Home > Opinion > The Persistence of Great-Power Politics

The Persistence of Great-Power Politics

At the Munich Security Conference in February 2022, mere days before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s newly minted foreign minister, argued that Europe faced a stark choice between “Helsinki or Yalta.”

To one side was the 1975 conference in Finland, where 35 countries signed an agreement that recognized Europe’s post–World War II boundaries as final and called for the promotion of international cooperation and human rights; to the other was the 1945 summit in Crimea, where Western leaders betrayed the countries of eastern Europe by granting Stalin free rein in the region. The choice, Baerbock said, was “between a system of shared responsibility for security and peace’’ or “a system of power rivalry and spheres of influence.”

By March, Ursula von der Leyen, the president of the European Commission, was claiming that the West had made the right decision in refusing to discuss the issues of NATO enlargement or of Ukrainian neutrality. “Putin is trying to turn back the clock to another era—an era of brutal use of force, of power politics, of spheres of influence, and internal repression,” she argued. “I am confident he will fail.”

One year into the war, this view—that spheres of influence are a thing of the past—is more widely held than ever. The first major war on European soil since World War II is seen by many American and European foreign policy elites, paradoxically, not as a sign that the realities of rivalry and international power politics are back, but rather that Western values and security cooperation can triumph over them.

For many commentators in the United States, U.S. President Joe Biden’s response to the war has been his biggest foreign policy triumph and a clear sign that U.S. foreign policy is on the right track. Indeed, the National Security Strategy that the White House released in October all but took a victory lap, noting, “We are leading a united, principled, and resolute response to Russia’s invasion and we have rallied the world to support the Ukrainian people as they bravely defend their country.”

Take a step back from the triumphalism, however, and that picture is less clear. The war in Ukraine is—if not precisely a deterrence failure for the United States—then at least a clear failure of U.S. policy decisions over the last few decades to maintain peace in Europe. It is certainly true that the war has shown the West’s willingness to confront the return of power politics. But it has also shown the practical limitations of that strategy. The last year has been not a refutation of a world of rivalry, great-power competition, or spheres of influence, as some have described it, but rather a demonstration of what all these look like in practice. It proves that the United States cannot always deter a resolute revisionist state without bearing unacceptably high costs and risks.

This misdiagnosis matters: if policymakers view the war in Ukraine as a triumph of U.S. policy, they will be more likely to make similar mistakes elsewhere. And as the United States enters a period of growing contestation over the borders of the Western sphere of influence, and how it will interact with those of Russia and China, learning the correct lessons from Ukraine could not be more urgent.


Many assessments published after Biden’s tenure hit the two-year mark have glossed over the president’s first year in office, praising his response to the invasion of Ukraine without considering his messaging about the impending crisis over the course of 2021. “Biden’s Russia policy is arguably the most successful in more than a decade,” crowed the scholar Liana Fix. Even critics of the foreign policy status quo have deemed the administration’s handling of the crisis adept, with Stephen Wertheim and Matt Duss, for example, contending that “Biden has dealt with Russia adroitly.” They are undoubtedly correct. The Biden administration has responded pragmatically and competently to the biggest geopolitical crisis in decades, first warning of the likelihood of war and then providing support for Ukraine, all the while keeping one eye on the risk of escalation.

But few observers commented on the first year of Biden’s term in the same way. Most failed to highlight the mismatch between the administration’s statements before Russia’s invasion and the White House’s response afterward. As late as December 2021, for example, administration officials were promising that the United States’ commitment to Ukrainian sovereignty was “unwavering”; in November of that year, they privately discussed sending U.S. military advisers to assist the Ukrainians. But by February 24, 2022, the administration’s tone had decisively shifted: the United States would not engage directly in the fighting in Ukraine. The U.S. response would be hands-off, participating in the war via sanctions, aid, and intelligence support.

This was quite clearly the correct choice. Direct U.S. involvement in a war with a nuclear-armed Russia would be a disastrous mistake. But it calls into question the administration’s strategy for preventing the war in preceding months. By all accounts, Biden had decided weeks or even months in advance of the invasion that the cost of fighting Russiadirectly would be too high; administration officials openly mused about arming a future Ukrainian insurgency after a widely expected Russian victory. Yet if they knew all along that the odds of preventing conflict were slim—and that the United States would not directly engage—then why did they not consider other policy options, such as offering a moratorium on admitting Ukraine to NATO? Why continue to play such an exceptionally poor hand in the hope it would deter Russian action?

