AskDefine | Define containment

Dictionary Definition



1 a policy of creating strategic alliances in order to check the expansion of a hostile power or ideology or to force it to negotiate pecefully; "containment of communist expansion was a central principle of United States' foreign policy from 1947 to the 1975"
2 (physics) a system designed to prevent the accidental release of radioactive material from a reactor
3 (military) the act of containing something or someone; keeping it from spreading; "the army was charged with the containment of the rebel forces"

User Contributed Dictionary



  1. the act of containing or something contained
  2. a policy of checking the expansion of a hostile foreign power by creating alliances with other states; especially the foreign policy strategy of the United States in the early years of the Cold War
  3. a physical system designed to prevent the accidental release of radioactive or other dangerous materials from a nuclear reactor or industrial plant.
  4. an inclusion

Extensive Definition

Containment refers to the foreign policy strategy of the United States in the early years of the Cold War. Its policy was to stop what is called the domino effect of nations moving politically towards Soviet Union-based communism, rather than European-American-based capitalism.

Containment Policy

The point of the Containment Policy was for the United States during the Cold War to keep Communism from spreading. Also if they failed then the domino effect would occur and eventually, more and more countries would fall to Communism. This is the reason the USA fought in the Vietnam War and the Korean War.


Containment springs up from the idea that isolation will lead to stagnation. In earlier times, containment was followed as a tactic, rather than a strategy or a policy. Laying a passive siege to a castle where a powerful or influential lord resided and cutting off the supply lines was a form of containment. This made the lord helpless since his tactical ability was limited with only a few soldiers at his command. Another way to maximize the damage done by containment was, after creating a situation of relative isolation, to subvert the enemy. In practice, this is achieved using espionage and sabotage. The anticipated result is that any subversion introduced will have a high cost and will take a long time to rectify if left alone, or will consume resources (particularly in the form of security measures) to avoid. This serves the purpose of maintaining a strategic upper hand. Eventually, the United States and satellites hoped, containment would cause the fall of the Soviet Union and its satellite nations.

Later developments

U.S. containment policy developed into a principled opposition to the Soviet ratcheting of its sphere of influence. However, the policy suffered setbacks, and after the U.S. pullout from the Vietnam conflict, the policy of containment was somewhat discredited. U.S. politicians advanced new theories of “détente” and “peaceful co-existence”.
At the end of the 1970s—a particularly ineffective decade for U.S. foreign policy—the U.S. elected Ronald Reagan for what became an 8-year term. Reagan believed détente was misguided and peaceful co-existence was tantamount to surrender to relentless Soviet ratcheting of influence. Reagan believed the policy of containment did not go far enough. His policies were highly controversial and unpopular in many countries. They included new missile systems in Europe, and significantly, plans for a Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), or "Star Wars",would render the U.S. immune to a first strike. Later on, Reagan's actions were interpreted as being aimed at defeating the Soviets by the use of an expensive arms race the Soviets could not match. There is no contemporary evidence, however,this was indeed a planned strategy. It was never formulated as a strategy by anyone within the Reagan government. Reagan also pursued the comprehensive disarmament initiative START I, which would have been completely at odds with a strategy of bankrupting the USSR through an arms race.
The Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. This marked the official end of U.S. containment policy, though it kept its bases in the areas around the former Soviet Union, such as ones in Iceland, Germany, and Turkey. (The Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland was closed in September 2006.) As of 2005, the U.S. had at least 700 military bases around the world. Some estimates suggest the real number is much higher.


A containment policy, was also applied by the U.S. to Iraq from 1991 to 2003. When Saddam Hussein, contrary to the hopes of the George H.W. Bush administration, was not ousted from power after the Gulf War the U.S. adopted containment towards Iraq via severe sanctions, U.N. weapons inspections, basing of troops in Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, patrol of the Iraq no-fly zones, and periodic airstrikes. By 2000, these elements of containment were fraying because Iraq was able to smuggle many prohibited items via Jordan, Syria, Turkey, and Iran. The Oil for Food which began in 1996 was also corrupted, and the U.N. withdrew their inspectors in 1998 because of Iraqi non-cooperation and were unable to verify whether or not Iraq's prescribed weapons programs were destroyed. The U.N. was divided. Meanwhile, Arab public opinion in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere became increasingly hostile to the U.S. military presence in their nations because of renewed violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. After 1998 Iraq began to fire on allied aircraft in the no-fly zones and thus suffered from retaliation via bombing, but such strikes did not threaten Saddam's grip on power. Containment was abandoned by the George W. Bush administration which opted for regime change via military action in 2003.


In the post-Cold War world, scholars have debated the extent to which containment—or some variant of that strategy—continues to animate U.S. diplomacy, particularly vis-a-vis China. At a speech to Tokyo's Sophia University in March 2005, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid abundant tribute to Kennan and his intellectual legacy and then elaborated on the logic of the new alliances Washington was building in Asia: "[As] we look to China's life... I really do believe the U.S.-Japan relationship, the U.S.-South Korean relationship, the U.S.-Indian relationship, all are important in creating an environment in which China is more likely to play a positive role than a negative role. These alliances are not against China; they are alliances that are devoted to a stable security and political and economic and, indeed, values-based relationships put China in the context of those relationships, and a different path to development than if China were simply untethered, simply operating without strategic context."

Further reading

  • Kennan, George F., American Diplomacy, The University of Chicago Press. 1984. ISBN 0-226-43147-9
  • Wright, Steven. The United States and Persian Gulf Security: The Foundations of the War on Terror, Ithaca Press, 2007 ISBN 978-0863723216
containment in Danish: Containment
containment in German: Containment-Politik
containment in Spanish: Contención
containment in Esperanto: Containment
containment in Persian: سد نفوذ
containment in French: Endiguement
containment in Italian: Containment
containment in Hebrew: תורת הבלימה
containment in Dutch: Containment-politiek
containment in Polish: Doktryna powstrzymywania
containment in Russian: Сдерживание
containment in Swedish: Uppdämning
containment in Chinese: 围堵政策

Synonyms, Antonyms and Related Words

Eisenhower Doctrine, Monroe Doctrine, Nixon Doctrine, Truman Doctrine, appeasement, balance of power, brinkmanship, cincture, circling, circumambience, circumambiency, circumcincture, circumflexion, circumjacence, circumposition, coexistence, colonialism, compromise, detente, deterrence, diplomacy, diplomatic, diplomatics, dollar diplomacy, dollar imperialism, embracement, encincture, encirclement, enclosure, encompassment, enfoldment, envelopment, environment, expansionism, foreign affairs, foreign policy, girding, girdling, good-neighbor policy, imperialism, inclusion, internationalism, involvement, isolationism, manifest destiny, militarism, nationalism, neocolonialism, neutralism, nonresistance, open door, open-door policy, peace offensive, peaceful coexistence, preparedness, shirt-sleeve diplomacy, shuttle diplomacy, spheres of influence, surrounding, the big stick, tough policy, world politics
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