Spheres of Influence and Bubbles of Ignorance

Let’s go over some of the fundamental tenets of the realist theory of international relations (I know that I have written them before, but I ask readers to indulge me so that I can set the table for the rest of this blog post). Realists generally believe the following:

  • The world is fundamentally anarchic. There is no international governing body and no international emergency aid for the fundamental actors in the world.
  • The fundamental actors of which i write are nation-states.
  • Nation-states seek to acquire security, and if possible, hegemonic power (or as close to hegemonic power as they can manage). Classical realists believe that this is because of humankind’s inherent lust for power. Structural realists believe that this is because of the fundamental anarchy of the international system, which I discussed in the first bullet point above. (As a classical realist, I have no problem believing that the inherent human lust for power created, or helped create the anarchic international system).

Now, one of the best ways for a nation-state to acquire security/power is to have a sphere of influence. We may define a sphere of influence as an area in the world, in close geographical proximity to the nation-state in question, in which the nation-state in question exercises hegemonic power, or something approaching hegemonic power. Nation-states generally guard their spheres of influence very closely. They make sure that they are primus inter pares within the sphere, and if other nation-states/great powers seek entry into the sphere, the nation-state in question will do its best to dissuade them/chase them out. Sometimes, this can be done via diplomacy. Other times, it has to be done via force.

Ever since the presidency of James Monroe, the United States has had a sphere of influence. That sphere of influence was announced via the Monroe Doctrine, which reads as follows:

The occasion has been judged proper for asserting, as a principle in which the rights and interests of the United States are involved, that the American continents, by the free and independent condition which they have assumed and maintain, are henceforth not to be considered as subjects for future colonization by any European powers.

We owe it, therefore, to candor and to the amicable relations existing between the United States and those powers to declare that we should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere. But with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.

Throughout history, the Monroe Doctrine was used to successfully fend off foreign interference in what has amounted to America’s backyard (I am dreadfully sorry if the phrase “America’s backyard” upsets some people, but quite frankly, you only get to object if there is another nation-state that is more powerful in the Western Hemisphere, and wields more influence than does the United States. Until then, let’s face facts as they are). Normally, when a foreign policy doctrine is working well, one does not abandon it. But the Obama administration, which apparently has decided that to act cleverly and adroitly is totally uncool, thinks that when something is working according to plan, one must ditch the plan:

US Secretary of State John Kerry on Monday declared that a nearly 200-year-old policy which had governed Washington’s relations with Latin America was finally dead.

Known as the Monroe Doctrine after it was adopted in 1823 by former US president James Monroe, the policy had stated that any efforts by European countries to colonize land in North or South America would be views as aggressive acts and could require US intervention.

“The doctrine that bears (Monroe’s) name asserted our authority to step in and oppose the influence of European powers in Latin America,” Kerry told an audience at the Organization of American States.

“And throughout our nation’s history, successive presidents have reinforced that doctrine and made a similar choice.

“Today, however, we have made a different choice. The era of the Monroe Doctrine is over,” he insisted to applause.

“The relationship that we seek and that we have worked hard to foster is not about a United States declaration about how and when it will intervene in the affairs of other American states. It’s about all of our countries viewing one another as equals, sharing responsibilities, cooperating on security issues and adhering not to doctrine but to the decisions that we make as partners to advance the values and the interests that we share.”

Evidently, this little pronouncement was Secretary Kerry’s way of asking people to forgive him for once having played the role of realist (if only for an exceedingly short time), and announcing that “the western hemisphere is our backyard.” He was right the first time (credit where it is due, though John Kerry would not be John Kerry if he were both correct and consistent). Saying that we are now in the business of “viewing one another as equals” is nice talk, but come on. The GDP of the United States dwarfs that of the rest of the Western Hemisphere. Heck, the amount of money the United States spends on the military is higher by orders of magnitude than the GDP of individual countries in the Western Hemisphere, even when you combine those countries together. No nation-state in the Western Hemisphere comes close to matching our economic, military and diplomatic power. “Equals”? Look, I’m all for treating other countries nicely, but there is an 800 pound gorilla in the Western Hemisphere, and his name is Uncle Sam. There are no two ways about it.

So pretending otherwise will get us nowhere and will accomplish nothing. About the only people who will profit from this are the Russians and the Chinese, who now have an open invitation to seek to curb American power by working to make mischief in the Western Hemisphere along with countries like Venezuela, Bolivia, Nicaragua and Ecuador–each of which is hostile to the United States and to American interests. The Russians have already gotten busy when it comes to exercising their influence in what used to be our backyard before Secretary Kerry decided that the world just had to hear what was on his mind, and what apparently was on the mind of the president of the United States. The Chinese have gotten busy as well, and may get busier, now that Washington has given them the green light to do so. Are the Russians and the Chinese powerful enough to threaten the national security of the United States in the near term or the foreseeable future? Clearly not. Can they cause us headaches? Sure. Can those headaches eventually get serious? At the current Kerryesque trajectory, why not? And even if the headaches remain relatively mild, what exactly does the Obama administration hope to get out of this? Why has it decided to cause problems for itself, problems for its successors and problems for the formulation and implementation of American national security policy?

Contrast the administration’s permissiveness regarding spheres of influence with the Russian determination to absolutely, positively stand behind the regime of Bashar al-Assad, no matter the concerns that his regime was using chemical weapons against the Syrian opposition, and no matter the expressions of American anger over the issue. The Russians steadfastly protected their ally against an international challenge lead by the United States. And as if that weren’t enough, at the end of the day, the Russians got to push forth a “peace plan” that supposedly rids the Assad regime of all chemical weapons . . . before starting the fighting over and allowing the Assad regime to slaughter the Syrian opposition with non-chemical weapons. So not only has an ally regime of the Russians been preserved, Russian influence has also spread to the Middle East. It has been a sine qua non of American policy that the Russians be kept out of the Middle East, but since the whole point of this post is that the Obama administration is not good at preserving American spheres of influence, I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to witness the utter frustration of longstanding goals.

At some point, I would like to see foreign affairs, national security, and basic statecraft become priorities again when we choose our leaders. Would it be too much to ask that this happen sometime around 2016?

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