Summary: Diplomacy by Kissinger – Chapter 18 – The Success and the Pain of Containment

Diplomacy by Henry Kissinger. Book cover detail.

In 1994, Henry Kissinger published the book Diplomacy. He was a renowned scholar and diplomat who served as the United States National Security Advisor and Secretary of State. His book provides an extensive sweep of the history of foreign affairs and the art of diplomacy, with a particular focus on the 20th century and the Western World. Kissinger, known for his alignment with the realist school of international relations, inquires into the concepts of the balance of power, raison d’État, and Realpolitik across different eras.

His work has been widely praised for its scope and intricate detail. Yet, it has also faced criticism for its focus on individuals over structural forces, and for presenting a reductive view of history. Also, critics have also pointed out that the book focuses excessively on Kissinger’s individual role in events, potentially overstating his impact. In any case, his ideas are worthy of consideration.

This article presents a summary of Kissinger’s ideas in the eighteenth chapter of his book, called “The Success and the Pain of Containment”.

You can find all available summaries of this book, or you can read the summary from the previous chapter of the book, by clicking these links.

In the aftermath of World War II, American policymakers faced significant challenges as they observed Soviet dominance extending across Eastern Europe, despite earlier expectations of cooperative international relations. The situation in nations like Poland, Bulgaria, and Romania highlighted a disregard for democratic principles by the Soviets, posing a dilemma for American diplomacy which was rooted in principles rather than power politics.

President Truman, in response, initiated a stern policy in 1946, demanding Soviet withdrawal from Azerbaijan, reflecting his adherence to idealistic Wilsonian principles rather than realpolitik. This policy, while seeking to promote universal principles aligned with the United Nations Charter, framed the escalating U.S.-Soviet tensions as a moral battle rather than geopolitical rivalry. However, regardless of the American rhetoric, geopolitical spheres of influence were unmistakably forming, with the Western and Soviet blocs solidifying their respective territories through alliances and military pressures.

As Soviet influence expanded, American strategy evolved to confront and contain it, though still couched in ideological terms rather than straightforward power dynamics. The philosophical underpinnings for this approach were significantly shaped by George Kennan’s “Long Telegram,” which argued that Soviet actions were driven by a deep-seated ideological hostility towards the West, necessitating a long-term strategic stance by the U.S.

Kennan’s insights led to the State Department’s adoption of a more confrontational stance, articulated in a memorandum by H. Freeman Matthews, which acknowledged the need for both diplomatic and, if necessary, military measures to counter Soviet moves. This doctrine highlighted specific regions at risk of Soviet dominance but also recognized the limitations of American power, particularly on the Eurasian landmass.

The containment strategy, further refined by presidential advisor Clark Clifford, emphasized a global American security mission, advocating support for all democracies threatened by the USSR. Clifford’s perspective diverged from traditional diplomacy, viewing the conflict as rooted in the moral failings of Soviet leadership rather than negotiable national interests. This ideological framing positioned the U.S. not just in opposition to Soviet policies but as a proponent of a transformative agenda aimed at the Soviet system itself.

Having established a conceptual framework for resisting Soviet expansionism, the United States found itself taking over the role traditionally held by Great Britain in maintaining a barrier against Soviet advances towards the Mediterranean. This transition came as Britain announced in the winter of 1946-47 that it could no longer support Greece and Turkey alone. The American approach to foreign policy, rooted deeply in its distinct principles rather than traditional geopolitical strategies, required framing this resistance in terms that resonated with American values and could be embraced by the American public and Congress, which at the time was controlled by traditionally isolationist Republicans.

During a pivotal meeting on February 27, 1947, U.S. officials, including President Truman, Secretary of State Marshall, and Undersecretary Dean Acheson, engaged in critical discussions with congressional leaders to secure support for aiding Greece and Turkey. Acheson’s persuasive rhetoric, emphasizing the stark dichotomy between democracy and dictatorship, proved instrumental in shifting Congressional opinion. Truman subsequently articulated this stance in his declaration of the Truman Doctrine on March 12, 1947, emphasizing a moralistic approach and the defense of free peoples against subjugation, setting a moral precedent that eschewed traditional balance-of-power politics.

The proclamation of the Truman Doctrine signaled a profound commitment to opposing any form of government or group that impeded democracy or the reconstruction of Europe, notably through the Marshall Plan announced in June 1947. This plan was ambitious, extending aid to all European countries willing to participate, including those within the Soviet sphere, though Stalin quickly stifled any such cooperation from Eastern Bloc countries. The United States posited itself not just as a counter to Soviet expansion but as a proactive leader in global economic recovery, setting a precedent for extensive American involvement in global affairs.

