This transcript appears in the March 4, 2022 issue of Executive Intelligence Review.
The Validity of the Concept of Spheres of Influence
The following is the edited transcript of the presentation by Graham Fuller to Panel 2 of the Schiller Institute conference, “100 Seconds to Midnight on the Doomsday Clock: We Need a New Security Architecture!” on February 19, 2022. Mr. Fuller was a vice chairman of the National Intelligence Council at the CIA and a CIA operations officer for 25 years; he is the author of numerous books.
Thank you for the opportunity to join this conference and discussion of a new international order. Of course, questions of international orders have been discussed for decades if not centuries to try to tamp down war among various states and powers. And there has been, in some sense, some progress in that after World War I, we had the League of Nations, and then indeed following World War II, we’ve had the United Nations, which was a very significant improvement over the rather shakier architecture of the League of Nations.
The issue that I’d like particularly to talk about here today, comes up in connection with the problem of spheres of influence of great powers. I don’t know when the term was first used by Washington in reference to Russian policy towards Ukraine, but in any case, I think it’s been commonly addressed that Russia considers Ukraine part of its traditional sphere of influence. Now, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken was very quick to say that this is nonsense, that there’s no such thing as spheres of influence anymore, that’s passé, that’s old-think, we don’t do that anymore, that’s gone.
Basically, I was rather shocked at Blinken’s remarks to this extent, because I’m sure he’s read enough history of American foreign policy to be aware that American policy is nothing, if it is not deeply engaged in questions of projecting spheres of influence. Every school child knows well about the Monroe Doctrine, which denied access to the Western Hemisphere to any outside power, and that any such intervention by any means was viewed as a threat to the interests of the United States. And furthermore, I don’t need to go through the whole history of American adventures overseas, but certainly the Monroe Doctrine has been powerfully enforced throughout the Caribbean, Central American, and Latin American areas for years, with interventions in Chile, and Cuba, and Nicaragua, and Panama and elsewhere.
So, the idea that Blinken can simply dismiss the concept of spheres of influence is pretty cavalier. But more important than simply the question of sphere of influence, we need to recognize that “sphere of influence” is simply talking about power and the projection of power into foreign policy. There’s nothing new about this. Sadly, it seems to be part of the human condition. Power, the impact of power influences our family lives, our community lives, our politics, national and international; it’s a basic part of the global structure. To say that is not to be pleased with it. Indeed, I wish that there was no such thing as spheres of influence or simply great power dominance. But sadly, we’re not going to change human character overnight, although I think some things can be done to improve the situation.
Great and Small Powers
Sadly, we are not all born equal. Countries are not born equal or endowed equally. And therefore, great powers have had a normal, natural tendency to exert their influence. But part of this real dilemma here is not only the actions of the great powers, but the actions and the psychology of small powers. Because it’s not comfortable to be a small power, to live as a small power in the shadow of a great power.
For starters, let me remind you of the great quotation from a former President of Mexico, who said, “Poor Mexico! So far from God, and so close to the United States.” That really sums up the essence of this psychological dilemma. Furthermore, if you ask Canadians about how they feel living next to a great power, although there’s no hostility there, there’s certainly concern that the U.S. can and does weigh in pretty heavily on occasion if it feels its interests are at stake. And Canadians are aware that they have to somewhat be mindful of that.
I would not want to be a neighbor, a small power, a small country, which is a neighbor of India. If you’re in Nepal, if you’re a Bhutan, if you’re in Sri Lanka, the great power of this continental Indian power, has huge influence over these states. And they have to be very careful in what they say and do, so as not to invoke the wrath of India. I think we know in East Asia, very similarly, the power of China is immense and growing. Every Southeast Asian nation knows that. If you’re a small power in Southeast Asia, or the South Pacific Ocean, you are well aware that you need to be very cautious about giving due deference to China’s interests and actions.
And finally, coming to Ukraine, that’s very much what this is all about. I would not want to be a neighbor, a small neighbor of Russia either. To live in the Baltics, Ukraine, or Belarus, or in the Caucuses, or any of these other small nations. The great power exertions of Moscow are definitely palpable. So, the problem in part is that these small nations, these small countries have no choice over the matter. They are where they are; they were placed there by fate. And their geographical fate is very unlikely to change in the future. So as a result, these small powers are constantly on the search for friends, big brothers, or allies, whatever you want to call them, that can help shield a bit the power and influence of the shadow of the great power alongside of which they live. That’s where we see our situation today.
When we get into great power politics on the international level, one of the basic tools of this international game is that one great power not only confronts the other great power militarily, but more often, will seek to manipulate the small nations that live in the shadow of that great power, and to try to manipulate them and turn them against the great power with which the other great power is in contestation.
This is just a fact of life; it’s a very difficult fact of life, and I’m not sure how one gets out of this. Because it’s very tempting, as a great power to simply intervene and play at the margins, to try to make life difficult for your neighbors. That’s very much the situation I see now in Ukraine. It’s not the first time it’s happened in Eastern Europe. It’s probably not going to be the last time. But the U.S. has fallen victim to the temptation to try to put pressure on Russia by manipulating Russia’s small, weak, and defenseless neighbors.
I don’t know that there is a ready answer to this kind of a problem, except to ask that great powers cease to assert those influences over their small neighbors, And I somehow just don’t think that’s completely realistic, although surely the U.S. and Russia and China and India, among those, can do a lot better than they are presently doing. right now.
So, I think at the very least, recognition of this inherent dilemma of great power confrontation and the existence of small neighboring countries that are vulnerable to the great powers and their manipulation by other great powers lies at the heart of what we are going to have to deal with in the future when we sit down and actually deal not only with an architecture, but what the rules should be of a future global security order.