Violating Someone’s "Sphere of Influence" Can Be Dangerous

What is it about American foreign policy that constantly gets the U.S. military involved in another country or region and then winds up with our troops bogged down in a dimly understood local conflict? Are our strategists and international experts missing something?

When other countries stir up trouble in Latin America or the Caribbean, the U.S. regards this as a violation of its hegemony (the Monroe Doctrine) in its home "sphere of influence." But we seem unable to comprehend that other major countries have their own "spheres of influence" in their regions — Russia in Eastern Europe, Iran in the Persian Gulf area, China in Asia, for example — which they feel very strongly about and are willing to defend by force of arms, if necessary.

Such U.S. ignorance (which derives from a belief that America as the world’s self-designated Good Guy and lone superpower can do whatever it wants) inevitably leads to big trouble. For instance, even with the U.S. spread thin and quagmired in Iraq and Afghanistan, the CheneyBush regime seems anxious to provoke a major quarrel with a resurgent Russia in a relatively minor regional dispute in the Caucasus.

In the midst of the juicy theatre of presidential campaigns, it might be wise for all of us to step back and attend to that foreign-policy reality and to consider the grim implications of a renewed Cold War between the U.S. and Russia.


I’m not just referring to the contretemps over what’s happening in the Caucasus right now, especially with regard to Georgia. No, we’re talking about major realignments of political, economic and military forces that, if not handled correctly, could put Russia and the U.S. into a potential active conflict.

It’s clear that John McCain and his neo-conservative backers would look forward to such a confrontation; they thrive on crisis; it’s where they come alive and can roll out their black/white simplicities and threats to use force, utilize an "enemy" as their way to increase their domestic power, cranking-up the old military-industrial complex. And, at least for the purposes of the election campaign, Barack Obama and Joe Biden have joined in, using Russia as a bete noir and are warning Russia to back off and back down and back away.

Part of the problem is that Superpower America continues to see the world almost exclusively through U.S. eyes and thus is not taking into account how the world appears to Russia and others. Thus, diplomacy is ignored and the Cold War, and potential hot wars, draw closer. And, of course, all this is taking place between two fading empires, as new major powers emerge in Asia/South Asia (China, India). Russia and the U.S., in effect, are battling for regional dominance before the new movers and shakers are fully up to speed.


To better understand the current Russia/U.S. clash in the Caucasus, and why Russia is moving so aggressively in its perceived "sphere of influence," we need a bit of historical context.

My area of concentration in graduate school was the origin of the Cold War, and my dissertation was on the "Truman Doctrine," the governmental policy that declared for the first time that the U.S. would launch a global struggle against what was seen as a monolithic Soviet Empire bent on worldwide communist domination.

Actually, President Truman in 1947 was mainly interested in a much smaller issue — sending financial and military aid to Greece and Turkey, to keep them safely within the Western fold — but was informed by Senate Republican leaders that the only way he’d get a large-scale aid-appropriation through Congress was to "scare hell out of the American people." So Truman refashioned his message by talking about a Soviet Union moving toward "worldwide domination" through the use of force, a red menace that had to be stopped in its tracks before it conquered the globe.

Thus, the Truman Doctrine was born, Greece and Turkey got their money, and the U.S. from that time forward was locked-into battling "world communism" wherever it seemed to be raising its head. The result was that the U.S. sent massive cash infusions to dictators all over the globe who claimed they were "fighting communism." (Similar today to any tinpot dictator who claims to be "fighting terrorism.") In reality, much of that anti-communist U.S. money went into Swiss bank accounts or was used to crush reform movements in those countries, the effect of which was to push reformers toward revolutionary options. The debacle in Vietnam can be traced back to the ramifications of that earlier Truman Doctrine.

Please don’t misunderstand me. Stalinist communism (like fundamentalist Islam today) was a despicably brutal, totalitarian system. And Stalin was a monstrous authoritarian leader, who did entertain theoretical/ideological dreams of communist uprisings abroad. But, though he was a certifiable paranoid, Stalin was not a madman in how he related to the outside world. Despite the conventional myth, he had no desire or ability (don’t forget that 20 million Soviet citizens lost their lives in World War II) to take over the world by force


My research confirmed that Stalin was an old-style national leader who wanted, at all costs, to protect the homeland and home base of communism, which is why he was so desirous of controlling the Eastern Europe countries and Baltic states as part of the Soviet empire. They would serve as a protective buffer between the Soviet Union and Western Europe, from whence three European leaders’ armies invaded Mother Russia: Napoleon, then Kaiser Wilhelm, and then Hitler.

