 5-53; and Stephen Van Evera, Why Europe Matters, Why the Third World Doesn’t: American Grand Strategy After the Cold War, in Journal of Strategic Studies, June 1990, pp. 1-51, are the 2 most complete expositions of selective engagement. See also Ronald Steel, Temptations of a Superpower, Harvard University Press, 1995.

[11] Inis L Claude, Swords into Plowshares: The Problems and Progress of International Organization, 4th ed, Random House, 1971, p. 247; Arnold Wolfers, Discord and Collaboration: Essays on International Politics, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1962, pp. 183-184: “ ‘any aggressor anywhere’ is in fact the national enemy of every country because in violating the peace and law of the community of nations it endangers, if indirectly, the peace and security of every nation.”

[12] On the differences between realism and liberalism, see David A Baldwin (ed), Neorealism and Neoliberalism: The Contemporary Debate, Columbia University Press, 1993; Michael E Brown, Sean M Lynn-Jones, and Steven E Miller (eds), Debating the Democratic Peace, MIT Press, 1996; Michael E Brown, Sean M Lynn-Jones, and Steven E Miller (eds), The Perils of Anarchy: Contemporary Realism and International Security, MIT Press, 1995; Robert Gilpin, The Political Economy of International Relations, Princeton University Press, 1987; Charles W Kegley Jr (ed), Controversies in International Relations Theory: Realism and the Neoliberal Challenge, St Martin’s Press, 1995; Robert O Keohane (ed), Neorealism and Its Critics, Columbia University Press, 1986; and Richard Ned Lebow and Thomas Risse-Kappen (eds), International Relations Theory and the End of the Cold War, Columbia University Press, 1995.

[13] Charles A Kupchan and Clifford A Kupchan, Concerts, Collective Security, and the Future of Europe, in International Security, Summer 1991, pp. 149-150; and Richard Ullman, Securing Europe, Princeton University Press, 1991), p. 76.

[14] This is the maximal realism of hegemonic stability theory. See Robert Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics, Cambridge University Press, 1981.

[15] (MD) Syndicated columnist for the Washington Post, essayist for Time magazine, and an editorial board member of The National Interest.

[16] Often incorrectly called “neoconservatism”, it sees the spread of democracy – the “success of liberty”, as JFK put it in his inaugural address, as both the ends and means of foreign policy.

[17] See Charles Krauthammer, In Defense of Democratic Realism, Irving Kristol Lecture, American Enterprise Institute, February 10 2004.

Oslo Finds a Third Living Human Who isn’t George Bush

From what must have been a paucity of candidates, the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded earlier today to someone whose career is highlighted by voting “Present” (in the Illinois Senate) and running for POTUS (from his seat in the US Senate). The man had been in office for 11 days by the nomination deadline of February first. Barack Obama joins semi-senile anti-Semite Jimmy Carter and internet-inventing loon Al Gore as being rewarded for not being George W Bush.

How embarrassing for the Committee that they couldn’t have found some French soccer referee that broke up fighting hooligans, or a Chinese Uigar that wasn’t planning to riot … somebody that actually contributed to, you know, peace (which is not, after all, the same as capitulation – ask Neville Chamberlain).

My biggest fear is that he will try to live up to his fellow laureates by throwing Israel under the Palestinian bus and destroying our economy trying to reverse solar and orbital cycles.

Progress in Iran

American and Iranian negotiators met face-to-face in Geneve on 1 October to begin a process that many on the Left consider what has been missing from the Iranian nuclear program since it was discovered. Two initiatives came out of the talks – allowing International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) inspectors into the uranium enrichment facilities outside of Qom and the offshore reprocessing of Iranian low enriched uranium (LEU) for medical purposes by France and Russia. Both of these have been hailed as progress while being downplayed as “a beginning” rather than breakthroughs.

Both of these issues are rather technical, and I apologize if the discussion becomes a bit arcane.

Inspection of the Qom Facility

The acknowledgement of the existence of a second clandestine uranium enrichment site near the Holy City of Qom has left shockwaves in the media. As it turns out, we have been overhead imaging the progress as over the past three years Qods Forces (Persian: نیروی قدس, Niru-ye Qods, the elite Iranian military force that answers only to the ruling mullahs) excavated and constructed the burried site inside a mountain. It will take around a year to stand-up the infrastructure and equip the facility, and another year or so to enrich enough uranium to weapons grade (≥92% pure U235) to build a bomb.

The inspectors will essentially be inspecting empty rooms.

The two weeks before inspectors will be let into the site will allow the Iranians to cleanse the facility of any incriminating paperwork (blueprints for high enriched uranium [HEU]-dedicated equipment and infrastructure, references to an HEU end-product, destinations for low enriched uranium (LEU, 3-4% pure) waiting for enrichment, destinations for HEU, and so forth). Having said that, it is a good thing that IAEA inspectors are in at the start of this program for two reasons: permanent infrastructure that is “cast-in” to the excavated rooms could be analyzed for potential use; and, the progress of infrastructure installation can be followed to the same end. In other words, anything being installed that does not lead to the processing of LEU for medical purposes (Iran’s new claim for needing to refine their fuel cycle) can be spotted immediately. This presumes, of course, that the inspectors will allowed in as infrastructure installation progresses.

No enrichment can take place at the Qom site for a year or more and nothing in these agreements refers to Iran’s main (and functioning) enrichment facility at Natanz.