The most likely answer is that they were unwilling to acknowledge what an open admission that the United States wouldn’t defend Ukraine would imply more broadly about U.S. power in a period of growing rivalry: that it is limited in what it can achieve. This cognitive dissonance cannot be entirely blamed on the Biden administration. The idea that Ukraine and Georgia would someday join NATO—and that to accept any other course would be to accept limits on U.S. power—has been an underlying assumption of U.S. foreign policy since at least the George W. Bush administration, even as many other member states rejected the idea.

Indeed, particularly after Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine, it was commonly understood among foreign policy elites that NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia was more aspirational than practical. As the scholar Michael O’Hanlon put it last February, weeks before the invasion: “To say that Ukraine won’t be joining NATO soon (if ever) is not a concession to Putin, but an acknowledgment of reality.” Yet even as war loomed, U.S. policymakers were not willing to acknowledge that reality, making clear that they would not discuss NATO’s open-door policy with Russia.

It is impossible to know whether offering some compromise on Ukraine’s potential membership in NATO would have prevented war. Russian demands for Ukraine to remain nonaligned might also have precluded closer ties to the EU, something many Ukrainians would have been less likely to accept. Others have suggested that the war was the inevitable result of President Vladimir Putin’s insatiable revisionist and imperialist impulses. His rhetoric often suggests that he views Ukraine less as a country than as a wayward Russian province. He may have chosen to roll the dice regardless, viewing potential territorial gains as more valuable than Western political concessions.

But it would take a truly blinkered view of the region to argue that the inflexible policies pursued by U.S. policymakers in eastern Europe over the last few decades played no role at all in the run-up to the war. The unwillingness to contemplate any alternative path for Ukraine, Georgia, Moldova, and other states contributed to a toxic stew of political disputes, security fears, and imperialist ambition that ultimately brought the region to the brink of war. Whatever the final outcome of this war, that it happened at all is a policy failure.


In 2017, when the Trump administration’s National Security Strategy hailed the return of “great power competition,” it kicked off a debate in Washington over the definition of that term. Few suggested that it might mean a return to open conflict on the periphery of Europe. But the war in Ukraine is highlighting the costs that great-power competition can bring if poorly managed. And it shows the potential for catastrophe if U.S. policymakers cannot move past their unipolar mindset.

In a broader geopolitical sense, the war in Ukraine marks the return of contestation over spheres of influence in world politics. At its simplest, a sphere of influence is an area where a great power can shape political or economic outcomes—and attempt to exclude rival states from doing so—even though they don’t directly control the territory. Perhaps because “sphere of influence” emerged as a term of art during the heyday of imperial colonialism, or perhaps simply because it has often been put into practice in amoral ways, it has come to have a strong negative connotation. It prompts images of the Yalta conference and the arbitrary divisions of Europe after World War II or of British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain appeasing Hitler in Munich in 1938. Detractors contend that spheres of influence are morally indefensible, as the great powers condemn smaller countries to suffer at the hands of their larger neighbors.

Yet this is a fundamental misunderstanding of the concept. A sphere of influence does not have to be some kind of courtesy offered by one great power to another over the heads of smaller, more vulnerable states. It is more often a mere fact, an assertion of geography and power. A sphere of influence is simply a place where one great power asserts dominance and another is afraid or unwilling to challenge it because the perceived costs are simply too high. Consider the case of Afghanistan: in an 1869 letter, the Russian foreign minister sought to reassure his British counterpart that Afghanistan lay “completely outside the sphere within which Russia might be called upon to exercise her influence.” The two countries would later formalize this arrangement as well as set clear lines over which state would have influence in which parts of Persia, in the 1907 Anglo-Russian Entente. Both reflected a simple reality: the Russians did not believe that the benefits of fighting the British for Afghanistan or for control of all of Persia would be worth the costs.

Some commentators suggest that we cannot accept such arrangements, arguing that the world has moved past these antiquated, colonialist ideas into a more enlightened era. But the truth is more mundane. During the unipolar moment, the period of U.S. global dominance that followed the collapse of the Soviet Union, the United States simply did not need to concern itself much with the question of spheres of influence because its power was unchallenged. The political scientist Graham Allison put it succinctly: U.S. policymakers had ceased to recognize spheres of influence “not because the concept had become obsolete” but because “the entire world had become a de facto American sphere.”

Thus when Russia asserted in 1999 during NATO’s Kosovo intervention that the former Yugoslavia fell within its sphere of influence, going so far as to send Russian paratroopers on a quixotic quest to seize Pristina’s airport, the United States was able to largely brush off the complaint. It was clear that Russia, whose paratroopers were forced to beg their NATO counterparts for food and supplies, did not have the power to back up its assertions. Likewise, when China engaged in saber rattling with Taiwan in the mid-1990s, the United States responded with a massive show of military force, sailing a carrier group through the Taiwan Strait and forcing Chinese leaders to back down.

