Late last year, US secretary of state Anthony Blinken declared that “One country does not have the right to exert a sphere of influence. That notion should be relegated to the dustbin of history.”
His words were directed at Russia after Moscow increasingly made it clear that it considers Ukraine to be part of Russia’s “near abroad” and thus part of Russia’s sphere of influence.
This claim that spheres of influence are some sort of relic from the past has been further pushed by Washington establishment types like former ambassador to Russia Michael McFaul, who in January stated, “Putin thinks as a kind of 18th-century or 19th-century leader about spheres of influence.”
The agenda here, apparently, is to connect the idea of spheres of influence with Napoleon-looking characters from the days of yore who believed in that old-fashioned spheres-of-influence stuff.
Moreover, the implication is that the United States regime doesn’t maintain a sphere of influence.
These claims of opposition to spheres of influence continue an effort that’s been going on at least since 2010, when Hillary Clinton in the wake of the Russo-Georgian War of 2008 declared, “The United States does not recognize spheres of influence.” She was echoing earlier comments by Condoleeza Rice, who in a 2008 speechin Washington, DC, claimed the United States is creating a world
in which great power is defined not by spheres of influence or zero-sum competition, or the strong imposing their will on the weak—but … the independence of nations [and] governance by the rule of law.
The words of technocrats like Rice, Clinton, and Blinken are always interesting as indications of what it is the US regime would like people to believe, but in real life, it is abundantly clear that the US does not in any way actually reject the notion of spheres of influence. It’s just that the US is opposed to a sphere of influence for Russia.
Indeed, the United States regime not only jealously defends its own sphere of influence but has been ferociously attempting to expand it since the end of the Cold War.
This, of course, is what we ought to expect from any state devoted to preserving and expanding its own power. In other words, the US regime is no different from any other great power in history when it comes to establishing a sphere of influence. Perhaps the only real difference is that Washington insists on lying about it.
What Is a Sphere of Influence?
Spheres of influence “are best defined as international formations that contain one nation (the influencer) that commands superior power over others.”1 Spheres of influence are usually regional in that they offer defensive advantages, since states in sensitive geopolitical locations are “expected” to be friendly to the regional hegemon. Historically, large states have employed the tactic when they have lacked the ability or the political will to simply annex neighbors yet also desired to dominate those neighbors in terms of foreign policy. States that are not sizable powers in their own right have often fit into these regional schemes as client states, puppet states, or simply “friendly” nations with close cultural and economic ties. Historically, large states also pursued expanded frontiers to ensure “buffer zones” that could stand between them and powerful regimes who wanted to militarily dominate frontiers far from their heartlands. The partitions of Poland, for example, served this purpose for the Austrian Habsburgs, the Russians, and the Prussians. The Empire of Japan created Manchukuo as a puppet state to act as a buffer between Japan, China, and the Soviet Union during the Second World War. In more recent times, North Korea serves as a buffer state between China and US-dominated South Korea.
Attempts by a regional hegemon to control buffer states, expand frontiers, and keep “friendly regimes” well within the fold all constitute efforts to maintain a sphere of influence. As unfortunate as it may be, the fact is powerful states simply don’t let their less powerful neighbors do whatever they want—so long as the regional power has the means to prevent it.
The United States is no different.
The US Sphere of Influence
The United States was wildly successful in its own efforts to create a buffer zone in western North America. From the early nineteenth century, the US was concerned with ensuring that it controlled areas west of the Mississippi to ensure a large frontier between New Spain and the United States. The US was so successful in these efforts that it had fully annexed these lands by the late nineteenth century.
Yet the interests of the American regime hardly stopped at the Rio Grande or the prairies of southern Canada. As was made clear with the Monroe Doctrine, the US had long aspired to an immense hemispheric sphere of influence in which no Asian or European power would be permitted to operate.
The fact that the US maintains its own sphere of influence today is blatantly obvious to anyone familiar with US interventions in Latin America. Last month, Senator Bernie Sanders demonstrated the a-broken-clock-is-right-twice-a-day rule when he correctly noted that it is absurd to claim the United States respects the sovereignty of other states within the US’s perceived sphere of influence:
“Does anyone really believe that the United States would not have something to say if, for example, Mexico or Cuba or any country in Central or Latin America were to form a military alliance with a U.S. adversary?” Sanders asked in a speech on the Senate floor.
“Do you think members of Congress would stand up and say, well, you know, Mexico is an independent country and they have the right to do anything they want. I doubt that very much.”
