In the Shadow of Power: Geopolitics, Russia, and Crimea

Ukraine reminds us that territorial divisions still very much matter.
By: /
May 2, 2014

Last week, the New York Timesreported that the Obama administration’s long-term response to Russia’s revanchist stand in Ukraine will look something like “containment”—a geopolitical doctrine articulated in 1947 by George Kennan and made an official U.S. policy three years later in NSC-68. The policy, which the Times describes as “a Cold War Echo” “retrofit[ted] for the new age,” aims to isolate Russia by curbing its expansionist goals and “effectively making it a pariah state.” Responding to the Times’ article, Mark Adomanis at Forbes calls Obama’s approach “containment 2.0.”

To be sure, the United States has not attempted to contain Russia this thoroughly since the Cold War. But containment, a strategy aimed at punishing (or sometimes re-socializing) revanchist states while limiting the damage they can dole out in the meantime is anything but a retrofit for a new age. A form of containment has been the United States’ dominant approach to dealing with “pariah” or “rogue” states since 1991. Containment has also been openly discussed as a way that the United States might slow or stop a rising China. But while Iraq, Iran, and other rogue states are all tiny in comparison with United States and China lacks the blue water navy it would need to truly flex its muscles in the Asia-Pacific, Russia is large enough and still well-situated enough in its own neighbourhood that it can’t easily be pushed around. Consequently, Russia’s position invites immediate comparisons with the Cold War—where equal powers of coercion on both sides of the Atlantic produced a “bipolar” balance of power.

But it should also invite comparisons with an older, more enduring kind of politics—of the geopolitical variety—that, for almost the entire modern era, kept the great powers in check while allowing them to dominate their respective regions and expand abroad. Taken in this light, Russia’s ongoing stand in Crimea and the Obama administration’s “containment” response mark neither an unprecedented break with Europe's recent past nor simply an unanticipated return to the territorial realpolitik of the 19th and 20th centuries. Geopolitics—and the spheres of influence that animate them—has never left us.

Geopolitics is dead. Long live geopolitics

That we forgot about the political importance of geography, or at least thought it crumbled along with the Berlin Wall, is understandable. Indeed, this time we had especially good reasons to forget: after nearly a century of unimaginably large-scale violence, the collapse of the Soviet Union gave scholars and policy makers the opportunity to trumpet a set of international norms aimed at replacing the harsh geopolitical concerns of the Cold War and promised a new era of unprecedented humanitarianism, global enlightenment, and peace. Proponents of these new norms have a lot to celebrate: in the last 25 years, economic globalization has continued unabated while multilateral global governance organizations like the G8 and G20, and regional organizations, like APEC and the EU, have increased in both power and influence. Security concerns have followed suit: American foreign policy since 9/11 has emphasized the global, not local, threat of terrorism. Multilateralism is ascendant. Most significant military action across borders is now publically justified on humanitarian grounds—including even Russia’s foray in Crimea. It is hard to imagine a state leader outside of Pyongyang (and even then) who can avoid paying lip service to democracy and human rights to justify their respective foreign policies.

This shift to the politics of the global has made it easy to neglect the “geopolitical” understanding of world politics. Once the mother's milk of Europe's 19th diplomatic elite, the territorial division of the world into “spheres” or “zones of influence” strikes us as the antiquated, unjust practice of a less humane age. But Russia's action in the Ukraine is only the most recent example of a long list of assertions by it and other rising states—particularly China and India—that place the expansion of territory at the center of their claims to power. Most importantly, these assertions often extend beyond established borders to encompass shipping lanes and parts of other sovereign states, as is the case now with Ukraine, and as we saw in 2008 with South Ossetia.

But geopolitics is not just rising in the East. They also never left in the West. Western powers have a long history of taking special responsibility for certain areas of the globe and this history has spilled over into the 21st century. Indeed, France's myriad interventions in former colonies in Africa often skip the pomp and circumstance of grand multilateral coalitions and United Nations Security Council debates. Go in first, the logic holds, and worry about global legitimacy later. Interventions by the British in Sierra Leone, South Africa in Lesotho, and the United States in Panama have all followed a similar pattern. There's a deeper trend here: these interventions involve states that are close to, or former colonies of, a regional power. Virtually the only significantly contested post-Cold War interventions have been those that take place where no great power could claim an exclusive historical or geographic responsibility: the Middle East and the former Yugoslavia, where major power influence has always been competitive. Russia and China do not have the monopoly on geopolitics: it has been alive and well beneath the veneer of post-Cold War globalism.

