Spheres of Influence, Conquest, and Militarism: The World in the 21st Century


Russian Special Operations Forces photo from 27 February Special Operations Forces Day, 2016*

After WWII, the world was divided into so-called "spheres of influence" between "East" (led by the USSR) and "West" (led by the USA). The "East" extended as far as Yugoslavia, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and the German Democratic Republic in Europe and as far as North Korea, China, and (at first North) Vietnam in Asia. There were battles for influence and control between East and West in Africa and Central and South America. Some states, like India, managed to remain unaligned, but the spheres enveloped vast swathes of worldwide territory. In time, the contours of these spheres hardened, and something like "stability" set in after Vietnam and the US's opening to China. The US and USSR knew what actions and territories were off limits and the risk of direct conflict between them declined.

The period after the Cold War has been called the US's "unipolar moment". Spheres of influence seemed to dissipate, and for a brief time, it appeared there was a global consensus towards free markets and democracy. There is disagreement about exactly when this unipolar moment ended. Many have suggested it was at some point during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others suggest it was when Biden hurriedly pulled out of Afghanistan. Unipolarity has eroded slowly and it's hard to pinpoint a date, but Russia's invasion of Ukraine makes it is safe to say it is over now.

Spheres of influence are back. What's next?

First and foremost, the return of spheres of influence means renewed projection of power and competition for control in a radius around regional powers like Russia, Saudi Arabia, Iran, and India, as well as around the world’s rising superpower: China. This means continued conflicts in the Middle East as the various states and factions there vie for power and security. In Asia, it means a continuing expansion of Chinese power and influence. States there will need to tread carefully to avoid being trampled. Renewed and accelerated nuclear proliferation there and in the Middle East is likely as countries sense that the US's "nuclear umbrella" no longer affords the necessary protection. Invasion of Taiwan and an attempt to formally incorporate it into the People's Republic of China is all but certain—timing is the only question.

The US and its allies will have to think hard about interests, alliances, and red lines. On red lines, two questions are key and each impacts the other: Over what are the US and its allies willing to go to war if it comes to it? And what defense commitments are realistic? Deterring aggression against, say, South Korea, Japan, or the Baltic states means clearly committing to those states' defense in actions as well as words—meaning US and allied troops must be/remain in the path of invasion to ensure that any attack on one ally is an attack on all.

Managing a world of spheres

Deterrence isn't just about tough stances, however. It's also about deciding what not to do. Any alleged commitment to something that Russia or China care much more about is a commitment that won't be kept and should not be fought over. The lesson from the Cold War is that the US and USSR eventually understood each others' red lines well and knew what could and could not be achieved. Battles, whether physical, financial, or diplomatic, were fought in the gray areas, but these areas were gray because they mattered less to either side—not because either side made foolish commitments to them.

As spheres of influence, conquest, and militarism return, the best the world can hope for is that an uneasy stability can set in when the major powers all come to understand the limits of each others' spheres sooner rather than later. It took decades for the US and USSR, and the world was in many ways simpler back then. History suggests we are therefore in for an extended era of instability, uncertainty, and violence. Clear, unified, and realistic thinking within the US and among its allies are required to navigate these waters. Here's hoping the invasion of Ukraine has underscored this for the bickering and rudderless factions within the West.

*This file comes from the websites (mil.ru, минобороны.рф) of the Ministry of Defence of the Russian Federation and is copyrighted. This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.


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