Tensions between the West and Russia remain high, with Russia stationing upwards of 100,000 troops, including tanks and heavy weaponry, near Ukraine’s borders. Responding to the idea that Russia may be planning a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken recently claimed that “one country does not have the right to exert a sphere of influence. That notion should be relegated to the dustbin of history.”
As America’s top diplomat, Blinken surely understands that spheres of influence, or the ability to exert political, economic, and military control over a particular geographical area, have always existed in international politics. In fact, the United States enjoys arguably the largest sphere of influence in history via its control of the entire western hemisphere. It also exerts significant influence across most of Europe, the Middle East, and Northeast Asia. What Blinken and the broader U.S. foreign-policy establishment actually object to is the end of the era of American global primacy.
For the last 30 years, the United States has been able to act with impunity around the world, forcing other nations to play by Washington’s rules or suffer consequences that range from sanctions to regime-change wars. That is no longer the case. Two other great powers have emerged: Russia and China. Both seek to challenge the U.S.-led international order by establishing and strengthening their own spheres of influence. This dynamic is set to shape 21st century geopolitics. The United States should therefore prudently examine its own history and relearn how to best ensure American security in a world with multiple great powers.
From 1947 to 1991 the world was divided into two spheres of influence—the U.S.-led Western Bloc and the Soviet-led Eastern Bloc. For the most part, U.S. and Soviet leadership understood this reality and respected each other’s spheres of influence by not meddling in them directly. The United States did not send forces to support the Hungarian Revolution in 1956 or the Prague Spring of 1968. U.S. leaders understood that intervening would risk direct conflict with the Soviet Union, and they wisely exhibited restraint. When the Soviet Union violated the U.S. sphere of influence in 1962 by deploying nuclear missiles to Cuba, the world was brought to the brink of nuclear armageddon.
Following the dissolution of the Soviet Union, U.S. officials were quick to forget these lessons and declare spheres of influence obsolete. In 1997, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Madeline Albright stated, “let us all work for the day when we will see a Europe fully liberated from spheres of influence and artificial division.” Moreover, in response to Russia’s 2008 invasion of Georgia, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice declared that the United States would “resist any Russian attempts to consign sovereign nations and free peoples to some archaic sphere of influence.” These were easy statements to make at the time because no other great power existed in the international system.
The illusion of post-Cold War U.S. officials was shattered by Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine. The conflict, which has tragically claimed 14,000 lives, is fundamentally about whether Ukraine should fall under a Russian or a Western sphere of influence. As Ukraine looked more likely to align itself with the European Union and NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the annexation of Crimea and supported pro-Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine. Russian demands for Western security guarantees precluding further NATO expansion and the deployment of certain types of weapons in ex-Soviet states were firmly rejected by Washington in recent talks.
In December, U.S. President Joe Biden ruled out sending American troops to Ukraine—a clear signal that he does not ultimately view Ukraine’s status as a core U.S. interest. By nature of its geography and demographics, Ukraine was always going to fall into a Russian sphere of influence. Accepting that reality could likely have prevented eight years of conflict that has destabilized relations between the world’s two nuclear superpowers and brought immense human suffering to Ukrainians.
A failure to resolve the Ukraine crisis diplomatically has led to an escalation of dangerous rhetoric. Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov recently went as far as threatening the deployment of military forces to Cuba and Venezuela. Responding to the threat, U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that “if Russia were to move in that direction, we would deal with it decisively.” Sullivan’s response is a de facto admission that such a move would violate the U.S. sphere of influence.
U.S. leaders have a responsibility to the American people to pursue a foreign policy based on reality, not naïve idealism. Acknowledging spheres of influence as a basic tenant of geopolitics is a good start.
Sascha Glaeser is a Research Associate at Defense Priorities. He focuses on U.S. grand strategy, international security, and transatlantic relations. He holds a Master of International Public Affairs and a Bachelor's in International Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The views expressed are the author's own.