Offshore Enrichment of LEU for Medical Use

And that brings us to the agreement by Iran to export LEU to France and Russia for the recovery of Technetium (Tc), which is used in diagnostic procedures throughout the world (~10 million procedures annually in the United States alone), which will than be forwarded to Iran.

A kilogram of natural uranium contains 1 nanogram (10-9g) of technetium-99. Bulk quantities of are produced from spent nuclear fuel rods, which contain various daughter products (a gram of U235 in nuclear reactors yields 27mg of Tc99 (27 x 10-3g); and LEU, which can then be fissioned to produce Tc99. The Iranians were arguing to enrich LEU to produce a greater volume of recoverable Tc99 per unit of uranium weight, thus enhancing the recovery process. This argument, while specious, could also be used to excuse plutonium production, as fissioning Pu239 produces a slightly higher proportion of Tc99 in its daughter products (than for LEU).

I say the original argument for producing HEU for Tc-recovery is specious because the HEU would have to be burned as fuel rods to produce the technetium to be recovered. None of Iran’s reactors are HEU-burners, and any attempt to build one would be seen as blatant excuse to highly enrich uranium, giving a suspected culprit a dual-use stream of the keystone component of bomb-making.

Again, offshore reprocessing of Iranian LEU is a good thing, but accounts for only a miniscule amount of it. The spot price of medicinal Tc99 (in the form of ammonium pertechnate, and available to holders of an ORNL permit) is $83 a gram (plus packing charge). This is more than the price of platinum, which has never been higher than $72.40 a gram, and could form a strong enough financial incentive for Iran to increase the amount of its accumulated LEU for technetium extraction. It won’t dissuade Tehran from its bomb program (something it sees as being a national security issue), but any LEU diverted for other purposes will slow bomb development down. The root of the Iranian Bomb problem, it should be remembered, is the fanatical nature of those in whose custody it would be, and the only strategy that has any chance of succeeding involves the parallel tasks of delaying fruition of the weaponizing of fissile materials and regime change (and by “regime”, I don’t mean the presidency but the current theocratic structure of Iranian government).

the NetNet

The practical result of the arrangements arrived at in Geneve is the trading of time (for the Iranians) for conditional transparency (for the US). They will let the West poke around in empty rooms and give Iran a sweetheart deal for supplying them with an $83-a-gram export item.

The threat of sanctions (even if re-branded as “pressure”) has no effect on Iranian thinking. It has been amply demonstrated that no meaningful sanctions are going to be allowed to be leveled against Iran, and it has been amply demonstrated that Iran will not engage in meaningful negotiations with the West. It has been amply demonstrated, in other words, that the West is engaged in allowing Iran to finish whatever it is doing, while vamping a determined effort to stop them. It’s a charade and everybody involved knows it.

Two possibilities have been raised in recent days to impose “true” sanctions on Iran. The first is to seriously move to strangle gasoline imports to Iran, whose domestic production falls 40% short of domestic use. We are too late as Iran has contracted with Venezuela for gasoline, replacing the Netherlands as prime supplier. The second is an economic freeze, removing foreign financing from Iranian plans.

Hugo Chávez will not be amenable to the cajoling of Western capitols to starve Iran, which would mean interdicting Venezuelan tankers on the high seas (an act of war against Venezuela – or whomever’s tankers were involved) or blockading Iranian ports (an act of war against Iran). In either event, Russia could supply about half of the shortfall by rail (if they would), which would still hurt Iran, but at half-speed. The idea of a gasoline embargo is to facilitate the second task of midwifing regime change, and that would take shock value to spark an actual revolution (a vacating of existing governmental institutions). A half-speed provocation might well spark the replacement of Ahmadinejad, but that’s not enough. The president of Iran is a figurehead … the face the mullahs wish to present to the rest of world. The mullahs are the real power. The theocracy. That’s what must be overturned to reveal a state trustworthy enough to possess fission and fusion weapons.

An effective economic boycott of Iran (should it be possible to orchestrate), might well open an exceptional opportunity for PRC. Beijing would dearly love to find a profitable investment vehicle for its dollar holdings, and being Iran’s exclusive banker might just be the ticket. Syria and Russia would be willing to help, but neither – individually or in concert – has the ability to shore up Iranian budgetary needs. PRC does.

The same holds true of suggestions that we get maritime insurers to decertify the insurability of tankers inbound to Iran for offloading. It could be an inroad for PRC to get into the high-risk maritime insurance business. Another opportunity to increase yield on their dollar holdings.

The best non-kinetic chance of bringing Tehran to the bargaining table with anything resembling incentive to listen to Western concerns and heed Western warnings is in the human rights venue, and one aimed at the Iranian street. For example, President Obama could hold a presser praising the State Department’s efforts to gain the release of the three Americans[1] currently being held in Iran. As he is expressing his concern, a larger-than-life photo of Neda (a still from the cell phone video of her death during the post-election demonstrations on 20 June) is unveiled behind him. He speaks of how he fears for the safety of these three at the hands of people whose intelligence services can’t tell the difference between innocent demonstrators and dangerous insurgents, or, for that matter, three naïve dilettantes and CIA operatives. This they would fear (even as it heartened the Iranian street) – the equating of American citizens with a dead Iranian protester.

Don’t hold your breath.


[1] Sarah Shourd (31), an English teacher [Damascus], her boyfriend, Shane Bauer (27) a writer and photojournalist, and their friend and fellow UC Berkeley alum Josh Fattal (27).