Defending the defensible: The value of spheres of influence in U.S. foreign policy

Americans don’t like the idea of spheres of influence. The idea that large nations should push around small ones offends our sense of fair play. We envision a world of plucky Davids, squaring off against autocratic Goliaths, with only American might available to right the balance and liberate the oppressed. And so when my colleague Robert Kagan sounds a clarion call to deny spheres of influence to countries like Russia and China, he appeals to a basic and laudable American instinct.

Despite this instinct, this is not a concept that has long informed American practice. To the contrary, the U.S promulgated the Monroe Doctrine specifically to establish a sphere of influence. Similarly, Franklin Roosevelt’s “Four Policemen” concept for the post-World War II order, which evolved into the UN Security Council, saw the world run by great powers. In the words of historians Townsend Hoopes and Douglas Brinkley, “[t]his distinction between great and small nations quickly became a fundamental element of all U.S. postwar planning.” Even during the Cold War, the U.S. rarely challenged the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, essentially standing aside as Soviet forces crushed uprisings in East Germany, Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Poland.

But after the Cold War ended and the Soviet sphere of influence collapsed, the United States began to champion a new idea in international relations: even small countries have the right to determine their own foreign policy and join any alliance they like. It is an idea with inherent moral appeal. But it is not a coincidence that this new idea came at a time when there were no U.S. peer competitors, that is when there was no other game in town. The U.S. was able to use its predominant power position to push NATO right up to the borders of Russia and into the territory of the former Soviet Union. As Bob has written elsewhere, “a liberal world order, like any world order, is something that is imposed, and as much as we in the West might wish it to be imposed by superior virtue, it is generally imposed by superior power.”

For potential regional powers watching this advance, the issue is not whether great powers get to have a sphere of influence. Being relatively powerful countries, they accept as inevitable and even desirable that the powerful will have special privileges in geopolitics. Rather, the issue is whether the U.S. sphere of influence will continue to go right up to their doorstep and threaten their autonomy, or whether they will be able to push it back. In essence, we are already fighting over spheres of influence. We can regret this state of affairs and deplore it loudly from op-eds, but that will not change it. 

Thus, it might be objectively true as Bob says that “for the first time in Russia’s long history, it does not face a strategic threat on its western flank,” but the Russians don’t see it that way. And it is not Germany, Estonia or Ukraine that they fear, but rather the United States. Whether this sense of threat stems from Russian pride, Russian domestic politics, or paranoia hardly matters—countries get to determine their own threat perceptions.

In general, as countries like Russia and China have grown in relative power in recent years, they have begun to push against the liberal world order imposed upon them. That they should do so is, from a historical perspective, normal and natural even if it is very unwelcome. One might expect that if Canada and Mexico choose to join the Shanghai Cooperation Organization the United States would similarly object. In any case, their sense of insecurity means they will not easily be persuaded to change course. The question for the United States is whether it should fight to expand its own sphere of influence or whether it should stop expanding and accommodate others. 

Fighting is not an attractive or a necessary option. 

It is not attractive because it means fighting a war now to avoid fighting a war in future, which is an odd sort of logic. It is based on part on the idea, born of the 1930s experience, that early gains will help rising powers accumulate power and momentum. Fortunately, in the modern world, conquest doesn’t pay like it used to and expansions of spheres of interest will help only their pride and maybe their sense of security. Ukraine, for example, is no geopolitical prize and “winning” in Ukraine will only hurt Russia diplomatically and economically. Indeed, for reasons of geography, history and intensity of interest, fighting Russia in Ukraine is almost uniquely disadvantageous to the West relative to almost any other field of conflict. There is nothing more de-stabilizing than a sphere of influence that cannot be defended. 

It is not necessary to fight because the United States has some control over how insecure these states feel. As Bob notes, spheres of influences are created to help great powers feel secure—in the current world mostly from the United States. Conflict is only inevitable if the United States behaves as great powers often have in the past and seeks to deny rising powers what they is feel their due, thus contributing to their sense of insecurity. Spheres of influence, in contrast, have the capacity to make great powers feel more secure and to increase their willingness to cooperate within the larger liberal world order. 

Bob believes that great powers are never satisfied and they will never stop expanding their sphere of influence through force of arms, regardless of what the United States does. But in fact great powers today are looking for other, cheaper ways to exert influence and only resort to military means when they feel threatened. And it is the United States that most threatens them. This implies it is within our power to accommodate them within the liberal order. But it is apparently not in our heart.