Monday, June 24, 2024
HomeGlobal Perspective & Critical ResearchThe Persistence of Great-Power Politics: What the War in Ukraine has Revealed...

The Persistence of Great-Power Politics: What the War in Ukraine has Revealed about Geopolitical Rivalry

Author: Emma Ashford 

Affiliation: Georgetown University and the Reimagining US Grand Strategy Program at Stimson Center

Organization/Publisher: Foreign Affairs 

Date/Place: February 20, 2023/ USA

Type of Literature: Journal Article  

Word Count: 2941



Keywords: The War in Ukraine, Spheres of Influence, the Return of Power Politics, American Delusions of Triumph, Geopolitical Rivalry between Great Powers 




Emma Ashford is a prominent advocate for a more defensive realist and restrained approach to American foreign policy. She is known as one of the leading critics of liberal internationalist US foreign policy. In the context of this article, the author argues that recent US foreign policy decisions related to maintaining peace in Europe have been a failure, as evidenced by the outbreak of the war in Ukraine and Washington’s inability to deter the Russian invasion. According to Ashford, this failure can be attributed to the persistent delusions of success and victory among US foreign policy elites, particularly during the Biden administration.


The article is divided into three parts. The first part diagnoses the failure points of Washington’s policies and the reasons behind them. The author points out that assessments praising the Biden administration’s response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine often overlook the mismatch between the administration’s statements before the invasion and its response afterward. While the administration initially emphasized its commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty, its tone changed after the invasion, indicating that it would not directly involve itself in the fighting. Thus, the American response has become handcuffed and content with participating in the war by imposing sanctions and providing aid and intelligence support. 

Although avoiding a direct nuclear clash with Russia is the right option, the author questions why alternative policy options were not developed to prevent the war, considering that the US administration was aware of the possibility of an invasion and its decision not to directly intervene. Why Washington didn’t, for example, freeze Ukraine’s membership process to join the NATO, and why it continues to play such a weak role hoping to deter Russia?

This failure is attributed to the dominance of the delusion of American primacy among decision-makers, as accepting the failure to defend Ukraine would have negative implications for American power in an era of increasing rivalry. Although the American foreign policy elites realized that the issue of Ukraine and Georgia’s membership in NATO was more a matter of aspirations than a practical reality, they were not ready to admit this fact before and after the invasion, making it clear that they would not discuss with Russia the open-door policy for countries wishing to join the NATO. “But it would take a truly blinkered view of the region to argue that the inflexible policies pursued by U.S. policymakers in eastern Europe over the last few decades played no role at all in the run-up to the war”, the author says, regardless of Putin’s impulses towards his western neighborhood. Therefore, the author believes that Washington’s unwillingness to contemplate the possibility of any alternative path for Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other countries contributed to the occurrence of toxic political conflicts, the increase of security fears, and imperial ambitions, which eventually dragged the region into war. Whatever the results of this war will be, everything that happened is considered a policy failure.


In the second part, Ashford argues that the war in Ukraine signifies the return of old geopolitical rivalries and the struggle for spheres of influence, where coercive force prevails over shared values. 

The author also shows the catastrophe that could ensue if US policymakers were unable to put aside the old unipolar mentality and recognize that the world has become more multipolar and that rising powers have their own spheres of influence. The author asserts that rising powers like Russia and China are asserting their own interests, overlapping with the Western spheres of influence. 

The article emphasizes that spheres of influence do not necessarily lead to direct collisions between great powers; agreements can be reached to define respective spheres of influence and avoid unnecessary conflicts. Ashford points out, as an example, the Entente agreement between England and Russia in 1907 regarding the clear delineation of the spheres of Influence between the two powers in Persian Iran, which spared both an unnecessary war. 

The author challenges commentators who dismiss the relevance of spheres of influence. They claim that the world has moved beyond such outdated imperial ideas and has moved towards a more enlightened era. Ashford states that they are aware of the decline of American primacy and the changing dynamics of global conflict. She, also, reminds them that the United States itself continued to see the whole world, after the fall of the Soviet Union, as its own pure sphere of influence, and it acted in this way over the past decades, affirming its ambitions and global supremacy.

Furthermore, the article criticizes the US refusal to recognize Russia’s sphere of influence in Eastern Europe, highlighting the need to consider the interests and calculations of other powers.


The final part of the article provides recommendations for US policymakers in a world characterized by zero-sum competition among great powers and the struggle for spheres of influence. The author argues that the Ukrainian war exposed the limits of American power in deterring other actors through non-military means. 

It cautions against repeating failed strategies in other conflict zones, particularly Taiwan, due to the risks and costs involved, especially with the growing determination shown by Beijing to achieve unity with the island. In this regard, Ashford criticizes the continuation of the current US policymakers in tampering with the idea of shifting from the policy of ambiguity adopted by the US administration as a long-term policy, to the adoption of a firm stance by providing open military support to Taiwan, despite the clarifications of military experts that all the conducted war games show that adopting such an option would be disastrous for the United States.

The article suggests supporting small countries, especially allies, with military and financial aid while carefully managing the larger power in their neighborhood to prevent broader wars. This approach, referred to as the “porcupine strategy,” aims to make small states unappealing targets for larger neighbors, ultimately preventing conflicts.


In conclusion, the article highlights the failure of recent US foreign policy in maintaining peace in Europe, particularly during the war in Ukraine. It underscores the need to recognize and address the return of geopolitical rivalries and the struggle for spheres of influence. The author advocates for a more restrained and realistic approach to American foreign policy, urging policymakers to learn from past failures and adopt strategies that avoid costly conflicts while safeguarding the interests of small countries.

By: Djallel Khechib, CIGA Research Fellow



Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

- Advertisment -
Google search engine

Most Popular