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KWR Viewpoints

The Return of Spheres of Influence?

By Scott B. MacDonald

For all the discussion about the split between the United States and Europe over Iraq, the fundamental issue is that the international political system is heading back into spheres of influence. The Western alliance is becoming history. This was bound to happen. We sometimes forget that nature abhors a vacuum. Perhaps having a single superpower is a little bit like a vacuum – so many places to play policemen and not enough soldiers to go around. Now, we see the drift away from uni-polarity back to multi-polarity, with President Jacques Chirac of France, backed by Germany’s Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and, to a lesser extent, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, leading the way to asserting Europe’s independence vis-à-vis the United States. We also see a more self-confident China, willing to defy the U.S. on Iraq and quietly asserting itself in Southeast Asia.

The main indicator of the return of spheres of influence foreign policy is evident in recent encounters between the United States and Europeans. The United States is now in the process of seeking to re-write the Middle Eastern map to its advantage – by invading Iraq and seeking to create a new democratic-capitalist government in the place of Saddam Hussein’s regime. From this point, U.S. power can be easily projected throughout the region, including those states that have long track records of supporting international terrorism – Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia. Simply stated, the hope is that bad regimes will be replaced with governments that share the same values as the West – democracy, elective government, equal rights for men and women, secular rule of law, and capitalism. Through this process, beginning with Iraq, even the Palestinian-Israeli issue can be resolved. Everyone will benefit, in particular, the United States, which will clearly be dominant in the region for a long time. While oil is part of the equation, it is only a small part.

President Jacques Chirac is actively re-asserting France’s sphere of influence – in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. By opposing war against Iraq -- as opposed to standing up for Saddam Hussein -- France is standing tall among the Arab world, a longstanding French constituency based on history, economic and political ties, and France’s own Muslim population of about 6 million individuals. President Chirac in March also visited Algeria, where he was given a hero’s welcome from estatic crowds. France considers Algeria important and has been a strong base of support for the embattled quasi-authoritarian, yet secular government. France also carries considerable clout in relations with its former North African colonies of Morocco and Tunisia. At the same time, French troops have been sent to the Ivory Coast, where they helped to impose a peace plan. French troops are based elsewhere in sub-Saharan Africa, clearly representing France’s national interest in what was traditionally its sphere of influence.

While France and Germany are asserting their sphere of influence in Europe, Africa and the Middle East, Russia remains the dominant player in parts of Central Asia. However, the projection of U.S. power in the region, in particular, in the former Soviet republics around Afghanistan, is a point of concern in Moscow. On one hand the Russians are happy to have the U.S. as an ally in the fight against global radical Islam. They also like foreign investment in their economy. However, the Russians do not like U.S. forces in the region and there is come jockeying for influence. This explains the recent thaw in relations between Russia and the European Union, in particular, with France. Whereas French and German governments were vocal over Russia’s heavy-handed actions in Chenynia, those criticisms have become far more muted over recent months. Closer ties with France and Germany also provide Russia with some leverage over the United States.

The other two major players in the regional spheres of influence game are China and India. China clearly looks to Southeast Asia and the South China Sea as zones of influence, where its economic and military power are evident. Beijing also has influence in Korea, though would rather have the United States bear the costs of North Korea’s failed economy. China also has a good relationship with Pakistan, which it uses to counterbalance India. For its part, India is the major regional power in South Asia. It is also seeking to play a more active role in Southeast Asia, standing up for Malaysia’s Indian population and seeking to develop a closer military relationship with Singapore.

The return to spheres of influence is a hardly finished development. The United States has not surrendered being the dominant and sole superpower or its option of going it alone when it observes its national interests at risk. U.S. military power remains a major factor in Asia, Europe, and the Middle East. And economically speaking no other economy can come close in sheer size and ability to generate world growth. At the same time, the Franco-German gambit to make Europe stand tall vis-à-vis the Americans has not gone well with many other European nations. Certainly the UK, Spain and Italy have taken a different Iraqi policy path from that dictated from Paris and Berlin. In addition, prospective Central and Eastern European members to the European Union have a greater sense of unease with Paris-Berlin leadership, especially after French President Jacques Chirac’s recent comments of their “immaturity”, which recalls similar hegemonic behavior reminiscent of the Soviet Union and the eastern bloc. In Asia, China’s “influence” is hardly bringing North Korea to heel. India cannot control the violence in Nepal that is creeping toward civil war. Russia is still not able to stop acts of terrorism in the Caucasus.

What does this mean for those countries without spheres of influence? A major concern of this trend is that globalization is likely to be curtailed. Political spheres of influence also have an economic component. Political tensions in other areas are likely to creep into trade talks or further efforts for financial liberalization. This poises significant risks for countries, such as Japan, Korea and Chile that have placed an emphasis on international trade and export-led economic growth. Japan, long a free rider in military power agreements, will increasingly be forced to compete with China in maintaining an economic sphere of influence in the rest of Asia. This raises the tough questions of the durability of the U.S. alliance and how far Japan wants to go in upgrading its military.

If the current drift into spheres of influence continues, prospects for political tensions are likely to increase. Multi-polar world political systems are more unstable than uni-polar or bi-polar ones. Competing spheres of influence usually lead to confrontation. Prior to both World Wars, the global political system was decidedly multi-polar - and inherently unstable as proved by the two following bloodbaths. We are left with the words of Lord Palmerston, a British prime minister during the Victorian era, who observed: “There are no permanent alliances, only permanent interests.”

Editor: Dr. Scott B. MacDonald, Sr. Consultant

Deputy Editors: Dr. Jonathan Lemco, Director and Sr. Consultant and Robert Windorf, Senior Consultant

Associate Editor: Darin Feldman

Publisher: Keith W. Rabin, President

Web Design: Michael Feldman, Sr. Consultant

Contributing Writers to this Edition: Scott B. MacDonald, Keith W. Rabin,
Jonathan Lemco, Jean-Marc F. Blanchard, Barry Metzger, Russell Smith,
Ilissa A. Kabak, Andrew Novo, Jonathan Hopfner, C. H. Kwan, Dominic Scriven and Andrew Thorson

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