Influencers: at the Yalta conference, 1945
U.S. National Archives / Alamy Stock Photo

In the heady aftermath of the Cold War, American policymakers pronounced one of the fundamental concepts of geopolitics obsolete. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice described a new world “in which great power is defined not by spheres of influence . . . or the strong imposing their will on the weak.” Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared that “the United States does not recognize spheres of influence.” Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed that “the era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” ending almost two centuries of the United States staking claim to its own sphere of influence in the Western Hemisphere.

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,

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  • GRAHAM ALLISON is Douglas Dillon Professor of Government at the Harvard Kennedy School and the author of Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?
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