If we look back on the major wars of the prior century and forward to the growing menace of a war fought with nuclear weaponry, there is one prominent gap in analysis and understanding. This gap is to my knowledge rarely acknowledged, or even discussed, by political leaders or addressed in the supposedly independent main media platforms in the West. Indeed, the gap seems to be explicitly denied, and given a hegemonic twist, by the Biden presidency, especially by Antony Blinken’s repeated insistence that American foreign policy, unlike that of its principal adversaries, is ‘rule-governed.’
At first glance ‘rule-governed’ might be nothing more than a concise synonym for adherence to international law. Blinken makes no such claim, and even a foreign policy hawk would have a hard time straining to rationalize American international behavior as ‘law-governed,’ but rather might say, or at least believe, following Thucydides, ‘that strong do as they will, while the weak do as they must.’ Some have speculated that ‘rule-governed’ as a phrase of choice these days in Washington is best associated with a rebirthing of ‘Pax Americana,’ or as I have previously suggested a dusting off of the Monroe Doctrine that had guided U.S. foreign policy toward Latin America to proclaim after the Soviet implosion in 1991 what is in effect a Monroe Doctrine for the world, or seen from a different perspective, the NATO-IZATION of the post-Cold War world.’
Such provocative labels seems descriptive of the NATO response to the Russian 2022 attack on Ukraine, which from day one was treated by the West as an flagrant instance of a Crime Against the Peace, more generally viewed as a war of aggression, and so declared by a large majority of countries by way of a UN General Assembly Resolution ES-11/1, March 00, 2022, by a vote of 122-5, with 35 abstentions including China and India) although without comparable support for the follow up to denouncing the attack by way of imposing sanctions, supplying weapons, and diplomatic strong-arming looking toward a military victory rather than a political compromise achieved through a ceasefire followed by negotiations.
What seems to many, mostly in the West, obvious at first glance at the Ukraine War is not so clear if a closer look is taken. There is the matter of the pre-war context of Ukrainian and NATO provocations as well as the Russian right of veto entrenched in the UN Charter, amounting to a green light given to the winners in World War II to the use of international force at their discretion when it comes to peace and security issues, and in the process ignore Charter obligations to seek a peaceful settlement of all international disputes.
The U.S./UK unprovoked attack on Iraq in 2003 is indicative of this double standard manifested by the response to the Russian attack, as were the NATO regime-changing intervention in Libya and Euro-American support for the Saudi intervention in Yemen and a host of other examples going back to the Vietnam War. In other words, ‘rule-governed’ as a practical matter seems to mean impunity whenever the U.S., its allies and friends, launch ‘wars of choice’ and accountability in relation to international law for its adversaries, particularly its geopolitical rivals, who are denied the intended benefits of their right of veto and held responsible for adherence to international law in the war/peace domain as it is presented in the UN Charter. In effect, international law is not a restraint on the U.S./NATO with respect to war-making, but it functions as a strategic policy and propaganda tool for use against adversaries. Such duplicity in deploying the authority of law is widely seen outside of the West as a glaring example of moral hypocrisy that undermines more generally the aspiration of substituting the rule of law for force in relations between the Great Powers in the nuclear age.
These is more to this exhibition of double standards and moral hypocrisy as illustrated by another related Blinken elaboration of the kind of world order he affirms on behalf of the U.S. It is his ahistorical assertion that ‘spheres of influence’ should have been thrown into the dustbin of history after World War II, and therefore the fact that Ukraine (and Crimea) border on Russia, with long intertwined historical experience, ethnic ties, and territorial instabilities be treated as irrelevant. Surely, Cubans or Venezuelans, or earlier Chileans and certainly Central Americans, would be excused if they laughed out loud, given the forcible contemporaneous efforts of Washington to deny the populations of these countries respect for their sovereign rights, including even the inalienable right of self-determination. Spheres of influence are admittedly abusive with respect to bordering societies, whether maintained by Russia or the United States, and yet in an imperfectly governed world such spheres in certain regional settings play crucial war prevention roles. They can mitigate potential geopolitical confrontations in which deference by antagonists to previously well-delimited spheres of influence can be credited with providing a brake on escalation at times of crisis. East/West spheres of influence for preserving world peace during the most dangerous crises of the Cold War, most notably at the time of the Berlin Crises(1950s), Soviet Interventions in Eastern Europe (1956-1968), Cuban Missile Crisis (1961).
