Being Realistic about Spheres of Influence

Prominent foreign policy practitioners in both political parties now denounce the notion that we should expect major countries in the international system to establish and defend spheres of influence in their immediate neighborhoods. Condoleezza Rice, George W. Bush’s secretary of state, made that point explicitly in response to Moscow’s 2008 military intervention in Georgia. She scorned the notion of Russian primacy along the perimeter of the Russian Federation as the manifestation of “some archaic sphere of influence.” Secretary of State John Kerry embraces similar views. In November 2013, he even declared that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” thus rhetorically renouncing a U.S. foreign policy staple that is nearly two centuries old. Following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Kerry asserted that “you don’t in the twenty-first century behave in nineteenth century fashion” by invading a neighbor.

As I argue in a recent article in Aspenia Online, that attitude is both unrealistic and hypocritical. While geographic factors are not as important to national security as they once were, they are far from being irrelevant. Barging into the neighborhood of another major power is still going to be viewed as a menacing act, regardless of any reassurances that the intruding country might give.

Moreover, the current U.S. position is more than a little hypocritical. Washington has firmly resisted Russia’s attempt to re-establish even a limited sphere of influence in Eastern Europe or Central Asia. Likewise, the United States has rebuffed China’s bid to establish a dominant role in the South China Sea. Yet Washington has intervened militarily as recently as the 1980s (Grenada and Panama) or even the 1990s (Haiti) within its traditional sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere. U.S. leaders also have looked on benignly as a key ally, France, has repeatedly intervened in its former colonial holdings in Africa. Washington’s highly selective opposition to spheres of influence threatens to damage relations with Moscow, Beijing, and other capitals.

The United States and its allies need to adopt a more realistic and accommodating policy. Whether U.S. policymakers wish to acknowledge it or not, spheres of influence still play a important role in international affairs, and will continue to do so in the coming decades.

Instead of attempting to defy that reality, U.S. leaders should focus on getting major powers to exercise more subtlety in managing their spheres of influence. That goal at least has a reasonable prospect of being achieved. Such an approach might not fulfill idealistic aspirations regarding international behavior, but it would be a workable arrangement to minimize great power tensions. The current U.S. stance is doing the opposite.