Abandoning the Liberal International Order for a Spheres-of-Influence World is a Trap for America and its Allies
The liberal world order is under assault. Polls suggest an American ambivalence about upholding the rules-based global system. Populists are besieging governing elites in the West while Russia works strategically to destabilize European and American governments through propaganda and proxies. A rising China wants to create a global system that is not U.S.-centric, one in which smaller powers defer to bigger ones and norms of democracy and rule of law do not prevail. Meanwhile, the U.S. alliance system looks adrift while competitors in China and Russia appear to be on the march.
If it holds, this trend could produce a spheres-of-influence world — which many, including the current presidents of the United States, China, and Russia, find intuitively attractive. But were such an order to replace one based on global integration and American leadership in the geopolitical cockpits of Europe and Asia, it would only engender insecurity and conflict.
In a spheres-of-influence world, great powers order their regions. The United States would go back to a “Monroe Doctrine” version of grand strategy; Russia would dominate the former Soviet space; China would govern East Asia, and India South Asia. The problem with this kind of order, however, is several-fold.
Too many spheres overlap in ways that would generate conflict rather than clean lines of responsibility. Japan would oppose Chinese suzerainty in East Asia, including by developing nuclear weapons; India and China would compete vigorously in Southeast Asia; Russia and China would contest the resources and loyalties of Central Asia; Europe and Russia would clash over primacy of Central and Eastern Europe. The Middle East would be an even more likely arena for hot war between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and Turkey would contest regions also claimed by Russia, Europe, and possibly China.
Russia, like the Soviet Empire before it, would keep pushing west until it met enough hard power to stop it.
A spheres of influence world would also sharpen great power competition outside of each region. Regional hegemony is a springboard for global contestation. China would be more likely to challenge the United States out-of-area if it had subdued strategic competition in its own region. Russia, like the Soviet Empire before it, would keep pushing west until it met enough hard power to stop it. (The fact that Russian troops marched through Paris during the Napoleonic Wars demonstrates that the limits of Russian power need not be confined to the former Warsaw Pact).
American leaders have long understood that a “Fortress America” approach is a source of national insecurity. Franklin Roosevelt made this case in a series of “fireside chats” in the run-up to America’s participation in World War II — even before the advent of the far more sophisticated power-projection technologies that exist today. Roosevelt and his generals well understood that the United States could not be safe if hostile powers controlled Europe and Asia, despite the wide oceans separating North America from both theaters.
A spheres-of-influence world would also crack up the integrated global economy that underlies the miracle in human welfare that has lifted billions out of poverty in past decades. It would replicate the exclusive economic blocs of the 1930s, including an East Asia “co-prosperity sphere,” seeding conflict and undercutting prosperity.
A real-world and real-time example of what happens when American power retreats in an effort to encourage regional powers to solve their own problems is the mess in Syria. It has produced the greatest refugee crisis since 1945 — a stain on the consciousness of human civilization — and has led many to conclude that the Middle Eastern order of states dating to the end of World War 1 is collapsing.
President Obama pursued an express policy of retracting American military power from the Middle East, including withdrawing all troops from Iraq and refusing to intervene militarily when President Assad used chemical weapons against his own people, despite a red-line injunction from the United States not to do so. Obama and his White House political advisors believed that American withdrawal from the Arab Middle East (if not from the ironclad U.S. commitment to Israel) would lead a new balance of power to form, one policed by regional powers rather than by America.
This flawed, amoral, and un-strategic approach has led to a series of hot wars — in Syria, Iraq, and Yemen — the collapse of Arab allies’ confidence in the United States as an ally, as well as an intensified cold war with Iran. Despite the international agreement freezing Iran’s nuclear program, Iran’s support for terrorism and hostile insurgencies targeting American allies across its region actually intensified during this period.
A spheres-of-influence world leaves weaker states to become the victims of stronger or more aggressive ones, and it seeds insecurity by removing the reassuring variable of American military guarantees and presence
This experience underlines a core problem with a spheres-of-influence world. It leaves weaker states to become the victims of stronger or more aggressive ones, and it seeds insecurity by removing the reassuring variable of American military guarantees and presence. It emboldens American adversaries and leads American allies to take self-help measures that themselves may undercut American security interests.
A spheres-of-influence world would also produce contestation of the open global commons that are the basis for the unprecedented prosperity produced by the liberal international economic order. Should the Indian and Pacific Oceans, or the Arctic and Mediterranean Seas, become arenas of great-power conflict (like the South China Sea already has thanks to China’s militarization and unilateral assertion of sovereignty over it) as leading states seek to incorporate them into their privileged zones of control, economic globalization would collapse, harming the economies of every major power.
The United States, because of its sheer power and resource base as well as its relative geographical isolation, might do OK in a spheres-of-influence world. Most of America’s friends and allies would not. Their weakening and insecurity would in turn render the United States weaker and more insecure — since U.S. allies are force-multipliers for American hard and soft power, and since norms like freedom of the global commons are in fact underwritten by that power.
More broadly, such a transition would also likely lead to the kind of hot wars that reorder the international balance of power, including by incentivizing aggressive states to push out and assert regional dominion, knowing that America does not have the will or interest to oppose them.
The fact that U.S. competitors such as Russia, China, and Iran — all of whom want to weaken the American-led world order — would welcome a spheres-of-influence world is another reason for Americans to oppose it. It would also be ironic if the United States were to back away from its historic commitment to shaping a world that is an idealized vision of America itself — one ruled by laws, norms, institutions, markets, and peaceful settlement of disputes.
This is an installment in a new Medium publication called Out of Order. Follow us for more analysis on the liberal international order and the forces challenging it.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.