Whenever confronted elsewhere, Stalin tended to back away, abandoning local Communist Parties to the tender mercies of their enemies, the example of the Greek Communist Party being a case in point. (My Master’s thesis, by the way, was on the Greek Civil War of that period.)

There was so much misunderstanding, misreading, among the Allies that led to so much Cold War misery when WWII was over. And we’re repeating the pattern today. Just one contextual episode, which I’ve written about previously:

Stalin couldn’t understand why Truman and other Western leaders were screaming so loudly about his harsh treatment of the Eastern Europeans absorbed into his satellite-states buffer zone after the end of the war. After all, he reasoned, the Americans and British had recognized his right to control those states in the so-called "percentages agreement" or "spheres of influence" agreement worked out in a secret Moscow meeting in October 1944.


Short history: At that meeting, Churchill gave Stalin a piece of paper on which he had written percentages of which allies in the post-war period would control which countries in their "sphere of influence." Since the Red Army was (or soon would be) effectively in control of most of Eastern Europe, and neither the Americans nor Brits had the wherewithal (or desire) to fight another massive war right after defeating the Germans, they recognized the reality of Soviet boots on the ground and gave Stalin 90% control of Rumania and so on, while the Brits got 90% control in Greece, Yugoslavia was 50-50, etc. Stalin began acting under this agreement during the final year of the war, and the Americans and Brits likewise honored the percentages pact, seemingly unconcerned about the brutal way Stalin was absorbing Eastern Europe into the Soviet empire.

Upon the death of FDR, President Truman took over. After war ended and with anti-communism affecting domestic politics, Truman began objecting to the Soviet Union’s harsh behavior in Eastern Europe. Stalin interpreted the strong Western reaction to his unbridled use of power in that "sphere-of-influence" region as reneging on a solemn agreement; his paranoia convinced him that the West was out to try to overthrow him, so he conceded that the "percentages agreement" was no longer in place and began making life more difficult for America elsewhere in the world.

So, there was that gross misunderstanding from the Soviet side. What about the U.S.? Americans, including most government officials, had just fought a war against one set of totalitarians and now were confronted with another, in the form of Stalin’s Soviet Union. They tended to see this movement as monolithic and as aimed at world domination, so anything the Soviets did was interpreted in that light.


The Soviets talked such a good game about "international communism," centrally directed from Moscow, that the Americans had no inkling that something called "nationalist communism" existed, or even could exist. If they had, they might have altered their foreign policy accordingly, recognizing that Tito’s communism in Yugoslavia was distinctly different from Stalin’s in Russia, from Mao’s in China or from Ho Chi Minh’s in Vietnam. Antagonisms among and between Communist regimes abounded, and nationalism almost always was stronger than a monolithic ideology. (An analagous distortion today would be America viewing radical Islam through the lens of a monolithic Al-Qaida, supposedly pulling all the militant and terrorist strings around the world. If it ever was, it’s not that way now.)

After communism imploded in the Soviet Union and its satellite states in the late-1980s, Russia went into a decade-long psychological and economic tailspin. But Russia has climbed back, economically and militarily stronger and determined to re-assert what it considers its rightful superpower status in its "sphere of influence" and in the world. And, once again, it sees its major threats coming from the West, engineered mainly by the United States.


The U.S., for example, is luring former Soviet-satellite countries (Georgia, Ukraine, Poland, the Baltic States, etc.) toward the European Union and, especially frightening to Russia, into NATO, the military pact originally set up to stop the Soviet Union from even thinking about moving westwards. Putin, like Stalin, sees his country’s "sphere of influence" being violated, with Russia being ringed by potentially hostile enemies, effectively controlled by the U.S. and other Western powers.

This growing split between Russia and the U.S. has been building since the early 1990s. with Putin, for example, warning the U.S. not to position its missile-defense system in the former Warsaw Pact states in Eastern Europe. But just the other day, Poland signed an agreement to do just that (as did the Czechs earlier) and the Russians are furious. The U.S. claims that the system is aimed at stopping incoming missiles from rogue states like Iran, but few believe that unlikely rationale. The Russians, not unrealistically, are convinced that the missile-defense system is aimed at them, and is provocative in the extreme, placed as it is right next to its borders. (Look how freaked out the U.S. got in the early-1960s — ready to go to war — when the Soviet Union put nuclear missiles in Cuba, just 90 miles off the American coast.)