We need not point only to Mexico, of course.2 The United States has supported a number of regime change operations in Latin America out of concern that an unfriendly regime would invite hostile foreign powers—i.e., the Soviet Union—into the Western hemisphere. Interventions by Washington include the Cuban trade embargo, the US’s proxy war against the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, US support for the Pinochet dictatorship in Chile, the 1954 Guatemalan coup, and the 1964 Brazilian coup. Most famously, of course, there was the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which the US appeared willing to engage in nuclear war in order to keep the Soviets out of the US’s sphere of influence. (The crisis was resolved when the US—secretly, so as to give the impression the US “won”—agreed to remove missiles from Turkey, a location deemed too close to the USSR’s sphere of influence.)
In a world of global power projection, however, nations within the US’s sphere of influence need not even be in the Western Hemisphere. Since the Second World War, the US has extended its sphere of influence to include Saudi Arabia, Egypt, South Korea, Japan, and arguably Taiwan. The US has even initiated invasions to add nations to its sphere of influence. Iraq was within the Soviet sphere of influence until the Persian Gulf War of 1990. After 2003, with the US’s full-blown invasion of Iraq, the nation was fully added to the US sphere of influence.
So, why did the US start claiming to be opposed to spheres of influence? A big reason was that after the fall of the Soviet Union, the US began to aspire to folding the entire world into Washington’s sphere of influence. This naturally means that any other sphere of influence is illegitimate.
Writing in Foreign Policy in 2020, Graham Allison noted that when it came to announcing the end of spheres of influence,
such pronouncements were right in that something about geopolitics had changed. But they were wrong about what exactly it was. U.S. policymakers had ceased to recognize spheres of influence—the ability of other powers to demand deference from other states in their own regions or exert predominant control there—not because the concept had become obsolete. Rather, the entire world had become a de facto American sphere. Spheres of influence had given way to a sphere of influence.
The strong still imposed their will on the weak; the rest of the world was compelled to play largely by American rules, or else face a steep price, from crippling sanctions to outright regime change.
So, in the minds of Washington’s advocates of global US hegemony, the old notion of multipolar spheres of influence was replaced by one of a global world order dominated by Washington. Or as Allison put it,
The claim that spheres of influence had been consigned to the dustbin of history assumed that other nations would simply take their assigned places in a U.S.-led order.
So, when we see American pundits and foreign policy officials suggest that civilized regimes—i.e., not Russia—reject the idea of a sphere of influence, they’re either deeply misinformed about the US’s own sphere of influence or they’re just lying.
Are Spheres of Influence Legitimate?
Sometimes those who claim to oppose spheres of influence will muddy the waters by speaking of how states don’t have a “right” to a sphere of influence. Blinken did precisely this when he declared, “One country does not have the right to exert a sphere of influence.” This, of course, is correct as far as it goes. Individual persons have rights. States do not.
But, so long as we have states, we should expect those states to seek out ways to preserve and expand their own power. This means states with the economic, military, and political means to do so will expand their spheres of power. Washington has no more a “right” than Moscow to dictate what kind of missiles or bombers are hosted by Cuba. Yet this is just typical great power politics exercised by all states in the usual fashion. This isn’t moral. It’s just one of the many ways that states consider themselves entitled to engage in aggressive acts that would be considered unacceptable for any nonstate group.
Certainly, we should seek to lessen states’ perceived “need” for a sphere of influence and to lower the stakes in conflicts over spheres of influence. This can be done by building international interdependence through the expansion of trade. Moreover, we can insist that our own states adopt defensive military postures rather than offensive ones—often accomplished through cutting bloated military budgets and abolishing standing armies that serve little purpose beyond occupying foreign countries. We can insist our own state stop provoking other regional powers through blunders like continued North Atlantic Treaty Organization expansion.
But perhaps the most important first step from the American perspective is to stop deluding ourselves about the US being some sort of uniquely virtuous nation that would never, ever stoop to imposing its own sphere of influence on its neighbors.
1.Amitai Etzioni, “Spheres of Influence: A Reconceptualization,” Fletcher Forum of World Affairs 39, no. 2 (Summer 2015): 117.
2.One of the few cases in which a European power successfully intervened in Mexico—for a time—was the Second Mexican Empire. The Austrian regime had sought to increase its own power in Latin America by installing a Habsburg prince on a Mexican throne. It is significant that this occurred during the American Civil War, when the US’s ability to object was greatly limited. Mexican republicans eventually expelled the Austria-installed regime with Washington’s support—after the US Civil War was over.