Are the politics of spheres of influence returning? The visit of President Obama to Cuba was heralded as the opening of new relations between the two countries, relations that had been blocked since the United States imposed a trade embargo in 1960 and severed diplomatic ties in 1961. Obama’s visit was applauded from a diplomatic perspective. But looking from another perspective, it could also mean the re-emergence of an American sphere of influence in Latin America. With rising Russian influence in Moldova, Georgia and Ukraine, are we witnessing a return to major powers’ exertion of spheres of influence in their neighborhoods?
The concept of sphere of influence is not hard to understand. U.S. President James Monroe proposed in his 1823 message to Congress that “the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers…We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and security.”
The Monroe Doctrine established the United States’ clear sphere of influence in the Americas. While the countries in the hemisphere were certainly independent, sovereign and autonomous, there were obvious limits set to what they could do, as the Cuban government found out in the October 1962 missile crisis.
The message of President Monroe also included reference to the fact that the “Russian Imperial Government” had negotiated with the United States “the respective rights and interests of the two nations on the northwest coast of this continent.” The concept of sphere of influence was not just American, although Nikita Khrushchev conveniently forgot this historical document when he sent nuclear weapons into the U.S. sphere in 1962.
From the Soviet perspective, their sphere of influence was established and generally accepted during the Cold War era, as the Hungarians discovered in 1956 and the Czechs in 1968. With the collapse of the Soviet Union, the establishment of a new sphere of influence of the Russian Federation has been somewhat similar, although less dramatic than tanks in the streets of Budapest and Prague.
The 2008 war between Russia and Georgia over South Ossetia and Abkhazia, the annexation of Crimea, and the destabilization of Eastern Ukraine can all be seen as the establishment of new spheres of influence of Russia, or what it calls the “near abroad.”
We certainly know that sovereign countries technically have the right to make their own external relations decisions. That’s what sovereignty entails. But, pragmatically, for example, it would be impossible for Mexico or Canada to join a Russian Federation dominated defense alliance. This pragmatic realization explains the reaction of Russia to the Bucharest Summit Declaration in 2008 that one day Ukraine and Georgia would join NATO. Granted that Ukraine and Georgia are independent countries, but their freedom of choice is realistically limited by their geographic position, just as are the choices of Canada and Mexico.
Major powers have to learn to negotiate spheres of influence. Violent clashes occur when countries are no longer able to negotiate and respect mutual spheres, such as the new borders of the Russian Federation with the collapse of the Soviet Union or the disputed islands in the South China Sea. These are both territorial conflicts as well as sphere of influence disputes.
The concept of sphere of influence is anathema to those who believe in the equality of nations and absolute sovereignty. Similar arguments can be made in terms of a greater role for the United Nations General Assembly where each country has an equal vote as opposed to the Security Council where the five major powers have veto power.
The visit of President Obama to Cuba could be a return to major power politics, to a greater acceptance of regional domination by major powers. Are Western countries complaining about Crimea’s annexation? Why not? Is Russia complaining about Obama’s visit to Cuba? Why not? Is this all recognition that with international cooperation needed to solve problems such as the Syrian civil war, mass migration and Daech, the major powers will no longer contest their respective spheres of influence?