- Accepting Spheres of Influence in the 21st Century
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- The United States must resist a return to spheres of interest in the international system
This study further connects the English School tradition, post-war international order, the Cold War and images of Russia with the concept of the sphere of influence to initiate debate and provide a fresh outlook on a concept which has little recent attention. Her insightful analysis succeeds admirably in disentangling a complex of ideas while remaining fully attentive to their historical evolution.
In one stroke she has resurrected what appeared to be a dead and buried topic. Against a disturbingly unchallenged common sense, Susanna Hast has elegantly brought to life the forgotten intellectual history of the concept and practice of spheres of influences in international relations and, at the same time, rightly argued that its normative core may still be very much relevant for the future of world order. Dr Susanna Hast received her doctorate from the University of Lapland in and specialises in International Relations, especially English School theory, Russian foreign policy, politics of emotions, and peace and conflict studies.
She currently pursues post-doctoral research as a visiting fellow at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies in Geneva. Her most recent research topic is concerned with compassion and violence in Russian-Chechen relations.
Accepting Spheres of Influence in the 21st Century
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Russia faces no threat of invasion from the West. Who would launch such an invasion? Germany, Estonia, Ukraine?
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If Russia faces threats, they are from the south, in the form of militant Islamists, or from the east, in the form of a billion Chinese standing across the border from an empty Siberia. Much the same can be said of China, which enjoys far greater security than it has at any time in the last three centuries.
The Nanjing Atrocities | Map: Spheres of Influence (1850-1914)
Therefore, neither Chinese nor Russians can claim that a sphere of influence is necessary for their defense. They may feel it necessary for their sense of pride. They may feel it is necessary as a way of restoring their wounded honor. They may seek an expanded sphere of influence to fulfill their ambition to become more formidable powers on the international stage. And they may have concerns that free, nations on their periphery may pass the liberal infection onto their own populaces and thus undermine their autocratic power.
The question for the United States, and its allies in Asia and Europe, is whether we should tolerate a return to sphere of influence behavior among regional powers that are not seeking security but are in search of status, powers that are acting less out of fear than out of ambition. But before we get to issues of principle, we need to understand how such behavior affects the world in terms of basic stability. On that score, the historical record is very clear. To return to a world of spheres of influence—the world that existed prior to the era of American predominance—is to return to the great power conflicts of past centuries.
Revisionist great powers are never satisfied. Their sphere of influence is never quite large enough to satisfy their pride or their expanding need for security. Of course, rising great powers always express some historical grievance.
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Every people, except perhaps for the fortunate Americans, have reason for resentment at ancient injustices, nurse grudges against old adversaries, seek to return to a glorious past that was stolen from them by military or political defeat. These grievances, however, are rarely solved by minor border changes. Germany, the aggrieved victim of Versailles, did not satisfy itself by bringing the Germans of the Sudetenland back into the fold. It begins in Ukraine. It extends to the Balts, to the Balkans, and to heart of Central Europe.
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The tragic irony is that, in the process of carving out these spheres of influence, the ambitious rising powers invariably create the very threats they use to justify their actions. Japan did exactly that in the 30s. In the s, following the Washington Naval Treaty, Japan was a relatively secure country that through a combination of ambition and paranoia launched itself on a quest for an expanded sphere of influence, thus inspiring the great power enmity that the Japanese had originally feared.
The United States must resist a return to spheres of interest in the international system
No one in the West was thinking about containing Russia until Russia made itself into a power that needed to be contained. If history is any lesson, such behavior only ends when other great powers decide they have had enough. We know those moments as major power wars. The best and easiest time to stop such a dynamic is at the beginning. If the United States wants to maintain a benevolent world order, it must not permit spheres of influence to serve as a pretext for aggression. The United States needs to make clear now—before things get out of hand—that this is not a world order that it will accept.
And we need to be clear what that response entails. Great powers of course compete across multiple spheres—economic, ideological, and political, as well as military. Competition in most spheres is necessary and even healthy.