Are great powers and spheres of influence the future?
Last week, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said that “Russia may think that it’s gained a sphere of influence” in Syria, noting that, due to Russian support, Bashar Assad will likely rule Syria for some time.
President Vladimir Putin is working hard to reassert control over what he sees as Russia’s rightful sphere of influence — the countries that previously were part of the Soviet Union, with some possible modifications. Meanwhile, China is taking actions to reinforce its claim to the South China Sea and is using its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), among other foreign policy and trade tools, to extend its influence through Asia. With US interest in playing its traditional global role fading, it is a good time to ask whether the world is experiencing a transition to a new global order based on great power competition and spheres of influence.
The Second World War marked the end of the previous global order and the start of our current one. The war drained or destroyed the militaries, infrastructure and economies of many of the world’s powers — including Great Britain, France, Italy, Russia, China and Japan — and effectively marked the end of colonialism.
That widespread collapse created an opportunity for the US to create a new world order, based on multilateral institutions, new rules and norms, and the promotion of capitalism and democracy. It clearly served US interests and its results varied in different places but, on the whole, it created significant progress in improving peace, prosperity and health around much of the world. The Cold War limited the expansion of the US-led global order, but the fall of the Soviet Union eliminated the primary competition to the ideas underpinning the post-Second World War system.
Today, however, this global order is under significant pressure — undermined by the rise of anti-globalization populism, assertive Russian moves to weaken the system and multiple other factors. China does not seek to overturn the system but wants to reshape it in ways that serve Beijing’s interests. The American public is weary of the responsibility that comes with global leadership, and President Donald Trump has no interest in defending the global order.
The post-war global system is fracturing but is not yet gone. It still might recover, yet it is natural to wonder if the world is experiencing a transition to a new type of global order.
It is natural to wonder if the world is experiencing a transition to a new type of global order.
Kerry Boyd Anderson
Could a new order be based on competition between a few great powers and the creation of spheres of influence around them? Spheres of influence are areas of territory over which a powerful state has the ability to dominate territories or countries’ foreign and domestic policy, usually without formal or explicitly direct control. Typically, other great powers recognize the sphere of influence, though they might try to chip away at it.
There are some reasons to believe that we may be shifting to a great powers model. The world has gradually been transitioning toward a multipolar system, in which power is concentrated in several states rather than just one or two. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and invasions of Ukraine and Georgia have demonstrated an inability or unwillingness by world leaders to enforce the norm of state sovereignty. Through its BRI and a mixture of economic, diplomatic and military might, China has gained greater influence in parts of Asia.
Despite some US efforts to impose consequences for Russia’s behavior and to block Chinese control of the South China Sea, Trump personally has no interest in defending the current order and has limited interest in containing Russian and Chinese influence. For example, the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations meant rejecting a key tool for blocking the expansion of China’s sphere of influence, while the withdrawal of US troops from Syria cedes influence to Russia.
However, there are many indications that the world is not moving to a new era of great power competition with spheres of influence. While Russia and China might both want that type of system, it is unlikely to work unless the US and possibly Western Europe also choose to play that game. Washington is not taking any actions to establish its own sphere of influence; rather, the Trump administration has damaged relationships with Western Europe, Canada and Mexico — the areas where the US could most readily develop a sphere of influence.
Furthermore, it is likely that major powers today would find it more difficult to dominate smaller countries. The post-Second World War norm of state sovereignty remains strong, despite some weak points. Furthermore, modern economics and technology have reduced the massive power disparities that facilitated great power dominance in the past. Smaller states have more tools with which to push back on encroaching powers, and they have the option to try to band together in defense. Furthermore, a diffusion of power around the world might mean that many regional powers try to establish their own small spheres of influence, making it more difficult for great powers to dominate.
When living through history, it is difficult to see if we are experiencing the end of one system and the creation of another. Without a worldwide war or economic collapse, any transition will likely be gradual. If a new form of great power competition is emerging, it will be different from those of the past, shaped by modern economic and technological realities.
• Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch