The current showdown between Russia and the West is deeply perplexing to many critics of American foreign policy. Why, they ask, doesn't the US simply accede to some of Russian President Vladimir Putin's demands — acknowledge that Ukraine will never join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization and accept a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union?
The answer is more deeply rooted in American history than many observers might realize. For better or worse, US policy has long been characterized by opposition to hostile spheres of influence. That project reached triumphant heights during the post-Cold War era, but is being tested severely today.
For much of recorded history, spheres of influence have been a normal part of global affairs. Great powers typically try to carve out privileged domains as a way of controlling events near their borders and keeping threats at bay.
America is no exception: It gradually kicked the European powers out of the Caribbean and Latin America on its way to superpower status. "The United States is practically sovereign on this continent," Secretary of State Richard Olney declared in 1895, "and its fiat is law upon the subjects to which it confines its interposition."
Yet the US had a different attitude toward other countries' spheres of influence. In the 1800s and early 1900s, US officials aimed to prevent China from being sliced and diced by foreign powers. In World War I, Washington fought to prevent Imperial Germany from dominating territories running from Eastern Europe to the English Channel. In World War II, the US fought to prevent Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan from seizing domains vaster still.
Even during the Cold War, America challenged the Soviet bloc in Eastern Europe: While the use of force was off the table, Washington used covert action, information warfare and other means to undermine Moscow's control.
This hostility to spheres of influence owed to several of America's most prominent diplomatic traits. The desire for markets and resources in foreign nations led Americans to fear the economic consequences of a divided world. An interest in democracy and human rights didn't always lead the US to behave nobly in its own neighborhood, but it did make Americans squeamish about tolerating authoritarian control of other regions.
From a strategic viewpoint, US planners worried that powerful rivals would use regional spheres of influence as springboards to global aggression. Not least, America's sense of exceptionalism — its conviction that the US used power more benevolently than other states — eased any guilt over the apparent hypocrisy of denying to others what America claimed for itself.
America's anti-spheres project climaxed after the Cold War. The Soviet bloc was no more. Washington possessed such massive economic and military advantages, along with a global network of allies, that it could prevent even large countries from extending their grasp over nations next door.
To prove the point, the Pentagon dispatched two aircraft carriers in 1996 to prevent China from menacing Taiwan. The US also expanded NATO into Eastern Europe to hedge against the creation of a reinvigorated Russian empire. None other than Joe Biden, then Barack Obama's vice president, declared in 2009 that "we will not — will not — recognize any nation having a sphere of influence."
Biden is certainly right that the US benefits from a sphere-less world. Much of the world, for that matter, seems to agree: It is remarkable that so many countries, from US allies in the Pacific to the Baltic states and others in Europe, are willing to court America's influence to avoid being coerced by rivals closer to home.
This backstory also helps explain why the US is unwilling to close NATO's door to Ukraine and grant Moscow veto power over the geopolitical choices of its neighbors. That would represent a return to the darker, more dangerous world US officials have long worked to overcome.
Yet what seemed relatively easy at the height of America's post-Cold War predominance looks dramatically harder today. Putin's Russia has redeveloped the military capability to subjugate Ukraine and other nonaligned states on its borders. Putin has undertaken efforts, over the space of 15 years, to reassert Russia's regional primacy, even by invading countries such as Georgia that resisted its influence.
Today, the Russian ruler is essentially threatening to destroy Ukraine rather than allow it to chart its own geopolitical destiny.
The US, in turn, has promised to impose massive economic and diplomatic costs on Putin if he follows through on this threat, perhaps not physically thwarting an invasion of Ukraine but making it unprofitable and unrepeatable. That effort, as I wrote last week, is likely to lead to a tense, protracted clash between Washington and Moscow, featuring ongoing coercion and the potential for escalation in Eastern Europe and beyond.
America's determination to deny Russia an autocratic sphere of influence is now running head-on into Putin's determination to create one. Which means that the costs and risks associated with this time-honored aspect of US policy are about to go up.