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What’s Missing in the Debate Over Spheres of Influence


  • Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

  • Article
  • 17 Mar 2020
  • 11 min read


  • Assistant Professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University, Singapore

There is a growing sentiment among foreign policy makers and national security analysts that the post-Cold War era of unchallenged US hegemony is being supplanted by a new and more dangerous period of great power rivalry. This belief has unsurprisingly resurrected a longstanding debate about great power spheres of influence.

The last three presidential administrations have professed unblinking opposition to the phenomenon. After Russia invaded Georgia in 2008, President George W. Bush’s Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that the United States would “resist any Russian attempt to consign sovereign nations and free people to some archaic ‘sphere of influence’.” Then, following Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, Bush’s successor Barack Obama warned Moscow “The days of empire and spheres of influence are over. Bigger nations must not be allowed to bully the small or impose their will at the barrel of a gun.” Obama also responded to Chinese military provocations against rival claimants to nearby maritime territories by proclaiming later that year that the security order in East Asia could never be based on “spheres of influence or coercion or intimidation.”

Even the Trump administration, which has pursued a far more cynical and transactional foreign policy than those of Bush and Obama, has ruled out spheres of influence for great power antagonists. Trump’s 2017 White House National Security Strategy bluntly cast Russia and China as “revisionist powers,” warning that China seeks to “reorder the [Indo-Pacific] region in its favor,” while Russia “seeks to restore its great power status and establish spheres of influence near its borders.”

These are hardly unusual sentiments in the annals of US diplomatic history. As the historians Hal Brands and Charles Edel note in a recent article in Commentary magazine, “for more than two centuries, American leaders have generally opposed the idea of a world divided into rival spheres of influence and have worked hard to deny other powers their own.”

Like-minded opponents within the foreign policy commentariat, such as Brands and Edel, and Robert Kagan of the Brookings Institution, stress that spheres of influence will fuel the ambitions of their beneficiaries, shake allied confidence in the United States, hinder the spread of free trade and democratic rule, and constrain Washington’s ability to shape events in key regions. By contrast, proponents of the policy, such as Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, Ted Galen Carpenter of the CATO Institute, and Peter Beinart of The Atlantic magazine, note that Washington has hypocritically demanded spheres of influence its own in the past and argue that its prospective extension of spheres to Russia and China will avert the outbreak of costly and unnecessary wars against those states.

Although the proponents are correct that spheres of influence have played a crucial role in stabilizing great power politics, they are mistaken in believing that spheres are viable in the context of present-day US relations with Russia and China. This is because ideological similarities between states frequently interfere with the detached geopolitical calculations they must make in order to construct and maintain spheres of influence.

A sphere of influence is created when a great power allows a peer competitor to militarily dominate a given territory in which the former has a less vital interest at stake than the latter.

Spheres of influence tame great power security competition in three ways. First and most importantly, by extending them to adversaries, great powers avoid becoming ensnared in peripheral wars they are unlikely to win in any event because those adversaries have more at stake and will be willing to incur greater costs in order to emerge triumphant. Relatedly, when nuclear-armed states reciprocally grant spheres that encompass one another’s vital interests—as occurred during the Cold War—each’s deterrent threat to retaliate massively against aggression by the other will be most credible, and peace will be more likely to obtain. Second, since states frequently commit aggression out of insecurity, rather than greed, the acquisition of a sphere of influence over its vital interests enhances the security and diminishes the belligerence of the recipient. Third, spheres of influence arrangements allow both the grantor and recipient to signal one another of their benign intentions: by establishing the sphere, the grantor signals that it lacks designs on the homeland and core interests of the recipient; and by eschewing military expansion beyond the sphere, the recipient signals that it lacks such designs on the grantor.

