Threats are in the eye of the beholder and threat perceptions are usually rooted in history and culture. Time and experience implants them into nations’ strategic cultures, assumptions and discourse. They cannot be wished away with paeans to “rules-based international orders” and American policymakers should not be surprised when other great powers react aggressively to American or western operations in their near abroad. Since 1812, Russia has been the victim of four invasions across its western frontier – two of which reached Moscow. West to east, its geography is vast, thinly populated and inherently insecure. It is not surprising that the traditional disposition of the Russian state is one of suspicion bordering on paranoia. They have every reason to seek out favorable strategic settlements with their neighbors and former satellites in Eastern Europe and Central Asia. At the same time they have little reason to accept western encroachment into zones considered vital to their security – especially when they increasingly have the political and military means to resist it.
China, likewise, has a storied history of victimization stemming from territorial insecurity. The events of “the century of national humiliation” are well known and mostly flowed from China’s inability to secure its maritime frontier. Prior to the First Opium War, however, two successful conquests of China by non-Han peoples had focused Chinese’ attention on their vast land borders. Modern China is determined to acquire a naval and land-based missile capacity sufficient to deny foreign navies freedom of operation in the East and South China Seas. Its “One Belt One Road” infrastructure development program may produce a zone of economic dependence in Central Asia. Dr. David Lampton argues that China treats its neighbors according to a ruthlessly pragmatic code of “situational ethics” in which national interests and underlying power balances drive a sharp distinction between the proper treatment of powerful countries and the proper treatment of weak countries. The notion that China deserves privileges in its near abroad is a given in the minds of Chinese policymakers. Nowhere is this felt more strongly than with Taiwan. China’s persistent and uncompromising position on the One China Policy has been successful at convincing every major country to give up their formal ties with Taiwan. In other words, the American alliance system already accepts that a Chinese sphere of influence extends over that island. The One China Policy is the accepted price of doing business and diplomacy with modern China. As their power grows they will likely begin to insist upon other non-negotiable prerequisites as well.
Western policymakers and commentators like Robert Kagan frequently pretend that only Russia and China (and perhaps Iran as well) are backwards enough in their thinking to desire spheres of influence. Yet France, a key NATO ally, maintains a vaguely paternal relationship with its former African colonies in which it occasionally sees fit to stage military interventions. Critics of spheres of influence should also consider that the “rules-based international order” is itself a sphere of influence belonging to the west. The only reason we are able to debate their merits, rather than accept them as a given, is because American and western power was great enough in the last century to facilitate the expansion of a sphere of influence right up to the borders of Russia and China. The United States is perhaps history’s foremost practitioner of sphere of influence-style statecraft. Our favorable geography and ultimately successful enforcement of the Monroe Doctrine has allowed us to dominate the Western Hemisphere. Though tact precludes us from referring to the rest of the Americas as “our backyard,” we continue to benefit from the effective geopolitical invulnerability this position affords us. Indeed, only the policymakers of a country as secure as the United States would think it appropriate to lecture others as to their legitimate security requirements.