on geopolitics

Baleful and Benign: The Backyards of Great Powers

10 MINS READAug 22, 2017 | 08:00 GMT

The realities of power politics and the continuing salience of geography suggest that the deeper geopolitical forces driving the creation of spheres of influence are still very much alive. 


"… 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."

— James Monroe, 1823

When U.S. President James Monroe spoke these words in an address to Congress nearly two centuries ago, the United States was a young nation. Memories of a devastating war with Britain were still fresh, and European powers were the undisputed overlords of much of the planet. But the birth of the Monroe Doctrine, as the principles laid out in his speech came to be known, was an important moment for the budding power. By declaring an entire region to be its backyard, and therefore out of bounds to the European great powers of the day, the United States sought to carve out space to safeguard its territory and interests. In return, Washington promised not to intervene in the Continent's internal affairs.

Fast-forward to today, as Russia intervenes in Ukraine and China extends its reach in the Asia-Pacific. There seems to be no more appropriate time than now to ask what backyards mean for modern geopolitics, and what constraints exist to their formation.

The First of Many

When it was first outlined, the Monroe Doctrine was largely defensive in nature, and as a relatively weak power, the United States lacked the means to enforce it. However, as the country quickly amassed wealth and strength in the wake of the Civil War, the doctrine took on new meaning — first of primacy, then of dominance over the Americas. By 1904, just a few years after the United States' decisive victory over Spain, President Theodore Roosevelt had formalized its tenets in the Roosevelt Corollary, which explicitly asserted Washington's right to intervene in any Latin American state that indulged in "chronic wrongdoing." Throughout the 20th century, the United States did indeed wade into the region on several occasions to ensure the longevity or establishment of friendly governments and to protect its economic interests. The people of Latin America, however, often had a less benign view of the United States' meddling.

The Monroe Doctrine proved to be the first modern example of what has come to be known as a sphere of influence, or more colloquially, a backyard. The former term was only first used itself in 1867, when Russian diplomat Alexander Gorchakov assured Britain's Lord Clarendon that Afghanistan "lay completely outside the sphere within which Russia might be called to exercise her influence." (At the time, the two countries were caught in midst of the Great Game, a decades-long struggle between the Russian and British empires for control of Central Asia.) But spheres of influence have a long and storied history that began well before the rise of Europe, from the tributary states of Ming and Qing China to the highly devolved quasi-empire of ancient India's Gupta dynasty.

The Costs of Trading Sovereignty

At its core, a sphere of influence is very much a geopolitical concept. After all, it centers on two pillars of geopolitics — space and power — and its geography is usually bounded, most often comprising a zone adjacent to a great power's borders. The great power excludes other major powers from the zone and constrains the sovereignty of smaller states within it in exchange for benefits, such as protection from foreign adversaries, greater access to domestic markets and the preservation of regional stability.

If we imagine state sovereignty as a spectrum, then in increasing order along it lie the settler state, the colony, the sphere of influence and the sphere of interaction. Whereas a great power typically exterminates or severely reduces an indigenous population before transplanting its own natives into a settler state, a great power extinguishes the sovereignty of a colony without replacing its people. At the far end of the spectrum, in its sphere of interaction, a great power has some sway over other countries but shares the role with other powers.

During the Cold War, the United States and the Soviet Union engaged in a global contest for influence. But the competition came close to catastrophe when a backyard was breached in the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962. The incident is a reminder of the dangers inherent in the politics of disputed backyards. Finnish scholar Susanna Hast, on the other hand, has argued that spheres of influence can also serve as productive agents that generate order and stability in the international system.

A More Difficult Proposition

Since the Cold War, the quest for a sphere of influence is hardly confined to Russia. China has begun to act on its nine-dash line claims in the South China Sea, building new islands and proclaiming an island administrative region headquartered in Sansha. Noted international relations theorist John Mearsheimer has even dubbed the declaration of the nine-dash line an inkling of a "Chinese Monroe Doctrine," though it has been directly challenged by U.S. Freedom of Navigation Operations. Beijing's influence over North Korea and militarization of the Yellow Sea could also be considered evidence of a Chinese sphere of influence. Nevertheless, a Chinese Monroe Doctrine will become clearer if Beijing implicitly or explicitly articulates a wider backyard that encompasses several smaller sovereign states, possibly in Southeast or Central Asia.

