Spheres of Influence: A Reconceptualization

By Etzioni, Amitai | The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs, Summer 2015 | Go to article overview

Spheres of Influence: A Reconceptualization


Etzioni, Amitai, The Fletcher Forum of World Affairs


"Spheres of influence" (SOI) are best defined as international formations that contain one nation (the influencer) that commands superior power over others. For the formation to qualify as an SOI, the level of control the influencer has over the nations subject to its influence must be intermediary: lower than that of an occupying or colonizing nation, but higher than that of a coalition leader. Importantly, the means of control the influencer employs must be largely ideational and economic rather than coercive. Thus, it can be argued that, under the Monroe Doctrine, much of Central and South America was in the United States' SOI, and currently, North Korea is in China's SOI, while Japan is in that of the United States.

Viewing the current international order through the lens of SOI provides unique insight into twenty-first century challenges and fills important gaps in international relations theory. However, the considerable literature on international relations largely ignores SOI as a theoretical concept, even as case studies illuminate the strength of the theory, as will be shown in Part I of this article. To the extent that SOI are studied, they tend to be criticized for being incompatible with the rule-based, liberal international order.

This article examines SOI from a realist's viewpoint (Part II), adds a psychological evaluation of the concept (Part III), and then addresses the question of whether SOI and the liberal international order can be reconciled (Part IV). It closes by seeking to understand the role SOI can play in helping countries avoid the Thucydides Trap-in which tensions between rising and established powers lead to war-specifically by analyzing the cases of China, Russia, and the United States (Part V). This analysis reveals that SOI contribute to the international order because they promote deterrence and reduce the risk of war overall, thus having strong implications for global security and stability.

PART I: A MUCH-NEGLECTED INTERNATIONAL FORMATION

A review of the international relations literature on SOI reveals the dearth of existing research. The foremost English book on the subject published in the twenty-first century is Spheres of Influence by Susanna Hast of the Geneva Graduate Institute.1 Paul Keal of the Australian National University also authored a seminal article on SOI that was published in 1983, in which he argued that although SOI are "unacceptable" from the standpoint of international norms, they may serve as a "device for limiting the danger of armed conflict between superpowers."2

Beyond this, as Hast herself recognizes, not much has been written about this subject. She writes in Spheres of Influence:

The concept is characterized by a conflict between the lack of theoretical interest in it in IR and, at the same time, the frequent use of it in political discourse. Sphere of influence is a contested concept that has awaited theoretical assessment from a historical perspective for too long. The problem with spheres of influence is that there is no debate on the meaning of the concept. It simply is in its simultaneous vagueness and familiarity.3 She adds, "One explanation for the lack of interest in conceptualizing spheres of influence is that there are already plenty of other concepts describing international influence.4

By contrast, there exist considerable descriptive and historical writings on particular spheres, such as the Western Hemisphere, namely the United States' SOI under the Monroe Doctrine,5 and the United States' and USSR's SOI during the Cold War.6 However, these tend not to draw general conclusions about SOI's particular nature as a form of international relations.

One reason SOI are considered to be "historical" is because most are geographical. An SOI does not necessarily encompass only or mainly an area that abuts the influencing power. The USSR, for instance, included Cuba in its SOI. However, most areas considered to be a part of an SOI seem to share features with what the Russians call the "near abroad. …

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