East/West relations during the Cold War required vigilance and attention to avoid a global war along the lines of the previous two world wars or even a lesser conflict that might involve the exchange of nuclear weapons between the West and the USSR. Spheres of influence between the two sides were established with each side looking for weaknesses to take advantage of on the other side. Secondary and smaller wars were fought between domestic forces aligned with each side in the bi-polar world of the Cold War in Greece, Korea and Vietnam as well as smaller conflicts in different parts of Asia, Africa and South America. With some minor fluctuations, the boundaries of these two different spheres stood until the collapse of the Soviet Union.
A sphere of influence is defined as an area or region over which a state exerts some kind of indirect cultural, economic, military or political domination. A country within the "sphere of influence" of another more powerful country may become a subsidiary of that state and serve in effect as a satellite state or de facto colony. Frequently powerful nations intervene in the affairs of others for the sake of the advantage of the powerful state. The model of “spheres of influence” has been a staple of international relations for centuries and all too often it had been enforced by the use of the military of the dominant power or its proxies.
Discussions about the pros and cons of a world modeled on spheres of influence was completely sidetracked by the issues surrounding states dealing with non-state actors following September 11th. However, the recent invasion of Georgia by Russia has again raised the issue. The realist school of though argues in favor of recognizing Russian dominance in Georgia and the region as within its sphere of influence and thus promoting world stability. Neo-conservatives want to expand the U.S. sphere of influence by contesting the Russian move in some unspecified military action. (Attack Russia? Expansion of NATO all the way to the suburbs of Moscow?)
Surprisingly, there have been some liberals who probably in reaction to the nuttiness of the neo-cons are cozying up to the realists. However, the true liberal tradition has been internationalism that promotes greater economic and political cooperation among nations for the benefit of all. This cooperation is a recognition that nations’ long-term mutual interests are of greater value than their individual short-term needs. And there are right ways and wrong ways to extend one's influence.
Michael Walzer has these thoughts in Dissent:
The Russian invasion of Georgia has brought with it a new discussion of spheres of influence. Understandably, people who call themselves “realists” are now eager to recognize a Russian sphere, which would certainly include Georgia and many other countries from the former Soviet Union. The Russians are able to use military force in Georgia, and no one else is able to do that, so Georgia belongs to them. Realism requires that we acknowledge this, so that we can get on with “business as usual”—which is really business as it used to be, in the old days, when great powers recognized each other’s predominance over the lesser nations.
If this recognition is merely a prudential argument about when to fight and when not to, it has great force. Neither the U.S. nor the EU is going to fight for South Ossetia; nor should they. No nation went to war for Hungary in 1956 or for Czechoslovakia in 1968. Military power has its practical prerogatives, and in those cases, as in this one, Russia had, and has, the greater power.
But military power has no moral prerogatives. Most of the writers who have joined the argument about Georgia understand this, but some of the realists and, strangely, some people on the left seem to think that spheres of influence and the domination they entail are good things: they make for stability and peace (and provide useful limits on American imperialism). David Clark has a thoughtful piece in Democratiya #14 criticizing the right-wing realists and the odd leftists who have either defended the Russian attack or looked for ways of accommodating it, and David Greenberg has a similar piece in the New Republic on liberal writers who in the Bush era have become strangely soft on “realism.” I want to try to sketch a better liberal-left approach to spheres of influence. And the easiest way to do that is to ask what and where the American sphere is.
It obviously doesn’t include Georgia. But just as obviously, on any realist account, it does include Guatemala, Cuba, Nicaragua, and Panama—for starters. And yet, when the U.S. intervened in Guatemala in 1954 to overthrow the Arbenz government, I don’t remember anyone on the left arguing that Guatemala was, after all, in our sphere of influence, and it would be best for global stability and peace if we had our way there. Nor did anyone I know on the left make an argument like that at the time of the Bay of Pigs invasion. And, though I suppose that Chile is a geographic stretch, it has been widely thought (since the Monroe Doctrine) to lie within our sphere, and yet only right-wing cold warriors argued that the overthrow of Salvador Allende was a legitimate exercise of our “influence.” Liberals and leftists alike were rightly critical of political exercises of that sort.
Nonetheless, influence is a normal feature of political life. We all try to be as influential as possible. So how should influence work? When is it legitimate? There is a Marxist argument about this in the Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts, which starts from everyday social life. Assume, Marx writes, that our relation to the world is a “human” relation: “Then love can only be exchanged for love, trust for trust...If you wish to enjoy art, you must be an artistically cultivated person; if you wish to influence other people, you must be a person who really has a stimulating and encouraging effect upon others.” I suggest that the case is the same with political parties, social movements, all sorts of NGOs, and with states, too. If they want to influence people in other countries, they must be stimulating and encouraging, which means materially helpful, politically supportive, ideologically persuasive. What is ruled out by the idea of “human” relations is military force, coercion, manipulation, and subversion. Barring those four, influence isn’t limited to a regional sphere—any person, any party or movement, any state can be influential anywhere.
So if democratic states in western Europe, say, provide ideological support, political encouragement, and material assistance first to new democrats and then to new democracies in eastern Europe, this isn’t imperial politics. It is an attempt at influence, indeed, but it isn’t the creation of an old-fashioned sphere of influence. The expansion of NATO is a harder question, and I am not going to address it here. But support and encouragement for the “color revolutions” in Georgia and Ukraine fit Marx’s account of how influence ought to work—while the U.S. instigation of a Guatemalan coup obviously doesn’t.
If Russia wants to be influential in Georgia, then, it has to be helpful and persuasive to the Georgians. There is no other way—that, it seems to me, is the liberal and left position. Realists may be eager to recognize the kind of influence that is a function only of military power, and political leaders may have to adapt to that kind of influence, at least for a time. But we liberals and leftists cannot accept this as morally right or politically conclusive. Our parties and movements should be active in other countries—building unions, training political activists, strengthening democratic institutions. We should work to undo imperial influence and foster “human” influence wherever we can, whether it is in the Caucasus, eastern Europe, or Central and South America. That work, indeed, should define what we mean when we call ourselves “internationalists.”