Cardboard cutouts U.S. President Donald Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping near a gift shop in Moscow, March 2020.
Reuters / Evgenia Novozhenina

What a difference two decades make. In the early years of this century, the world appeared to be moving toward a single, seamless order under U.S. leadership. Today the world is fragmenting, and authoritarian challengers, led by China and Russia, are chipping away at American influence in East Asia, eastern Europe, and the Middle East. In its 2002 National Security Strategy, the George W. Bush administration envisioned the end of great-power rivalries. In 2020, the question is how great powers can navigate their rivalries without stumbling into war.  

Writing in Foreign Affairs (“The New Spheres of Influence,” March/April 2020), Graham Allison offers a road map for this new environment: the United States should accept the return of “spheres of influence” and effectively let China and Russia dominate swaths of their respective geopolitical neighborhoods. Doing so, Allison contends, is actually in keeping with the United States’ best diplomatic traditions, considering that Washington tolerated a Soviet sphere of influence in eastern Europe during the Cold War. Reviving that tradition is necessary, simply because the United States no longer has the military and economic dominance to deny China and Russia their geopolitical due. And it is desirable, because mutually accepted spheres of influence can promote stability and peace in a more rivalrous world.

Allison’s argument is alluring but wrong. In truth, the United States has resisted the creation of rival spheres of influence for most of its history, even as it has worked assiduously to build its own. Ceding ground to China and Russia today would be not a recipe for stability but a blueprint for coercion and conflict, and it would weaken the United States’ geopolitical hand vis-à-vis its rivals. Nor is a return to spheres of influence foreordained—Washington still has the power to prevent Beijing and Moscow from dominating their regions, so long as it rejects Allison’s advice to cut loose its vulnerable frontline allies. A tougher, more competitive world is unavoidable. A far more dangerous world, divided into competing superpower fiefdoms, is not.

AN AMERICAN TRADITION

Spheres of influence have been common throughout history, but Americans have never been quite comfortable with them. In fact, much of U.S. foreign policy dating back to independence has consisted of efforts to prevent rival powers from establishing such domains. In the nineteenth century, U.S. leaders rejected the idea that any European power should have a sphere of influence in North America or the Western Hemisphere at large. They maneuvered—often quite ruthlessly—to evict European powers from these areas. At the turn of the twentieth century, the United States took this regional policy global. The so-called Open Door policy aimed to dissuade foreign powers from carving up China, and later all of East Asia, into exclusive spheres. Washington joined World War I in part to prevent Germany from becoming the dominant European power. A generation later, the United States fought to deny Japan a sphere of influence in the Pacific and prevent Hitler from establishing primacy over the entire Old World. During and after World War II, Washington also engaged in quieter diplomatic and economic efforts to accelerate the dissolution of the British Empire.

Opposition to spheres of influence is a part of U.S. diplomatic DNA.

Even during the Cold War, Americans never fully accepted Soviet control over eastern Europe. The Truman and Eisenhower administrations sought to roll back the Iron Curtain through ideological warfare and covert action; later administrations expanded trade and diplomatic ties with Warsaw Pact states as a subtler way of undermining Kremlin control. The Reagan administration overtly and covertly supported political movements that were challenging the Kremlin’s authority from within. And when Washington had a chance to peacefully destroy the Soviet sphere of influence after the fall of the Berlin Wall, it did, supporting German unification and the expansion of NATO.

Opposition to spheres of influence, in other words, is a part of U.S. diplomatic DNA. The reason for this, Charles Edel and I argued in 2018, is that spheres of influence clash with fundamental tenets of U.S. foreign policy. Among them is the United States’ approach to security, which holds that safeguarding the country’s vital interests and physical well-being requires preventing rival powers from establishing a foothold in the Western Hemisphere or dominating strategically important regions overseas. Likewise, the United States’ emphasis on promoting liberty and free trade translates to a concern that spheres of influence—particularly those dominated by authoritarian powers—would impede the spread of U.S. values and allow hostile powers to block American trade and investment. Finally, spheres of influence do not mesh well with American exceptionalism—the notion that the United States should transcend the old, corrupt ways of balance-of-power diplomacy and establish a more humane, democratic system of international relations.

