My blog posts revolve around my interests and vocation as a historian: the intersection of history and contemporary church life, the intersection of history and contemporary politics, serendipitous discoveries in archives or on research trips, publications and research projects, upcoming conferences, and speaking engagements.
I sometimes blog for two other organizations, the Canadian Baptist Historical Society and the Centre for Post-Christendom Studies.
The views expressed in these blogs represent the views of the authors, and not necessarily those of any organizations with which they are associated.
There are rules in every aspect of human engagement – sports, work, family – including international relations. Behaviour in some contexts may seem odd if you don’t know the rules, but once the rules are known everything begins to make sense. More specifically, for those familiar with the four rules of international relations related to “spheres of influence” there is little about the war in Ukraine that is surprising.
Despite what some have said about the end of spheres of influence in the modern age, they remain as real and central to the actions of great powers as in the nineteenth century age of empires. Knowing the rules of engagement in such power-relations is not necessarily to like them, nor is knowing them the same as endorsing them. It is, however, a beginning to understanding how the world actually works.
Here are what I have identified as the four basic rules that apply in virtually every situation related to spheres of influence.
Without exception, every powerful nation has spheres of influence – neighboring regions or nations or oceans that are identified as absolutely hands off for others. Such places are considered to be essential for the security of the nation. In fact, to lose control of such a sphere of influence is seen as an existential threat to the very existence of the nation.
Note that I am not saying that the claim is legal, proper, or even morally defensible. Rule #1 simply relates to what is perceived and claimed to be a vital sphere of influence.
Not everything fits within the category of a vital sphere of influence. For instance, powerful nations withdrawal from some conflicts without a sense that crucial territory has been lost (for instance, the recent US retreat from Afghanistan). But no nation ever willingly gives up what it considers to be of vital interest.
Russia has made it clear that Ukraine is in its sphere of influence. To have a hostile Ukraine and NATO on its border is considered by Russia to be an end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it crisis. And it must be dealt with accordingly. Which leads to the next rule.
Of course, nations may or may not state it so starkly, but military and political planning assumes that everything must be done to eliminate threats to a vital sphere of influence. There are ample examples of this in world history.
In recent history, Britain considered the channel ports a vital sphere of influence, and thus they entered into World War One. America took the world to the brink of nuclear war when Russia began placing missiles in Cuba in the 1960s. India and Pakistan have waged war over the Kashmir. Israel will never give up the Golan Heights. China provides cover for North Korea. And so on…you get the point.
The willingness of Russia to go to war over Ukraine may seem odd to those unfamiliar with the four rules of spheres of influence, but it does follow Rules #1 and Rule #2. Everything must be done to protect a vital interest – including war. Of course, ideally political solutions would be tried first. But at the end of the day, it is deemed to be a zero-sum game, an existential threat to the nation that must ultimately be dealt with, even if it means war. And Russia did just that.
Rule #3: Abandon What Is Not “Yours”
The response of the West to Ukraine’s plight fits into Rule #3. The West looked upon Ukraine’s recent orientation to the West as a positive development. And NATO and the US encouraged Ukraine to move westward in its economic development and foreign policy. It even provided military aid in the form of loans and shipments of weapons.
Yet when Russia invaded, no western nation provided troops and joined in the fight. Why? Rule #3 states that a nation only proceeds into a conflict when essential interests are at stake. And Ukraine – a country that had sought to chart a new course – was simple not considered to be in a vital sphere of western influence.
Implicit in Rule #3 is also the realization that a region not in your sphere of influence is probably in someone else’s – and so it is best to back off. And that implicit recognition is behind President Biden’s (and NATO) refusal to put troops into a war that he knows Russia will die by the millions to win. It would also most likely lead to World War Three – a nightmare lose-lose scenario for the planet (and that, obviously, would be a loss of US vital interests).
Of course, the situation in Ukraine remains fluid, and if NATO and the US suddenly decide that Ukraine fits within their vital sphere of influence, then Rules #1 and #2 then apply to the conduct of the West. That development would also be an example of two nations deciding that the same region is a vital sphere of influence - a scenario that usually does not end well.
Rule #4: Know Your Place
It is impossible to ignore geography. Smaller powers neighboring or caught between larger and more powerful neighbors live a precarious existence. Whether they like it or not, smaller nations within a powerful nation’s vital sphere of interest have only degrees of independence. No smaller power can successfully chart an entirely independent foreign policy if the larger power deems that to be a threat to its own vital sphere of influence.
But do not independent nations have a right to develop as they see fit? Of course they do, but those decisions have consequences when vital national interests of one’s neighbors enter into the equation. That is simply how the world has worked since human history has been recorded.
Ukraine hoped to chart its own path with the West’s help, but due to Rule #3 there was no way the West was going to get involved when Russia acted on Rule #2.
Note, I am not saying that acting according to these rules is moral, just, or ideal. I am not defending Russia's actions either (in fact, I condemn them). I am also not blaming Ukraine for its suffering. My point in this blog is simply to identify the basic rules that have always applied when nations find themselves dealing with issues related to spheres of influence. And to know these rules does help make sense of what is happening between Ukraine and Russia.
Of course, recognizing these four rules is helpful, but the next step for Christians is to chart a course of action. You can read my blogs or look into my new book for some insight into critical questions related to engaging the state in matters of war.