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By William Tucker
Columnist, In Homeland Security

For the first time since the 1980s, the U.S. Navy entered the Barents Sea off the northern coasts of Norway and Russia. Because of the isolation of this particular body of water, not to mention that it is covered by ice half the year, the U.S. only had to patrol as far north as the Norwegian Sea. With Russia using its military forces aggressively, the U.S. is demonstrating to both Moscow and NATO that its navy can sail in international waters in force wherever it chooses.

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A similar demonstration occurred in the South China Sea. The U.S. Navy, along with an Australian naval vessel, entered the South China Sea to monitor a dispute between Vietnam and China. Over the past few months, China has aggressively challenged U.S. allies in the South and East China Seas.

In the midst of a pandemic, Washington’s ability to demonstrate its continued power is paramount. Given the outbreak of COVID-19 on the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the ability to continue military operations is necessary to protect U.S. interests.

Freedom of Navigation Challenge Adversaries’ Claims to an Exclusive Sphere of Influence

These freedom of navigation operations and naval drills also challenge adversaries’ claims to an exclusive sphere of influence in their maritime environment. In geopolitics, a sphere of influence is a claim by a nation-state to exclusive, or at least predominant, control over another nation or area. In some cases, these claims are based on shared cultural or linguistic ties. But a claim to a sphere of influence can also originate from defense, economics, or political needs.

Establishing a sphere based on these motivations creates friction between states with conflicting interests. For instance, U.S.-Russian relations grew contentious over Russia’s invasion of the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in 2008. Washington was trying to expand NATO to push back on Russian influence over former Soviet bloc states; Moscow viewed the move through its historical experience with European or Asian powers’ invasions. Therefore, Russia moved to disrupt the chain of former Soviet bloc nations joining NATO or the European Union.

The U.S. rejected Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, but in doing so, Washington was defending its burgeoning sphere in Europe. Russia viewed its need to push back against perceived western encroachment as existential and moved on Georgia to make a point while the U.S. was busy in Iraq and Afghanistan.

China Wants Control over the Entirety of the South and East China Seas

For its part, China wants control over the entirety of the South and East China Seas. That means coercing its neighbors through incentives or threats to turn them against the U.S.

The U.S. strategy in the Pacific is not exactly coherent, but Washington does have a discernible sphere of influence in the region. Not only are there U.S. territories in the Pacific, but the U.S. has several defense treaties in place with many nations in the region.

There is an interest in maintaining some of these agreements. But these agreements, along with U.S. interests, clash with those of China. To establish a sphere of influence off its coasts, Beijing must break out of the surrounding island chains. For that to happen would mean a significant change in regional governance or actual land seizure.

History of Geopolitical Spheres of Influence

The definition of spheres of influence has changed little since its first documented usage in a colonial agreement between Germany and the UK in 1885 over influence in the Gulf of Guinea. From that point on, the term became commonplace within the context of European colonialism in Africa and Asia. Another term, “the Great Game,” popularized by anti-colonialism British author Rudyard Kipling, could likewise apply to world powers competing for influence. Indeed, a Russian memo, the Gorchakov Memorandum of 1864, during the so-called Great Game period used the phrase “spheres of action” to describe Russian interests in Central Asia.

It appears that the concept of “spheres,” in one form or another, enjoys a longer history than is typically documented. The association of spheres of influence with colonialism makes the term distasteful in the modern era; however, the phrase underwent a change after the last European empires collapsed following the First World War. From the interwar period through the Cold War, spheres of influence changed from colonial conquest to describe great power competition. This competition spanned the ideological and also the pragmatic realm. As modern warfare greatly increased the death toll, global powers sought to carve out a space that ensured security while decreasing the potential for conflict.

Such was the concept drafted in early 1945 by George Kennan, deputy chief of the U.S. mission in Moscow. Kennan correctly noted that the Soviet Union would not free the territory it had seized in Europe following World War II. In a missive to Charles Bohlen, advisor to President Roosevelt on the Soviet Union, Kennan took a realist position based upon his reading of Soviet intentions.

In the letter to Bohlen, Kennan asked, “Why could we not make a decent and definitive compromise with [Moscow] — divide Europe frankly into spheres of influence — keep ourselves out of the Russian sphere and keep the Russians out of ours?”

Kennan’s view was unpopular, but ultimately correct; ignoring the Soviet fait accompli in Europe would lead to bad policy. Moscow had control of Eastern Europe, and nothing short of war would change that.

The concept of spheres of influence had gone from colonial agreements to its global application of the Soviet-U.S. standoff. Challenges to these bifurcated spheres nearly led to war during the Cuban missile crisis, while adhering to spheres in fact did bring about an uneasy peace.