Iran, meanwhile, is trying to fence in its own backyard by limiting the sovereignty of Syria, Iraq and Lebanon. However, it currently shares its position in the region with other actors such as Turkey, which is angling to build its own sphere of influence across the same territory.

To the east, Pakistan has developed a doctrine of "strategic depth" that attempts to limit Afghanistan's sovereignty in order to create a rearguard space against an Indian incursion. India, for its part, has long considered South Asia and the Indian Ocean to be within its sphere of influence and, much like the United States did in its early years, New Delhi has taken steps to ensure that no external power is able to dominate this space. Brazil, too, has undertaken a similar project in its neighborhood.

So, has the concept of backyards remained unchanged throughout history? Not quite. Rather, three modern factors act as new constraints to their creation.

The first is the fact that we live, at least somewhat, in a world of laws and norms. Since World War II, and particularly in the wake of the Cold War, international rules have been "thicker" than ever before. For instance, norms against the blatant annexation of territory and the destruction of states are followed far more than they are flouted — an environment very unlike the world prior to 1945.

At the same time, lesser (but still significant) normative constraints exist for milder forms of dominance such as the creation of spheres of influence, as was clear in the media firestorm that Russia's actions in eastern Europe ignited. Because a sphere of influence is a geopolitical concept, not a legal one, it is not enshrined in any formal code or element of international law, which sees the global system as a collection of sovereign states. Instead its existence depends on a great power's ability to ensure its dominance in the sphere, and on its tacit recognition by other great powers. This marks a fundamental tension in the modern world, in which rules and institutions clash, shape and are shaped by power politics.

The second constraint is the reality of the markets and technology. Absolute state sovereignty, which was always a myth, is now more limited than ever by complex global supply chains and rapid flows of information and capital. This doesn't mean we live in a borderless, flat world — far from it — but it does mean that even great powers have to account for the cascading effects their actions may have on their economies and societies.

The third and final constraint is the rise of asymmetric power, itself enabled by information and communication technologies. (Cyberwarfare is simply the latest example of this phenomenon.) Such asymmetry boosts smaller states' ability to resist unwelcome interference from beyond their borders. While it may have been relatively easy to intervene in the affairs of smaller countries in the past, doing so is a much more fraught endeavor today. It's no coincidence that Russia has confined its intervention in Ukraine to the eastern borderlands and Crimea, where Moscow enjoys a measure of popular support. Installing a friendly government in Kiev with the help of an armed force, on the other hand, would probably lead to disaster. India, for its part, has tried in vain to keep first the United States, and more recently China, from becoming a strategic partner to tiny Sri Lanka. Clearly small states are not easily dominated, let alone conquered.

Nevertheless, the realities of power politics and the continuing salience of geography suggest that the deeper geopolitical forces driving the creation of spheres of influence are still very much alive. What forms, then, might successful backyards take in this day and age? And under what conditions could they be benign rather than baleful?

Returning to the Start

To answer these questions, we must go back to where we began: the Monroe Doctrine. During the world wars, and more sustainably once they were over, the United States abandoned Monroe's commitment to avoid interfering in Europe's internal affairs by implementing the Marshall Plan and the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Even more important, it proceeded to act in universal terms — first as the leader of the "free world", and then, after 1991, as the primary creator of a raft of global rules and institutions on issues from trade to nuclear proliferation to climate change. Rather than discarding the Monroe Doctrine, American universalism was its ultimate extension: The United States' new backyard was the entire planet.

The 1990s marked the high point of this global sphere of influence. For one, the collapse of the Soviet Union left the United States without a true rival. For another, many states were genuinely willing to accept American leadership. The near-universalization of the U.S. backyard was achieved not through coercion or bribery, but through smaller states' acquiescence to what many viewed as the legitimate exercise of power toward acceptable, justifiable or appropriate ends.

Of course, American universalism hasn't had it easy. After a remarkable run in the 1990s, its limits were revealed in the wake of 9/11, especially in the Middle East. And as China, Russia and other powers try to step in to fill the partial void the United States has left, they, too, will face the modern constraints on the creation of spheres of influence. Ultimately these countries will have to contend with the challenge of engendering legitimacy if they are to be successful in the quest for their own backyards. And legitimacy — a more sophisticated form of wielding power — is not easy for emerging powers to marshal unless they begin to think about power in more complex ways. This is a challenge the United States shares, and one that will be difficult to address amid its current troubles at home.

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