It is perhaps foolhardy to think that what is here now is also here to stay. But those who believe we can live in a world that is alive to the concerns of humanitarian global justice should note that geopolitical maneuvering based on spheres of influence has a long pedigree. Even realist scholars of international relations who repudiate the application of morals to foreign affairs and instead privilege the anarchical quality of international politics —that states are formally equal and therefore must rely only on themselves for security—should note that the world’s long history of domination of the weak by the strong suggests otherwise. Indeed, hierarchies between strong and weak are a more significant source of international order (and disorder) than balances of power between autonomous sovereign states.

Here lies a central lesson of Crimea: the world is divided, whether we like it or not, into polities that possess spheres of influence and those that are subject to them. Many disputes in world politics have long been, and will tend to be, disputes about how these spheres are distributed.

Spheres of Influence, 2014: a reunion tour

Every political era from Thucydides’ Greece to Ming dynasty China has had hierarchical divisions between the strong and the weak. But it was the dawn of the European modernity circa 1500 that transferred hierarchies of authority from their relatively isolated regional homes to an increasingly territorialized global stage. Advances in map-making, the centralization of state governance, and the beginnings of global maritime colonialism in particular allowed Western sovereigns to consolidate territory at home and slice off pieces of the global pie abroad with unprecedented accuracy. Some of their colonies eventually ate their fill, too: the 1823 U.S. Monroe Doctrine brashly declared the entire Western Hemisphere a zone of European non-interference. (For its part, the United States promised not to interfere in Europe or with its remaining colonies.) Throughout the 19th century, advances in transportation technology made getting around the world easier – and also made its geopolitical division more complete. New spheres of influence continued to appear until reaching an apogee in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, when powers' respective spheres were negotiated at conferences and written down in international treaties. After an explosion of interwar spheres arrangements—the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, Imperial Japan’s ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere,’ the irredentist German Großraum—the world settled into the familiar Cold War division: NATO and the Truman Doctrine on one end, the Warsaw Pact on the other.

Despite the ongoing importance of geography in Cold War strategy and policy, spheres of influence and their geopolitical focus gradually receded into the background of our thinking about the world. Decolonization meant that hierarchies of authority had to contend with newly sovereign states all over the globe and the attendant increase in the number of states playing the geopolitical game. Moreover, intercontinental nuclear weapons delivery technology made territory increasingly irrelevant in the eyes of military strategists. World powers could influence sympathetic factions in far-away states without needing to formally colonize them. And with the end of the Cold War, the Monroe Doctrine's last competition disappeared. The United Nations Security Council, given a new lease on life by the events of 1989, refocused the global debate around the twin poles of sovereign noninterference and universal human rights; norms that oppose one another and that our leading international experts continue to try to reconcile. But neither formal sovereignty nor humanitarianism take into full account the hierarchical nature of power politics and their particular, geographic manifestations in different parts of the globe. At the banquet that was the End of History, “spheres of influence” were almost certainly denied a seat at the table.

The recent wake-up calls from Russia (and from China) are a reminder of the enduring importance of geography and its influence on the struggle for power, despite the Obama administration’s statements to the contrary. They also illustrate another possible reason that the West is now demurring on action over Ukraine: Crimea is outside the sphere of influence of any Western power (Ukraine is not a NATO member) and is arguably inside Russia's. This has two important effects: first, the West is less capable of acting outside its own neighbourhood and in someone else’s, especially when that other neighbourhood has a powerful resident. Second, and as others have noted, Westerners are less likely to support risking their own hides for peoples in far-flung places with whom they do not share deep historical, cultural, and geographical ties. Put differently, when it comes to intervening on behalf of others, the closer they are to home, the better. To be sure, the rest of Ukraine, which was increasingly drawn toward the European Union before the Crimean crisis, may be a different story. Spheres of influence are not static. In the classic period of spheres of influence diplomacy, the geopolitical division of the earth was negotiated by the great powers. This way of governing the world has been challenged by the self-determination of Europe’s former colonies and the rise of demands for universal, de-territorialized human rights. It could be that subject states now have a greater say in whose spheres they join. But it could also be that small states caught between spheres, wanting it both ways so to speak, are in for a rude awakening.

If the post-Cold War era’s universal values have been able to erode some of the preceding century’s more particular ones, they’ve done so largely on the basis of an appeal to global justice—an appeal that the major powers of the world do not always necessarily heed. It is said that in her impartiality to power, money, strength, or weakness, justice is blind. May Russia’s unexpected and very partial intervention in Crimea serve as a reminder of a very old lesson: justice defers to power and those who place too much stock in the power of justice—as many Westerners have for the last 25 years—risk blinding themselves, too.