Can the Soviet Bear Be Contained?


Beyond Containment: Alternative American Policies Toward the Soviet Union, edited by Aaron Wildavsky, San Francisco: Institute for Contemporary Studies, 264 pp., $21.95/$8.95

For nearly half a century, America has been committed to preventing the Soviet Union from expanding its sphere of influence. The increasingly obvious disabilities, strategic and fiscal, of that commitment to containment inspire a search for alternatives.

Aaron Wildavsky's brief, in Beyond Containment, is that containment has not been aggressively enough pursued to fulfill its promise of exacting substantial reform of the motives of the Soviet regime. So it is not surprising that any significant downward revision of containment is almost totally absent from the alternatives delineated in this book. Wildavsky contends from the outset that any serious retrenchment or disengagement would be a pure gift to our enemy—a form of "appeasement."

But Wildavsky and most of his collaborators in this book rely on a model of policymaking that mistakes the logic of foreign and defense policy formation. To them, policy moves are direct and deliberate responses to external exigencies. Of course, these days everyone is sophisticated enough to at least nod to internal economic, social, and political-constitutional factors. But in this book these are regarded as nuisances—perverse, but essentially subjective and ultimately malleable.

Paul Seabury characterizes his chapter in Beyond Containment as an exploration of "the sources of Soviet conduct." He paraphrases George Kennan's original theory to the effect that "the Soviet problem, given Western firmness, would eventually go away; the Soviet system would either disintegrate or undergo fundamental reform." As Seabury sees it, Kennan's original notion changed, after the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, to a kind of "therapeutic" relationship: We could teach the Soviets the virtues of strategic balance, restraint, and an assured second-strike nuclear capability. In turn, with the advent of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger, this led to even broader visions of "detente," with carrots to supplement the sticks and a vast scheme of "linkage" (underlining the interconnections among economic, technological, cultural, and defense issues) to encourage constructive Soviet conduct overall.

But to regard the Nixon-Kissinger diplomacy, as Seabury does, as a repudiation of containment, and detente as a sort of shallow "self-deception," is to miss an important aspect of their achievement: they brought forth a new international order to resolve the problems of the old. The policy Nixon and Kissinger had inherited was insolvent.

The insolvency of containment was not entirely unforeseen. Seabury cites Walter Lippmann as one who, opposing George Kennan in 1947, described the constitutional and fiscal impediments to America's attempting to play such a role: "It is not suited to the American system of government," he said categorically. It took a few decades of history to vindicate Lippmann. Even Seabury concedes that "we are left with a disquieting question, now that more than containment is called for: was Lippmann the diagnostician right or wrong for the long haul in his estimate of the American system?"

The faults of the present scheme of containment are delineated in Robert W. Tucker's essay. Surprisingly, in the company of most of his fellow-authors, Tucker sees these faults as proceeding not from insufficient effort but from our country's inability to meet the conditions even of what we have been trying to do for the past 40 years. Tucker poses the available choices for the United States: "confrontation, condominium, and withdrawal." Implicitly puncturing the enterprise of this book, he notes: "There is no novelty in any one of them. Each has been discussed and debated many times.…The demand today that we devise creative new approaches to the Soviet Union appears to assume that there are alternatives other than those outlined above. Unfortunately, there are not."

Tucker's own policy predilection is what he calls "moderate containment," a sort of selectivity. But as the early George Kennan said, writing in Foreign Affairs in 1947, "[Soviet] political action is a fluid stream which moves constantly, wherever it is permitted to move, toward a given goal. Its main concern is to make sure that it has filled every nook and cranny available to it in the basin of world power."

Hydraulic metaphors, no less than their subject, flow in all directions. If the threat is of such a character that there is a case for containing it at all, then containment must be universal. Selectively containing that kind of threat is like trying to contain water in a two-dimensional vessel.

The problems of selectivity are seen even more clearly in the book's essay by Ernst B. Haas. His plan literally "scales down and redefines some American world order values, recognizing that we cannot, without risking our own ruin, continue the attempt to mold the world in our image." It also aims at a "delinking of issues." But "where should we be ready to fight?" Confronted with this hard question, Haas recites the familiar litany: "Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, and the Pacific." To this he appends two nonstrategic criteria: "the military defense of all democratic countries against Soviet threats, provided these countries wish to be defended," and "threats by allies of the Soviet Union against Third World countries with a democratic tradition." And there is yet another object of defense: "Key commodities that are essential for the economic welfare of the democratic countries." My calculation is that these items (or even fewer) are already costing the United States about $232 billion out of the $235 billion we are planning to spend for general-purpose forces in the 1985 defense budget.

Aaron Wildavsky's own solution is "political pluralization" within the Soviet Union, to be brought about by American influence and persuasion. To bolster his case, Wildavsky begins with an overstatement of the problem: "Unless there is pluralization within the Soviet Union, it is only a matter of time and opportunity before it seeks to subjugate the only force in the world [the United States] capable of resisting." But the best Wildavsky can suggest is a sort of Radio Free Europe writ large. For instance, he would "unmask" Soviet privilege and corruption by "broadcasting…consumer information" to Soviet citizens. But militant hawks who proliferate "necessary" conditions for our safety and do not deliver on the conditions unwittingly leave us in a position approximating despair.

Charles Wolf, Jr., recommends a mix of "declaratory policies," including the support of Third World liberation movements that are fighting "Communist imperialism." Wolf's array of measures is more complex than Wildavsky's, but it does not manage any better to carry us "beyond containment."

Max Singer's proposal combines the obligatory "war of ideas" with a change in our nuclear strategy to war-fighting and defensive modes. This would require a massive shift of spending and a large net increase: from the present $20 billion a year spent on strategic offense and $1 billion on strategic defense (actually, the full costs are much higher) to $5 billion on offense and $50 billion on defense for the most sophisticated, comprehensive system. This would go on for at least 10 years. What would we get for that half a trillion? Some capacity to intercept nuclear missiles, and lots of bomb shelters.

But a feasible interception technique is far from assured. And the Soviets might build more offensive missiles to overwhelm our defense. In any case, no prudent leadership would bet its country on pure defense; it would hedge by retaining substantial offensive retaliatory capability. This synergy of offense and defense might then be viewed by the Soviets as an attempt to achieve an unanswerable-first-strike capability. This might lead them to put their nuclear systems in a more precarious posture, with doctrines tilted to preemptive use.

For another contributor to this volume, James L. Payne, the real problem is "crippling domestic opposition…[which] stands as an almost insuperable barrier to the proper management of containment." His solution is "a policy of rhetorical simplicity." Payne assures us that he means "merely urging that administration officials be aware of domestic opinion and that they make a greater effort to have an impact on it." He complains that a recent bit of congressional testimony by some assistant secretary contained a sentence that is "forty-eight words long and takes eighteen seconds to say out loud."

Finally it becomes evident that the prescriptive thrust of this book is trivial. It is trivial because it considers domestic constraints in terms of "sentiment," a superficial phenomenon, something to bend or blind. Most of the authors (with the exception of Tucker and possibly Haas) do not take containment as a policy with liabilities that are tangible, inherent, and perhaps unalterable. It becomes clear that for the most part these authors of strategies "beyond containment" are not designing for a real world. Their world, which lacks the dimension of domestic reality, is just as stunted and fictitious as a world that lacked external threats.

Despite itself, the book thus opens the way to an appreciation of a radically lower strategic stance. In the end, we will have to settle for less security than we would like—perhaps even for less than we need.

Earl Ravenal is a professor of international relations at the Georgetown School of Foreign Service. He has written numerous articles and books on US foreign policy.