Of course, that intellectual tradition did not stop the United States from building its own sphere of influence in Latin America from the early nineteenth century onward, nor did it prevent it from drawing large chunks of Europe, East Asia, and the Middle East into a global sphere of influence after World War II. Yet the same tradition has led the United States to run its sphere of influence far more progressively than past great powers, which is why far more countries have sought to join that sphere than to leave it. And since hypocrisy is another venerable tradition in global affairs, it is not surprising that Americans would establish their own, relatively enlightened sphere of influence while denying the legitimacy of everyone else’s.

That endeavor reached its zenith in the post–Cold War era, when the collapse of the Soviet bloc made it possible to envision a world in which Washington’s sphere of influence—also known as the liberal international order—was the only game in town. The United States maintained a world-beating military that could intervene around the globe; preserved and expanded a global alliance structure as a check on aggression; and sought to integrate potential challengers, namely Beijing and Moscow, into a U.S.-led system. It was a remarkably ambitious project, as Allison rightly notes, but it was the culmination of, rather than a departure from, a diplomatic tradition reaching back two centuries.

GIVE THEM AN INCH…

The post–Cold War moment is over, and the prospect of a divided world has returned. Russia is projecting power in the Middle East and staking a claim to dominance in its “near abroad.” China is seeking primacy in the western Pacific and Southeast Asia and using its diplomatic and economic influence to draw countries around the world more tightly into its orbit. Both have developed the tools needed to coerce their neighbors and keep U.S. forces at bay.

Allison is one of several analysts who have recently advanced the argument that the United States should make a virtue of necessity—that it should accept Russian and Chinese spheres of influence, encompassing some portion of eastern Europe and the western Pacific, as the price of stability and peace. The logic is twofold: first, to create a cleaner separation between contending parties by clearly marking where one’s influence ends and the other’s begins; and second, to reduce the chances of conflict by giving rising or resurgent powers a safe zone along their borders. In theory, this seems like a reasonable way of preventing competition from turning into outright conflict, especially given that countries such as Taiwan and the Baltic states lie thousands of miles from the United States but on the doorsteps of its rivals. Yet in reality, a spheres-of-influence world would bring more peril than safety.

Russia’s and China’s spheres of influence would inevitably be domains of coercion and authoritarianism. Both countries are run by illiberal, autocratic regimes; their leaders see democratic values as profoundly threatening to their political survival. If Moscow and Beijing dominated their respective neighborhoods, they would naturally seek to undermine democratic governments that resist their control—as China is already doing in Taiwan and as Russia is doing in Ukraine—or that challenge, through their very existence, the legitimacy of authoritarian rule. The practical consequence of acceding to authoritarian spheres of influence would be to intensify the crisis of democracy that afflicts the world today.

The United States would suffer economically, too. China, in particular, is a mercantilist power already working to turn Asian economies toward Beijing and could one day put the United States at a severe disadvantage on the world’s most economically dynamic continent. Washington should not concede a Chinese sphere of influence unless it is also willing to compromise the “Open Door” principles that have animated its statecraft for over a century.

Spheres of influence are not a recipe for stability but a blueprint for coercion and conflict.

Such costs might be acceptable in exchange for peace and security. But spheres of influence during the Cold War did not prevent the Soviets from repeatedly testing American redlines in Berlin, causing high-stakes crises in which nuclear war was a real possibility. Nor did those spheres prevent the two sides from competing sharply, and sometimes violently, throughout the “Third World.” Throughout history, spheres-of-influence settlements, from the Thirty Years’ Peace between Athens and Sparta to the Peace of Amiens between the United Kingdom and Napoleonic France have often ended, sooner or later, in war.

The idea that spheres of influence are a formula for peace rests on assumptions that often go unexamined: that revisionist powers are driven primarily by insecurity, that their grievances are limited and can be easily satisfied, that the truly vital interests of competing powers do not conflict, and that creative statecraft can therefore fashion an enduring, mutually acceptable equilibrium. The trouble is that these premises don’t always hold. Ideology and the quest for greatness—not simply insecurity—often drive great powers. Rising states are continually tempted to renegotiate previous bargains once they have the power to do so. Offering concessions to a revisionist state may simply convince it that the existing order is fragile and can be tested further. Conceding a sphere of influence to a great-power challenger might not produce stability but simply give that challenger a better position from which to realize its ambitions.