It is for these reasons that spheres of influence have been a hallmark of great power relations since at least 509 B.C., when Rome and Carthage concluded a treaty barring Roman ships from sailing near Carthaginian waters and prohibiting Carthaginian forces from attacking towns allied to Rome. They became a ubiquitous element of European foreign policy in the decades that followed Russian Foreign Minister Alexander Gorchakov’s first explicit invocation of the concept in an 1869 letter to British Foreign Secretary Lord Clarendon. In the letter, Gorchakov assured London that Afghanistan lay “completely outside the sphere within which Russia might be called upon to exercise her influence.”

Despite US leaders’ consistent rhetorical condemnation of the phenomenon, they have periodically demanded spheres of influence for the United States, most famously in the 1823 Monroe Doctrine which exhorted Europe to respect US hegemony in the Western Hemisphere. They have also begrudgingly granted spheres to adversaries, as epitomized by Cold War administrations’ consistent refusal to make good on their rhetoric about seeking the “liberation” of Eastern Europe from Soviet clutches.

As the Cold War demonstrated however, spheres of influence can be subverted when great powers mistakenly allow ideological considerations to override geopolitical ones. To establish and subsequently maintain a sphere of influence, the prospective grantor must recognize that it has a lesser interest in dominating a given territory than does the prospective recipient. A great power will be less capable of making this prudential judgment if a peripheral state that it would otherwise relegate to an adversary’s sphere happens to share its political ideology in opposition to that of the adversary. As the political scientist Mark Haas has argued in his path-breaking book The Ideological Origins of Great Power Politics, 1789-1989: “When leaders from different states recognize that they share a commitment to the same ideological objectives and possess the same ideological enemies, they will tend to view one another as closer to their own political identities than those decision makers who do not meet these conditions.” This powerful ideological bond may then compel the great power to wildly inflate the small state’s importance, raising the risk it will become ensnared in a large-scale war with the adversary.

This is the very pathology that set into motion the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis, which brought the world closer to the precipice of total nuclear annihilation than an any time before or since. Moscow showed scant interest in Latin America during the early part of the Cold War, and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev initially paid little heed to Fidel Castro after Castro’s July 26 movement seized power in Havana in 1959. Only once Khrushchev became convinced that Castro was a genuine communist did he begin to brood that the success of intensifying US efforts to topple the Cuban firebrand would deal “a terrible blow to Marxism-Leninism. It would gravely diminish our stature throughout the world.” This dangerous belief compelled Khrushchev to recklessly deploy scores of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons to the embattled Caribbean island located a mere ninety miles off the coast of Florida.

By contrast, when reformist communist regimes in Hungary in 1956 and Czechoslovakia in 1968 faced down invasion by the Soviet Red Army, their lack of ideological kinship with US policymakers enabled the latter to prudently eschew military intervention on their behalf. Meanwhile, when the communist autocracies in Yugoslavia and China defected from the Soviet sphere in the late 1940s and early 1960s, respectively, the US response in both instances was similarly cautious, though both states eventually received limited amounts of American weaponry to bolster their autonomy from Moscow.

Washington’s circumspect policy in the Kremlin’s backyard ceased, however, at the end of the Cold War, when successive administrations eagerly absorbed the democratizing ex-Soviet satellites into NATO. Most provocatively, in 2004, the Bush administration pushed the Western alliance to incorporate three former Soviet republics that border Russia, the Baltic democracies of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania.

The ideological factor militates against the likelihood that the United States government will respect spheres of influence for China and Russia. It would be inconceivable for any Chinese sphere of influence to exclude Taiwan and any Russian sphere to exclude Ukraine. Whereas the US interest in both states is marginal, China considers neighboring Taiwan to be nothing less than a renegade province of the mainland, while Russia considers neighboring Ukraine to be an invaluable buffer against another invasion from the West. Crucially, though, Taiwan is a flourishing democracy and Ukraine a rapidly liberalizing democracy, and US military assistance to both places enjoys overwhelming bipartisan support. As the ubiquitous but legally inaccurate references by lawmakers to Ukraine as a US “ally” during President Trump’s recent impeachment imply, the United States will be more likely to tightly embrace these imperiled democracies than abandon them to the predations of America’s autocratic adversaries.