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Don’t Let Great Powers Carve Up the World: Spheres of Influence Are Unnecessary and Dangerous

Author: Hal Brands

Affiliation: Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) 

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs

Date/Place: April 20, 2020/USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article

Word Count: 2590

Link:https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/china/2020-04-20/dont-let-great-powers-carve-world  

Keywords: Spheres of Influence, US Hegemony, Revisionist Powers, and Geopolitical Rivalry

Brief: 

Last March, Professor Graham Allison published an article in Foreign Affairs entitled: “New Spheres of Influence,” arguing that the unipolar world dominated by the United States may end, in exchange for the return of “spheres of influence” which would become the most prominent geopolitical feature of the 21st century, especially with the rise of China and the resurgence of Russia to the international arena. Therefore, the US should recognize this reality and allow them to dominate their regional neighborhood as exclusive spheres of influence because the spheres of influence would enhance global stability and peace and avoid a clash of superpowers that would lead to further international disorder (Find here a brief of Allison’s article). In this article, Hal Brands responds to Allison’s arguments, seeing them as attractive but false. The author thinks that it is too early to concede spheres of influence to these rising powers. Rather, it would be a major strategic mistake for the US if it considers Allison’s advice because it is still able to correct some mistakes and extend the life of its hegemony further. In his debate, Brands presents a set of critical arguments for Allison’s hypotheses. One of the anchored American traditions, as Brands argues, is the US’ refusal to create other great powers for exclusive spheres of influence, especially those run by reckless authoritarian regimes. This historical achievement must not be lost in vain for mere promises of stability or premature concessions in favor of a bleak future. Since the nineteenth century, Washington rejected the idea that any European power should have a sphere of influence in North America and worked to expel the Europeans from there. Years after, it joined the First and Second World Wars to prevent Germany from dominating the European continent and the ancient world, and it fought to deprive Japan of achieving a sphere of influence in the Pacific. During the Cold War, the Americans never accepted Soviet control of Eastern Europe and worked hard to pull its states into Western orbit through intelligence activities, supporting opponents and revolutions against communism there. Accordingly, supporting the creation of spheres of influence runs counter to the basic principles of US foreign policy. Moreover, allowing authoritarian powers like China and Russia to create spheres of influence would hinder the US from spreading the values of democracy and liberalism in those regions, and it would increase the democracy crisis in the world because authoritarian powers will coerce neighbors to adopt their models; Washington would also be deprived of the opportunities of huge East Asian commercial markets in particular. Brands argues that the delineation of spheres of influence between the major powers does not necessarily lead to the separation of competitors and avoiding collision between them, but rather may allow the rising revisionist powers to provoke and seize opportunities to bring about change in the international system, just as occurred in the Cold War when the Soviets did not hesitate to repeatedly test the American red lines, which caused high-risk global crises such as the Cuban nuclear missile crisis. The spheres of influence did not preclude the increasingly intense violence and rivalry between the two powers across the Third World. Moreover, insecurity is not driving the behavior of revisionist powers as Allison claims, but they have limited grievances that can be easily appeased. Ideology and the search for greatness – not insecurity – often lead the behavior of great powers, and revisionist powers also tend to negotiate previous deals simply after they get more power; therefore, concessions to these revisionist powers may simply lead to their conviction that the existing system is a fragile one with red lines that can be tested more by pushing for new claims and even hostile behaviors. For example, if Washington allowed China to control Taiwan, Taiwan would become only a platform for China to launch from to push the US out beyond the islands that extend from Japan to Taiwan to the Philippines and all of the Western Pacific, which would be, in turn, a stepping stone to a larger goal. Nevertheless, the author presents some “reassuring indications” that both Russia and China, despite their advantages and strengths, will not be able to easily create exclusive spheres of influence at present. NATO continues to create a credible deterrent to Russian aggression in eastern Europe, and Russia will suffer a lot in its attempts to annex Ukraine; and it will not be able to become a major foreign power in the Middle East unless the US decides to give up its role there. As for China, it will not be able to control the South China Sea in the way that the US did in the Caribbean Sea before its rise as a world power, simply because China is surrounded by strong neighbors backed by the US, unlike the case of the United States at the end of the 19th century. In sum, the US still has an opportunity to mend its relations with allies in Europe and the Pacific (after Trump hurt them), and it must also realize the difficulty of creating exclusive spheres of influence by Russia and China, unless Washington allows them. This is a very early matter.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Senior Research Associate

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