Consider the situation in the western Pacific. The most minimal Chinese sphere of influence would surely include Taiwan. Yet if Taiwan became a platform for Chinese military capabilities, the defense of other U.S. allies in the region, such as Japan and the Philippines, would become vastly more difficult. Nor would such a concession likely satisfy Chinese ambitions. A growing body of literature by scholars such as Toshi Yoshihara, James Holmes, Liza Tobin, and Elizabeth Economy suggests that China desires at the very least to push the United States beyond the chain of islands running from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines. Even a limited Chinese sphere in the western Pacific would serve as a springboard to this larger objective.

Meanwhile, the United States will have sacrificed a number of critical advantages by pulling out. A free Taiwan offers proof that Chinese culture and democracy are not incompatible; subjugating Taiwan would also allow Beijing to remove this ideological threat. Worse still, the United States would lose the edge that comes from being the only great power without significant security hazards near its borders. It was only after the United States achieved dominance in the Western Hemisphere that it could project power globally. Russia and China, by contrast, still have to deal with U.S. allies, partners, and military presences in their own backyards—a circumstance that diverts resources they might otherwise use to pursue more distant ambitions and compete with the United States at a truly global scale.

MEASURES OF POWER

Fortunately, new spheres of influence are avoidable. Russia is a formidable player because of its willingness to take risks and pursue asymmetric strategies; but Moscow will not rebuild a meaningful sphere of influence so long as the United States opposes that ambition. In Europe, Russia is still dramatically outmatched. Admittedly, on NATO’s eastern flank, geography and the local balance of power favor Moscow; but even there, the alliance has been strengthening its capabilities for several years. Studies by the RAND Corporation show that with the right troop deployments, NATO could establish a credible—and affordable—deterrent to Russian aggression without posing any offensive threat. Russia, meanwhile, has struggled even to pull Ukraine back into its orbit: although Russian-backed separatists are waging a bloody war in the eastern part of the country, and Moscow has annexed Crimea, western Ukraine has gravitated toward Europe and the United States since 2014. And although Russia can wield some influence in the Middle East, it can emerge as the region’s primary outside power only if the United States abandons its role there.

Rising states are continually tempted to renegotiate previous bargains once they have the power to do so.

The extent of China’s power makes the situation in the western Pacific more difficult. Yet Beijing will have trouble dominating the region in the same way that the United States came to dominate the Caribbean. China’s neighbors are not pushovers. Many have the diplomatic and military support of the United States, and some, such as Japan, are major powers in their own right. What is more, China must project military power across large bodies of water if it is to establish authority in the region, and to do so is inherently difficult. It will be all the more difficult if U.S. regional allies invest in the capabilities needed to inflict high costs on any assault and if Washington refines its capabilities and concepts for countering Chinese aggression. The regional military balance will not ever revert to what it was in 1996, when Washington could face down Beijing’s attempts to intimidate Taiwan by sailing two carrier strike groups into the waters off China’s coast; but with the right investments and strategies, the United States and its allies can lengthen the odds of Chinese regional dominance.

Perhaps in recognition of this fact, China is also using information operations, economic blandishments, and other forms of political meddling to weaken the region’s resistance to its power. Yet some countries are already working to reduce their vulnerability to economic and political coercion. Australia has undertaken a major campaign to highlight malign Chinese influence; Japan is actively seeking to limit its dependence on supply chains that run through China. Washington may have done more by itself than China has done to undermine U.S. economic power in the region, through its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement and its tardiness in developing alternatives, together with its allies, to Chinese technology, investment, and lending. These policy errors are damaging, but they are still within the United States’ power to correct.

DON'T GIVE UP YET

The prospects for maintaining favorable regional balances of power are far better than the skeptics assume. What is essential, however, is that Washington not erode those balances by severing ties with vulnerable allies and partners on the frontlines. Allison suggests that doing so might be necessary to bring U.S. capabilities in line with commitments and reduce friction with rising powers. Yet the effect of abandoning the Baltic allies or breaking the ambiguous commitment to Taiwan would be to make it impossible for those countries to ward off Chinese or Russian influence and to demoralize other U.S. allies around them. Washington would be paving the way for just the authoritarian spheres of influence it should—and can—avoid. The United States has a distinguished record of breaking down authoritarian spheres of influence, first in its own hemisphere and then beyond. It should not now make the historic blunder of throwing that achievement away for an illusory promise of stability or as a premature concession to a darker future that need not come to pass.

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  • HAL BRANDS is Henry A. Kissinger Distinguished Professor of Global Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, and a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. 
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