I have long self-described as an internationalist when it comes to my views about the role the United States needs to undertake around the globe in conjunction with other nations. I strongly view the footprint of the United States as a needed tool to further not only our interests but equally important the needs and desires of other people.
One of the deeper reasons for my rejection of Donald Trump was the result of his not being aware of, or showing any interest in our legitimate and needed role on the world stage. Not having been in any way engaged with international affairs as it relates to governing left him prattling nationalistic rhetoric and doing substantial damage to our national image and policy aims.
That came to mind, again, when reading the latest from Robert Kagan, someone I try to follow when new columns are published. He is an American neoconservative scholar and a leading advocate of liberal interventionism. His The Price of Hegemony in Foreign Affairs was illuminating and thought-provoking. These lines below summed up my views from 2017-until Jan 20th, 2021, relating as it did to what Trump did not know, or care to learn.
For the 70-plus years since World War II, the United States has actively worked to keep revisionists at bay. But many Americans hoped that with the end of the Cold War, this task would be finished and that their country could become a “normal” nation with normal—which was to say, limited—global interests. But the global hegemon cannot tiptoe off the stage, as much as it might wish to. It especially cannot retreat when there are still major powers that, because of their history and sense of self, cannot give up old geopolitical ambitions—unless Americans are prepared to live in a world shaped and defined by those ambitions, as it was in the 1930s.
One of the complaints I have with those who shy away from grasping the role the U.S. must continue to play around the world, is the way they lament how ‘rough’ the West was on the defeated remnant of the old U.S.S.R. The facts prove, of course, that the West did not bluster or threaten, provoke or prod Russia. Instead, the various peoples of the former Soviet Union, when given a chance to make their own way in the world, looked West.
Kagan demolishes the idea that Russia should be allowed to think they have been granted a sphere of interest, based on history. A flawed notion President Putin tries to stand upon.
The problem for Putin—and for those in the West who want to cede to both China and Russia their traditional spheres of interest—is that such spheres are not granted to one great power by other great powers; they are not inherited, nor are they created by geography or history or “tradition.” They are acquired by economic, political, and military power. They come and go as the distribution of power in the international system fluctuates. The United Kingdom’s sphere of interest once covered much of the globe, and France once enjoyed spheres of interest in Southeast Asia and much of Africa and the Middle East. Both lost them, partly due to an unfavorable shift of power at the beginning of the twentieth century, partly because their imperial subjects rebelled, and partly because they willingly traded in their spheres of interest for a stable and prosperous U.S.-dominated peace. Germany’s sphere of interest once extended far to the east. Before World War I, some Germans envisioned a vast economic Mitteleuropa, where the people of central and eastern Europe would provide the labor, resources, and markets for German industry. But this German sphere of interest overlapped with Russia’s sphere of interest in southeastern Europe, where Slavic populations looked to Moscow for protection against Teutonic expansion. These contested spheres helped produce both world wars, just as the contested spheres in East Asia had helped bring Japan and Russia to blows in 1904.
Russians may believe they have a natural, geographic, and historical claim to a sphere of interest in eastern Europe because they had it throughout much of the past four centuries. And many Chinese feel the same way about East Asia, which they once dominated. But even the Americans learned that claiming a sphere of interest is different from having one. For the first century of the United States’ existence, the Monroe Doctrine was a mere assertion—as hollow as it was brazen. It was only toward the end of the nineteenth century, when the country was able to enforce its claim, that the other great powers were grudgingly forced to accept it. After the Cold War, Putin and other Russians may have wanted the West to grant Moscow a sphere of interest in Europe, but such a sphere simply did not reflect the true balance of power after the Soviet Union fell. China may claim the “nine-dash line”—enclosing most of the South China Sea—as marking its sphere of interest, but until Beijing can enforce it, other powers are unlikely to acquiesce.
A most worthy article that deserves to be read in full.