Spheres of Influence: Past or Hot Reality?

Spheres of interest or influence sound like a vocabulary of the Cold War, but the world has been working on their principle for centuries. And they will not disappear by hypocritically denying their existence. How do spheres of influence work today and how have they contributed to the current tragedy in Ukraine?

The brutality with which President Putin decided to address the Ukrainian question surprised most observers, including the author of these lines. We should be able to learn from the Ukrainian tragedy. But not from the Hawks, who refuse to seek any compromise with an adversary like the new Munich. Do they and Putin not be responsible for the current suffering of the Ukrainians? It won't help us too much to call Putin a criminal, because he grossly violated international standards or a lunatic, because his attack on Ukraine does not pay off economically. Similar condemnations would be valid if we applied them to some of our allies.

But even then, they would not help us understand the reality of power and the associated struggle for space. International politics cannot be reduced to projects, norms and values shared by the international community, as progressives believe, nor to international trade, as economic pragmatists believe. The distribution of power also does not allow us to ignore all Russian demands, as the Hawks advise. The progressives are the furthest away from reality. Some believe that Putin has attacked Ukraine to divert attention from climate issues, others would exclude Russia from the Security Council, while others keep repeating the mantra of Ukrainians' sovereign right to choose an alliance without being able to guarantee that right.

Pragmatists have a sense of reality. However, they forget that relations between states are primarily strategic, even secondarily economic, that weapons have a different function than being only bought and sold, and that the military is different from firefighters, paramedics or police. It is not primarily there to assist in natural disasters and pandemics or to undertake post-colonial counter-terrorist expeditions, but to defend the area of national interest, which, for a superpower, includes not only the domestic territory but also its sphere of influence.

Modern states were formed during the 16th and 17th centuries as war machines. Above all, each of them seeks to secure and expand a space where it can safely fulfill its economic and civilizational interests. At the same time, they necessarily collide. In order not to be exhausted by eternal wars, in addition to standing armies, they also create institutions and mechanisms that minimize war destruction. They recognize each other's sovereignty in both internal affairs and external spheres of influence, closely monitor the international distribution of power, respond to its shifts and negotiate intensively. They create a world that is not particularly kind or just. Sovereignty is granted only to great powers that can defend it militarily. The remaining ones are doomed to dependence on one of the great powers, absorption or risky balancing. But as long as this world works, it protects everyone from the destruction of total war.

The Habsburgs, the Hohenzollerns, the Bourbons and the English once divided the influence of hundreds of German states; the Austrian, the French and the Spaniards dealt with Italian affairs; and the rulers of Vienna, Constantinople and St. Petersburg shared the Balkans. Following the same pattern in the 19th century, European powers and Americans divided the world. The weaker suffered; Poland was shared by three neighboring predators, while European, American and Japanese imperialists will pounce on declining China. Even the great powers clashed at times when an ambitious player tested whether others could defend their sphere of influence. Such wars used to be short and destruction limited. Until the new German power twice launched a total war to conquer territory commensurate with its military and economic power; Europe and its world did not have a stone unturned.

The winners have returned to proven politics. Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt shared Germany and the spheres of influence in Europe and start the Cold War. Both the USSR and the US were constantly testing proxy wars in Korea, Vietnam and Afghanistan, but they are also careful that their soldiers never clash directly. They do not interfere in the spheres militarily. The Americans have no reason to react militarily to Soviet interventions in Hungary or Czechoslovakia, and the Soviets let American coups against left-wing governments in Iran and Chile. They reach the brink of total war when Khrushchev tries to install nuclear missiles in Cuba, at the heart of the American sphere of influence. He has to back down and the angry Politburo eventually overthrows him.

The Cold War superpower peace suits both Moscow and Washington, but suppresses smaller states and provokes regional conflicts. No wonder Czech dissidents dream of a better world. In the mid-1980s, they accepted the Prague Challenge, which calls for the dissolution of the Warsaw Pact and NATO, for a free, democratic Europe, for a common world of friendship and cooperation. In 1989, reality seems to have caught up with their utopia. Soviet leader Gorbachev talks about a common European house from the Atlantic to Vladivostok and gives up the sphere of influence in Central Europe. However, when Vaclav Havel arrives in Washington as a recent president, he is instructed by President Bush that, unlike the Russians, the United States does not intend to give up its influence in Europe and certainly does not welcome proposals to dissolve NATO.

Havel quickly adapts and helps to formulate a new perspective corresponding to the victorious intoxication of the West. The ideal of one world of friendship and cooperation remains, but the path is changing. It is no longer a question of dissolving spheres of influence and building a new order together, but of expanding the American sphere of influence globally, according to American ideas and conditions. The original idealistic rhetoric with Havel's pathos hypocritically masks traditional power practices. It is still an attractive alternative for Central Europe. It records the collapse of the USSR leading to chaos. Russia's new democracy is only a mask of jungle, disruption and humiliation; this is not only stated by Putin; his opponent, the nobelist Svetlana Alexievich, mercilessly captures it in the Second Hand Period.

In the 1990s, Russian officials showed that they wanted to be equal to the West, but that, unlike Germany, Japan, the United Kingdom and Central Europe, they would be more than just American vassals. Vladimir Putin first adhered to this line. Americans usually listened politely, reassured themselves of their deep respect, learned about human rights, and occasionally signed a check. But even in a dream, they wouldn't take them seriously. They bombed Serbia, Iraq, Libya and Syria against the interests of Moscow and mostly against international law, and established their governments in Ukraine and Georgia. They acted like a traditional power that disguises its interest in power with noble rhetoric, and in the end they believed the rhetoric themselves. They expanded their influence until they encountered a counter-force.

At first they were Islamists in the deserts of Iraq and the mountains of Afghanistan. Since the end of the first decade of our century, another opposition has become Russia, which has partially restored its superpower status. It cut off Western support for "civil society" seeking regime change and modernized its military. It has repeatedly stated that it does not intend to give up influence in favor of Washington in Belarus, Ukraine, the Caucasus or Central Asia. The West responded with phrases about democracy and sovereignty, concepts it only recognized when it suited it. Instead of a superpower agreement with Russia, it tested its willingness to compete for Georgia or Ukraine. Then Russia began testing and got the impression that, in the West, there was a lack of will and strength for a real duel. These are the roots of today's Ukrainian tragedy.

Instead of trying to convince Ukraine with an attractive offer, Russia bet on brutality. With the invasion, Putin has taken a very risky move that can destroy him if he fails. But he can also succeed. Whatever the outcome, his policy will not do us any good. So let's take at least two lessons. The spheres of influence will not disappear if we stop talking about them or hypocritically deny them. An agreement between the great powers is not fair, but if it minimizes violence and injustice, it is a better alternative than their war.