So long as there have been empires and great powers, there have been “spheres of influence”. The term may not always have been used, but the concept goes back thousands of years. From the tributary system under China’s Ming emperors, whereby states in East and South-East Asia provided symbolic obeisance but often practised little or no political subordination, to the 19th-century colonial carve up of Africa and much of the developing world, powerful countries have exerted degrees of suzerainty over or effective control of, say, the foreign policy of less powerful polities.
According to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, that era is over. “One country does not have the right to dictate the policies of another or to tell that country with whom it may associate; one country does not have the right to exert a sphere of influence. That notion should be relegated to the dustbin of history.” Mr Blinken was speaking last month, but he was echoing Condoleezza Rice, former president George W Bush’s then secretary of state, who in 2008 described spheres of influence as “archaic” and no longer appropriate as a defining characteristic of great powers.
Both Mr Blinken and Ms Rice were targeting Russia. In 2008, it was after Georgian forces entered the breakaway region of South Ossetia and Russia invaded Georgia in return, forcing the latter to capitulate. Moscow then recognised and backed the independence of South Ossetia and another region, Abkhazia.
Today the dispute is over Ukraine and Nato. Russian President Vladimir Putin is demanding a guarantee that Ukraine will not be admitted to Nato, and he also wants the alliance’s armed forces to roll back from their current positions in other former Eastern Bloc countries that joined Nato after the end of the Cold War. The massing of Russian military personnel on Ukraine’s eastern border has led to fears of war if Mr Putin is not assuaged.
Critics warn darkly that the Russian president is trying to rebuild the Soviet Union piece by piece. Others, myself included, thought the advance of Nato to Russia’s borders was bound to be seen as a threat by Moscow and missed the opportunity to forge a new relationship in an era when Nato’s very purpose – opposition to the Communist bloc – had ceased to exist.
But the Biden administration’s insistence that Russia has no right at all to a sphere of influence in its historical backyard, and that the very concept should be junked, is quite apart from that. It is “more than a little hypocritical”, as a Cato Institute paper put it in 2014. America wants to deny any regional dominance to both Moscow or Beijing. “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.” The paper rightly notes that US opposition to spheres of influence is “highly selective”. No one, it appears, has the right to have one apart from America.
The US claim to dominion over the Western Hemisphere, the Monroe Doctrine, was declared “over” by then secretary of state John Kerry in 2013. But in 2018, Rex Tillerson, Mr Kerry's successor under former president Donald Trump, said “it’s as relevant today as it was the day it was written” and in 2019, Mr Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton said it was “alive and well”.
Going by the US reaction to the suggestion that Russia might deploy troops to Cuba and Venezuela if the current talks fail, Mr Bolton was right. Even were Russian forces and missiles to be requested by the governments of those two countries, their presence so close to US soil would be simply unconscionable in Washington. But if America can insist on such a veto, many Russians – and not just supporters of Mr Putin – would ask why they shouldn’t have one, too?
This is not to deny that individual countries should have the right to their own agency, nor is it to argue in principle that varying forms of regional hegemony are desirable. I would, however, agree with the US defence analyst Ben Friedman, who recently tweeted that “spheres of influence are natural in a non-normative sense, like mountains, a fact of international life. And while they’re not necessarily conducive to great power peace, ignoring them is a good way to get great power war.”
Others have put such self-evident truths of international life more bluntly, as when the then Chinese foreign minister Yang Jiechi told an Asean meeting in 2010 that “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that's just a fact". It was very frank. But it was also true.
As it is, Russia already has a sphere of influence, through its leadership of the Collective Security Treaty Organisation (deployed recently in Kazakhstan) and the Eurasian Union. China could be said to have one, too, in the sense that many countries in the region think long and hard about the potential reaction in Beijing before making sensitive policy declarations. And what is the EU doing but flexing its muscles in its own putative sphere of influence with its frequently overbearing sticks-and-carrots approach to states to its east and south?
Supporters of Mr Blinken’s position would probably argue that the US and its allies are “good” actors, while others are not. But claims to moral superiority won’t wash outside certain western circles too insular to see that this looks like neo-colonialism to much of the rest of the world.
Never mind Cuba and Venezuela: could Canada pursue a truly independent foreign policy at odds with its neighbour to the south? Could Mexico? If the Biden White House wants to consign spheres of influence “to the dustbin of history”, how about they start with their own?
It could be the beginning of something new; I have a suggestion for a name. Perhaps we could call it “the truly rules-based [with no exceptions] international order”.