When President Saakashvili ordered Georgian troops into South Ossetia and Abkhazia, two ethnic-Russian regions inside Georgia that wished to break away and be annexed by their Russian neighbor, Putin and Russian president Medvedev ordered their "peacekeeping" troops (there under a U.N. resolution) to resist and sent tanks and troops across the Georgian border to occupy large parts of Georgia. Putin said he’s convinced that the Americans approved of their ally Saakashvili’s invasion since the U.S. has been building up Georgia for years with military weapons and training.


But whether the U.S. openly urged Saakashvili to invade, acquiesed to it, or was somewhat surprised by it, the point is that the proxy confrontation between Russia and the U.S. was on, and the two sides began their move toward a dangerous renewal of the Cold War. Without even acknowledging Georgia’s brutal invasion of Ossieta and Abkhazia, American leaders — out of knee-jerk anti-Russianism — started bashing the Russian bear for its harsh occupation in Georgia, including CheneyBush, John McCain, and Barack Obama/Joe Biden.

We’ll probably never know for sure who "started" this current phase of the long-simmering conflict between Georgia and Russia. This situation there, and in the Caucasus in general, is infinitely complex, steeped in nationalistic, tribal and ideological rivalries that are barely understandable, and dangerous for Americans to get sucked into. But that didn’t stop McCain, a neo-con warmonger of the first order, from immediately making ill-advised, threatening anti-Russia comments. (Not incidentally, McCain’s foreign-policy advisor, Randy Scheunemann, up until a few months ago was a lobbyist for the Georgian government and his firm continues in that role.) Even the initially-cautious CheneyBush Administration jumped into the name-calling and threatening, joined in a bit later, with only slightly more sense of nuance, by the Democratic nominee Obama. (Biden, in his acceptance speech, was even more outspoken in his angry denunciation of Russia.)

Neo-con Dick Cheney is being dispatched to Georgia as a hard-line message to Putin that the U.S. is not backing off its support of Georgia’s anti-Russian stance. The U.S. is moving toward isolating Russia, starting by kicking it out of the G-8, blocking its ascension to the WTO, cutting back on investments, etc. Even the conservative British journal The Economist believes there are dangers in these kinds of moves that need to be measured against possible consequences:

"Suspending business as usual should not be pushed to the point that drives Russia into the sort of sulk that will make its behaviour worse. Finding the line between disapproval, pressure and continued engagement will be hard. … But there is vital work to be done — on nuclear proliferation and arms reduction, for example — in which the need for cooperation with Russia simply outweighs the need to punish it."

That intelligent prescription requires highly nuanced diplomatic smarts — and some understanding of Russia’s perception of its "sphere of influence" — neither of which is much in evidence in the nation’s capital these days.


Because of the high stakes involved, our working alliance with Russia is crucially important. We don’t need to approve of their leadership, their ambitions in their region, or how democracy is being compromised inside Russia. But the U.S. does need their help in negotiations with Iran, for example. Additionally, given the fact that the Russians still possess thousands of nuclear missiles, one would have hoped for cooler U.S. heads to prevail, that at least a move toward high-level diplomacy would have been made before the harsh threats were issued.

But, no. It’s an election season. The big verbal guns were hastily moved into place and firing began, with Medvedev responding by recognizing the "independence" of the two breakaway regions in Georgia and telling the Americans they’re not afraid of a new Cold War. Russia says it will be deploying its missiles at a wide variety of locations, and aiming them at Western European capitals. The other day, it test-fired a new ICBM designed to defeat an anti-missile system, as a metaphorical warning shot across the bow of American policy.

In short, the two countries are not playing patty-cake here. The evolving relationship with Russia is loaded with potentially explosive dangers, and great care needs to be exercised to keep that relationship on an even keel for the good of both countries, for Europe, and for stability in the world. So far, good sense seems in short supply and thus the two fading empires slide closer to confrontation and potential war.

Are you reading much about this in your local newspaper? Hear any serious discussions about this on national TV? I thought not. The politicians and mass-media are focusing on who’s wearing a flag-pin, Paris Hilton and what candidate is ahead by two points in the daily poll. And thus we drift toward disaster.