Kennan’s “Sources of Soviet Conduct,” published in July 1947 under the pseudonym “X,” articulated a sophisticated understanding of the inherent conflicts between Soviet internal politics and external policies, advocating for a strategic containment policy that would prevent Soviet expansion at key points without specifying a timeline for resolving the Cold War tensions. This policy underscored an American optimism and a commitment to a protracted struggle against Soviet influence, characterized by a series of conflicts that would ultimately stress the resilience and moral fortitude of the American people.

The containment strategy thus defined not only military and economic strategies but also a broader philosophical stance on America’s role in the world, blending the lessons of the New Deal and World War II. The Marshall Plan aimed to stabilize Europe economically to prevent political instability, while NATO was established to ensure its security.

NATO marked a significant shift in American foreign policy as it represented the first peacetime military alliance in the nation’s history, prompted by the communist coup in Czechoslovakia in 1948. This event, alongside the aggressive Soviet stance in Eastern Europe following the Marshall Plan’s announcement, catalyzed the formation of NATO. Stalin’s rigid control over Eastern Europe, highlighted by purges of communist leaders with any nationalistic tendencies and the forceful establishment of a communist dictatorship in Prague, underscored the urgent need for a robust defensive alliance. The coup particularly symbolized a broader threat of Soviet-sponsored takeovers across Europe, prompting Western European nations to initially form the Pact of Brussels, which later evolved into NATO to include American and Canadian military support, solidifying a formidable counterbalance to Soviet power in Europe.

In the United States, however, the establishment of NATO was framed not as a traditional military alliance but as a new form of international collaboration based on principles rather than territorial ambitions. This portrayal was crucial to align with the prevailing Wilsonian ethos that discouraged traditional balance-of-power politics. During Senate hearings in 1949, this perspective was emphasized by various spokesmen including Warren Austin, who declared the concept of balance of power obsolete with the formation of the United Nations. This stance was elaborated in a State Department document that differentiated NATO from historical military alliances by claiming it was aimed solely against aggression and not against any specific nation, focusing on a ‘balance of principle’ rather than power.

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee largely embraced this interpretation, with prominent members like Senator Connally actively promoting the idea that NATO was fundamentally an alliance against war itself. This discussion highlighted the quintessentially American approach to foreign policy, which seeks to mask traditional geopolitical strategies with higher principles. Statements from officials like Secretary of State Dean Acheson and Secretary of Defense Louis Johnson reinforced this narrative, insisting that NATO was defensive and not akin to historical military alliances, oriented instead towards peace and collective security until such measures could be assumed by the United Nations.

This uniquely American reinterpretation of strategic military alliances as principled international cooperation was further defended by Acheson even after the treaty’s ratification. He continued to characterize the Atlantic Alliance not as a mere coalition but as a progressive international effort to maintain peace, promote human rights, and uphold principles of self-determination. In essence, while NATO functioned as a typical military alliance in practice, the American leadership cloaked it in the rhetoric of collective security and high-minded ideals, aligning it with a broader vision of international order that sought to transcend the old paradigms of European diplomacy.

The formation of the Federal Republic of Germany in 1949 by merging the American, British, and French zones was a critical but less visible aspect of America’s strategy to counter Soviet influence in Europe. This move essentially solidified the division of Germany, as the new Federal Republic opposed the Soviet-created East German state, refusing to recognize it as legitimate for over two decades. This stance was part of a broader American effort to challenge the Soviet presence in Central Europe and support nations resisting communism.

Winston Churchill later reflected on the unexpected vigor with which the United States adopted and expanded the containment policy that Britain had initiated. The rapid development and assertive execution of this policy by the U.S. were surprising even to its proponents, illustrating a decisive shift in American foreign policy post-World War II. The global alignment during this period mirrored the pre-World War I structure, with two major alliances facing each other. However, the Cold War was distinct in its dominance by two superpowers who, through their indispensable roles and the deterrent of nuclear weapons, prevented their allies from escalating tensions into full-blown war.

American leadership in this new global order was characterized by a moral and sometimes messianic rhetoric, justifying its actions on the basis of defending fundamental values rather than mere national interests. This moral dimension was deeply ingrained in American policy, as evidenced by NSC-68, a pivotal 1950 document that articulated America’s Cold War strategy in moral terms, asserting that any defeat of free institutions was a global loss. This document underscored a belief that America’s national interest was fundamentally tied to its moral principles, setting a goal not just to counter but to transform the Soviet system.

The essence of America’s Cold War strategy, as outlined in NSC-68, was not merely to contain but to convert the adversary, aiming for a “fundamental change in the nature of the Soviet system.” America’s strategy avoided traditional diplomacy and nuclear confrontation, seeking a transformational outcome rather than a transactional settlement. This approach reflected a uniquely American blend of idealism and pragmatism, proposing a strenuous and enduring effort to promote global reform and the spread of democratic values without expecting immediate reciprocity.

