Containment theory of big powers

Rashid A Mughal

THE big power rivalry is perhaps back and so is perhaps the cold war era which every one thought is buried for good after the demise of USSR and the so called “New World Order” of senior Bush after the Iraq war, which every one now knows was uncalled for and based on misconceived presumptions, Muslim-bias and was politically motivated with imperialist designs to control the ME oil. The timing was perfect as the only other super power, USSR, was fragmented and disintegrated and deeply involved in the national politics and hence not in a position to confront US at that juncture. Thus US was able to contain Russia, not by using it’s influence but due to the chain of events which favoured US.
However, with the arrival of Putin at the world stage changed the global political scenario. Western powers, including USA are once again apprehensive of the Russian influence, particularly in the Middle East and Asia and China-Russia co-operation in many areas and want to “contain” the increasing Russian advances. Even during the Cold War, “containment” was a notoriously vague term Presently there is much discussion going around in western world about a new strategy of “containment” towards Russia. Kennan, a diplomat at the US embassy in Moscow and later the head of policy planning in the State Department, said the United States should “regard the Soviet Union as a rival, not a partner, in the political arena” and called for “a long-term, patient but firm and vigilant containment of Russian expansionist tendencies”. That meant “the adroit and vigilant application of counter-force at a series of constantly shifting geographical and political points, corresponding to the shifts and manoeuvres of Soviet policy.”
The biggest difference between the Cold War and the post-post-Cold War is the extent of economic interdependence between Russia and the West – and in particular between Russia and Europe. This is partly a consequence of globalization. But it was also a deliberate strategy. For the last twenty years or so, the West has expanded trade and tried to integrate powers such as Russia and China into the international system. This in turn was based on two assumptions. The first was that economic interdependence would lead gradually but inexorably to democratisation. The second was that economic interdependence would turn these powers into “responsible stakeholders”, as Robert Zoellick put it in a speech on China in 2005. The greatest achievement of this approach was Chinese and Russian accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO).
Although the idea that trade was transformative was shared throughout the West, including in the United States, it was particularly strong in Germany. German policymakers were particularly susceptible to the “Ostpolitik illusion”. Invoking the rhetoric of “peace” and the memory of Willy Brandt’s policy towards the Soviet Union in the 1970s, German policymakers were among the most committed to a policy of Wandel durch Handel, or transformation through trade. But these assumptions have now been shattered. Remarkably, even some German policymakers are now talking about a new strategy of “containment” towards Russia. But what does it mean in an era of economic interdependence? Is such a policy even still possible?
Over the last few months, the West has taken tentative steps to reverse the integration of Russia into the international system. After the annexation of Crimea, Russia was immediately rejected from the G8. As Russia has destabilized eastern Ukraine, the West has also gradually imposed remarkably tough economic sanctions. The imposition of sanctions has been led by the United States, which had much less trade with Russia than Europeans and therefore less to lose. But Europeans have reluctantly followed and imposed sanctions of their own, especially after Flight MH17 was shot down – a kind of tipping point for public opinion in countries such as Germany. The question now is what happens next if Russian expansionism continues. Do we continue to unwind economic interdependence until it reaches the levels that existed with the Soviet Union during the Cold War (or with Iran now)?
‘Soft containment’ involves ‘excluding Russia from the G8, expanding NATO to include Georgia, supporting anti-Russian regimes in the neighbourhood, building missile shields, developing an ‘Energy NATO’ and excluding Russian investment from the European energy sector.’ The question, therefore, is how these different elements of the emerging strategy of containment fit together. Is it really possible to continue economic interdependence in a context in which there is an ongoing conflict, albeit one using “hybrid war” techniques? Should we try to keep the two parallel tracks – the military and the economic – separate or could and should there be linkages between them? The relationship between them may not even be something over which we have control. For example, depending on how things develop, it could well be that Western companies divest from Russia and vice versa even if they are not required to do so by sanctions. In other words, the unwinding of economic interdependence could develop a dynamic of its own. We, therefore, urgently need to understand the logic of containment in an era of economic interdependence.
— The writer is former DG (Emigration) and consultant ILO, IOM.

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