Rather than dispensing with spheres of influence the wartime leaders of the U.S., UK, and the USSR in World War II recognized even during their common cause against Naziism that an anticipated post-war rivalry between the winners to pursue their distinct national interests by extending their ideological, political, and economic influence, especially in Europe could turn dangerous. These leaders, although espousing hostile ideologies, sought agreements to avoid postwar confrontations in Europe at a series of conferences. The leaders of the U.S., USSR, and the UK reached agreements, most notably in 1945 at Yalta and Potsdam, that might have done more to prevent a slide into World War III than certainly the UN Charter and maybe even the much invoked doctrine of Mutual Assured Destruction (or MAD as denoting the pathology of genocidal peacemaking in the nuclear age).
These wartime agreements did not explicitly use the cynical language of spheres of influence but rather stressed the divisions relating to the occupation of European countries previously controlled by the defeated fascist states, with a particular attention given to Germany that was seen as the most culpable and dangerous actor among the Axis Powers. In this regard, alone among European states, Germany was divided into East Germany and West Germany, and its capital city of Berlin was notoriously divided into West Berlin and East Berlin. For the rest of Europe, the Soviet Union was given responsibility for occupation and state building in East Europe while the victors assumed a comparable responsibility in Western Europe.
This language of division did not inhibit both ‘superpowers’ from engaged in propaganda wars with one another throughout the Cold War. Yet what it did do was to induce international prudence in a form that was respectful of these wartime assessments of control. This prudence was in stark contrast to the inflammatory response of the West to the 2023 Russian attack on Ukraine, accentuated by disdaining diplomacy, a political compromise, and openly seeking the Russian defeat so as to confirm post-Cold War unipolarity when it comes to peace and security issues. Undoubtedly, the wartime atmosphere in 1944-45 contributed to the importance of taking preventive measures to guard against the recurrence of a major war fought over the control and future of Europe. The Potsdam Conference took ended less than a week before an atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, Harry Truman informing Stalin that the U.S. possessed a super-weapon that would hasten the unconditional surrender of Japan, as indeed it did.
Although conducted prior to the use of the atomic bomb this wartime diplomacy was fearfully aware that a future war would be far more destructive than two earlier world wars. In this sense, these fault lines in Europe were established in an atmosphere of hope and fear, but also within limits set by state-centrism and geopolitical ambition, giving rise quickly to tensions that extinguished hopes of retaining postwar international harmony, thereby dimming hopes of transcending the high-risk Great Power rivalries of the past. This led to Cold War bipolarity with its complex ideological, military, territorial, and political dimensions of intense conflict. And yet World War III was avoided, despite some close calls, in the ensuing 45 years after the end of World War II.
The idea of ‘geopolitical fault lines’ and even ‘spheres of influence’ are not well established in the practice or theory of international relations, but their existence is profoundly necessary for the maintenance of peace and security among Great Powers, and for the world generally. This relevance of geopolitical fault lines is partly a result of the failure of international law to have the capability to enforce consistently limits on the coercive behavior of the reigning Great Powers, granting them de facto impunity for acting beyond the limits of the law. In this sense, geopolitical fault lines and related agreed territorial divisions offer an improvised substitute for international law by setting formally agreed mutual limits on behavior backed by the specific commitments of Great Powers, which it is known that when transgressed result severe tensions, and possibly catastrophic warfare, between the most heavily armed states in the world might result.
The overriding point is that the Biden/Blinken response to the Ukraine War and the rise of China are contemptuous of the geopolitical prudence and diplomatic techniques that helped save the world from a disastrous conflagration during the Cold War Era. Of course, costly warfare broke out in the divided countries of Korea and Vietnam, but in settings where there was no assent to the temporary division imposed from without and the strategic stakes of challenging these imposed supposedly temporary divisions were peripheral as contrasted with Germany where they were of the highest order. Despite this, in the Korean and Vietnam contexts, the stakes were still high enough for the U.S. to threaten the use of nuclear weapons to maintain the status quo, most menacingly in relation to Korea, and China acting on the basis of border security entered the conflict.
It goes almost out saying that geopolitical fault lines and spheres of influence are second-order restraints whose indispensability reflects the weakness of international law and the UN. Remedying these weaknesses should be accorded the highest priority by governments and peace-minded civil society activists. In the interim, spheres of influence are a recognition of multipolarity, a prelude to a more cooperative world order, and a sign that the distinctive challenges to the global public good posed by climate change and nuclear weaponry do indeed require a ‘new world order’ reflecting imperatives for leading states to act cooperatively rather than conflictually. Perhaps, the Ukraine War can yet be interpreted to produce such a transition in outlook and behavior.