This ambitious policy placed immense demands on American resources and psyche, setting the stage for a period of intense national introspection and domestic strife as the U.S. navigated the complexities of implementing a strategy aimed at the internal transformation of its Cold War adversary. The commitment to such a comprehensive and morally charged foreign policy would test the resolve and capacity of American society in ways that its early architects could scarcely have anticipated.

As the containment policy began to take shape, it faced significant criticism from diverse perspectives. Walter Lippmann represented the realist viewpoint, criticizing containment for overextending the U.S. both psychologically and geopolitically, which he argued would drain American resources by entangling the U.S. in distant conflicts of dubious importance. Lippmann emphasized the need for America to define clearly which areas were vital for its interests to avoid unnecessary commitments to unstable regions.

Winston Churchill, another prominent critic, argued against delaying negotiations until the U.S. achieved a position of strength, believing that the West’s relative power was at its peak at the onset of the Cold War and would only decline over time. He advocated for immediate diplomatic efforts to secure a more favorable balance of power in Europe.

Henry Wallace critiqued the moral basis of containment, suggesting that the U.S. had no right to oppose Soviet influence in Eastern Europe, which he considered a legitimate sphere of influence. Wallace advocated for a return to what he perceived as Roosevelt’s approach: ending the Cold War through unilateral American actions to reduce tensions.

These criticisms underscored the complex debate surrounding U.S. foreign policy during the Cold War. Lippmann, in particular, was skeptical of the foundational assumptions of containment as outlined by George Kennan (Mr. X), arguing that it relied too heavily on speculative outcomes and left no room for error or unforeseen circumstances. Lippmann proposed a more pragmatic approach focused on restoring balance rather than indefinite containment, which implied a permanent division of Europe.

Churchill, while supporting containment, urged not to delay negotiations, advocating for leveraging the West’s then-superior nuclear capability to negotiate a favorable settlement before the Soviet Union could achieve parity.

The debate extended into how these differing approaches reflected the historical experiences and national characteristics of the U.S. and Great Britain. Churchill, informed by Britain’s history of pragmatic diplomacy, saw the urgency in negotiating from a position of strength, whereas American leaders, shaped by a tradition of achieving definitive solutions, favored a more absolute victory over compromise.

The most enduring critique of American foreign policy during the Cold War emerged not from strategic or geopolitical thinkers like Walter Lippmann or Winston Churchill, but from a deeper wellspring of American radical thought, with Henry Wallace as its most prominent advocate. Wallace, drawing from America’s populist and radical traditions, vehemently opposed the Truman administration’s containment policy, accusing it of moral hypocrisy and imperialistic tendencies. He argued that by adopting Machiavellian tactics, the United States had strayed from its moral principles, which should also govern international relations.

Wallace believed that the Soviet Union was not inherently expansionist but acted out of a defensive fear of Western aggression. He contended that Soviet actions in Eastern Europe, though oppressive, were driven by a different vision of social justice, which the U.S. should not interfere with. He advocated for a foreign policy that emphasized diplomacy and multilateralism through the United Nations, critiquing unilateral American actions like the Marshall Plan as imperialistic maneuvers doomed to global resentment.

Despite his vigorous campaign, Wallace’s views failed to gain substantial traction in American politics, particularly after events like the communist coup in Czechoslovakia and the Berlin blockade highlighted the aggressive nature of Soviet expansionism. His presidential run in 1948 garnered minimal support, illustrating the limited appeal of his radical critiques at the time.

However, Wallace’s arguments presaged themes that would later resonate during the Vietnam War, reflecting deep-seated American concerns about moral integrity in foreign policy. These concerns continued to influence debates about American exceptionalism and the moral justifications for foreign interventions.

The policy of containment itself, while criticized for its perceived passivity and its moral and economic costs, ultimately endured as the cornerstone of American strategy against the Soviet Union. Critics from both ends of the political spectrum debated its effectiveness and morality, with some arguing it was too aggressive and others that it was not aggressive enough. These debates often centered on the implications of engaging in conflicts that appeared tangential to U.S. national interests, which were epitomized by the protracted and divisive Vietnam War.

Containment was also critiqued for the self-doubt it instigated within the U.S., prompting a reevaluation of American values and the ethical foundations of its foreign policy. This introspection was part of a broader dialogue about America’s role in the world and its approach to international relations, highlighting a tension between America’s idealistic desire to act as a global beacon of freedom and the pragmatic realities of geopolitical strategy.

Ultimately, the containment policy not only shaped the geopolitical landscape of the Cold War but also deeply influenced American political culture, challenging the nation to reconcile its global ambitions with its democratic values. This struggle left a lasting impact on American society, reflecting both the triumphs and traumas of its Cold War engagements.

You can read the summary of the next chapter of the book by clicking this link.




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