Washington’s insistence in recent decades that spheres of influence should not exist was as much a declaration of its own global reach and primacy as anything else. Today, however, the world is entering a period of contestation over the limits of American power, as Russia and China are increasingly capable of asserting their own interests in the areas nearest to their borders.

The United States refused to discuss NATO’s open-door policy before the invasion of Ukraine for one key reason: that doing so might deny the agency of states in eastern Europe to make their own foreign policy choices. Just weeks before the invasion, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken was asked about the open-door policy. “There will be no change,” he said. “There are core principles that we are committed to uphold and defend,” he added, including “the right of states to choose their own security arrangements and alliances.”

But the last year has demonstrated that this approach is insufficient, in part because it failed to account for Russian agency. Faced with the prospect of Ukraine’s slipping out of its orbit and unable to achieve any concessions from Western states, Putin opted to gamble on a risky and costly military expedition instead. And even as the military campaign has experienced significant setbacks, he has been willing to take ever more dramatic steps to try to control Ukraine, from mass mobilization of Russian troops to widespread bombardment of civilian infrastructure.

The results have certainly been catastrophic for Russia: it has achieved almost none of its original aims, Kyiv remains independent, the Russian economy is in decline, and tens of thousands of Russian soldiers are dead. But the invasion has also imposed immense costs on the people of Ukraine along with significant costs and the risk of escalation for Europe and the United States. If the war in Ukraine is a success story for the Biden administration or for its predecessors, it is a pyrrhic one.


In a 2008 speech, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice proclaimed her confidence in a vision of “a world in which great power is defined not by spheres of influence or zero-sum competition, or the strong imposing their will on the weak.” Yet 15 years later, all these features are back with a vengeance. Far from refuting the brutal nature of international politics, the war in Ukraine has demonstrated the unpleasant realities of contestation over spheres of influence between the great powers.

It has also forcefully revealed the limits of U.S. power to deter actors in the places nearest and dearest to them through nonmilitary means. Committing the United States to fight directly in these areas would entail unacceptably high risks and costs to the American people, something that Biden himself has acknowledged, telling reporters, “We will not fight the third world war in Ukraine.”

At the same time, however, Washington’s foreign policy elites show little recognition that the principle of avoiding a great-power war over peripheral interests might apply elsewhere. Take Taiwan: public opinion strongly opposes fighting China directly over Taiwan, and war games suggest that such a choice could be disastrous for the United States. Yet American policymakers continue to toy with the idea of shifting from the U.S. government’s long-running policy of strategic ambiguity toward a firmer stance of open military support for Taiwan. Given Beijing’s apparent growing determination to achieve “reunification” with the island, such a move by the United States may amount to making the same mistakes it made in Ukraine. Any attempt to clarify that Taiwan is outside Beijing’s sphere of influence could end up provoking the very war that the United States wishes to avoid.

No matter what critics may say, accepting that certain countries will be able to exercise more power in the regions closest to them does not necessarily condemn small countries to conquest by their larger neighbors. Consider the last year again: despite accepting that direct intervention would be too costly, for example, the United States has not abandoned Ukraine to its fate. In contrast, the U.S. government has provided substantial military and financial aid, carefully calibrated to remain below the threshold that might lead to broader war. Ukraine may be outside the U.S. sphere of influence, but the United States is helping it resist being incorporated into a Russian sphere.

Such strategies can and should be applied elsewhere. Small states can build up their own military capabilities and receive support from other countries to make themselves an unappetizing meal for their larger neighbors. Rather than performative gestures that suggest support for Taiwanese independence, for example, policymakers should invest now in helping the island defend itself through an appropriately diversified “porcupine” strategy. Not only is it far more effective to conduct such buildups before any potential war, but if executed wisely, this approach may even be able to prevent that war from ever happening.

To adopt these strategies, however, policymakers must learn the right lessons from the war in Ukraine. If policymakers can reject premature triumphalism, acknowledge the practical limits to American power, learn to delegate defense to the states at the pointy end of the spear, and grow more comfortable with the ambiguity needed to navigate the dangerous areas where spheres of influence overlap, they may be able to avoid disaster.

Emma Ashford is a Senior Fellow at the Stimson Center and an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University. She is the author of Oil, the State, and War: The Foreign Policies of Petrostates.

Source: Foreign Affairs

Post navigation

Leave a Comment

Leave a Reply