Acknowledging Spheres of Influence

Because of the historical and occasional modern abuses of nation-state influence, it can be difficult to accept that some nations will exert influence over their neighbors near and far. Our feelings on the issue matter little. Some things just exist whether we like it or not.

All nations have intractable interests: People must have food, water, shelter, security and so on. Not every nation has the ability to secure those needs independently. While the interests may be intractable, the methods used to pursue them offer some semblance of choice in policy.

This is the crux of the matter. Nations can choose how to pursue their interests, but national resources limit those policy options.

For instance, Algeria imports over 75 percent of its necessary foodstuffs, but Algeria does not have the resources to build a military capable of invading France, which is a net food exporter. Algeria does have sufficient energy, which it trades internationally. France is one of its top energy trade partners.

Algeria is also a former French colony, and though the relationship is better balanced, Algeria remains under French influence. Algeria’s well-being would significantly diminish without it.

It Is Better to Come to Terms Diplomatically Than through Outright Domination

Nations that are small, resource-poor, or otherwise have the geographical misfortune of bordering a powerful state often choose the influence of their more powerful neighbor as a matter of pragmatism. After all, it is better to come to terms diplomatically than through outright domination.

Sometimes engaging in diplomacy with a powerful nation from a position of weakness invites a sort of thuggery, leaving the disadvantaged nation to seek solace elsewhere. In the modern era that elsewhere tends to be to be the U.S., some European nations, or perhaps even Japan.

For its part, the U.S. is keen to retain its sphere of influence though it does not see its actions or relationships through that lens. The recent U.S. naval exercises intending to support a partner demonstrate this sphere of influence quite clearly. The U.S. goes wherever necessary to protect its interests, and those interests often overlap with smaller nations that may require security, economic, or political support.

Granted, not every sphere-of-influence type of relationship between nations is as cordial. Spheres exist not just because might makes right in some sort of Melian Dialog fashion, (a dramatization by the contemporary Athenian historian Thucydides of the negotiations between the Athenians and the Melians before the siege of Melos). But also because nations that find themselves at a disadvantage will look for assistance just as more powerful nations look to ensure their interests. A sphere of influence can have mutual benefit.

Dealing with Future Spheres of Influence

Acknowledging that spheres of influence exist is but one hurdle to clear. Grappling with overlapping spheres is quite another matter. That overlapping influences great power competition, because not all spheres result in mutual benefit.

The Chinese are quite blunt in this regard. As then Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi said in 2010: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”

Yang is absolutely correct, but for China to take advantage of its size, it must displace the presence and influence of the U.S., as previously mentioned. Russia is likewise instructive. Although former U.S. secretaries of state Condoleezza Rice and John Kerry made statements rejecting Russia’s claim to a sphere of influence in its near abroad, the U.S. did nothing more than levy sanctions on Russia for the Georgian War and the annexation of Crimea.

Indeed, the frozen conflict in Ukraine likewise resulted in sanctions on Russia, but did not change the situation. The U.S. may reject Russian claims, but there is little short of war that can dislodge Russia. Russia may be a waning power, but it can still undermine former Eastern bloc nations that are not NATO members.

Washington Appears Uncertain What It Wants in a Grand Strategy

This dynamic will be a challenge to the U.S. going forward, but Washington appears uncertain what it wants in a grand strategy. NATO, for instance, is an alliance born out of the Cold War and used to contain Soviet expansion. NATO needs updated guidance from its members as a few have decided to pursue their interests independently.

Sometimes these pursuits have undermined the efforts of other members. It is clear that the alliance needs new direction if it is to stay coherent. That coherence is in doubt. NATO has also been a part of the U.S. sphere of influence since the founding of the alliance in 1949. Giving up on a collective defense effort that has proven effective thus far can be problematic.

The U.S. has bilateral defense treaties with several East Asian nations, but in some cases, Washington has opted to maintain a form of strategic ambiguity. Strategic ambiguity is effective, but can strain ties with allies, as they tend to be in the dark as well when it comes to U.S. intentions. This strategic ambiguity is a product of the Cold War and has not been updated for the current era.

Without a coherent strategy to guide it, the U.S. runs the risk of losing influence. Realizing that a sphere of influence can be a good thing – perhaps even necessary – is a vital incentive toward crafting a cohesive strategy.

By William Tucker
Chief Correspondent for In Homeland Security

Earlier this week Radio Free Europe published an article on Iranian intelligence suggesting that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had ‘revived’ an intelligence unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) for domestic purposes.