In the age of Trump and Putin, Xi and Macron, spheres of influence are making a comeback

It was Vladimir Putin who launched the fightback against post-Cold War liberal democracy. 

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What do the humanitarian crisis in Syria, the attempt to impeach Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron’s proclamations on Europe and the protests in Hong Kong all have in common? They seem disparate. But all illustrate the resurgence of an idea: spheres of influence.

I came face to face with this fact earlier this year on a bridge over the Enguri River in Georgia. The scene recalled the darker corners of Europe’s 20th-century history. On either side of the bridge were military checkpoints. On one flew the flag of Abkhazia, a breakaway pro-Moscow statelet; on the other flew Georgian and EU flags. A stream of ethnic Georgians trekked from one to the other. Second-class citizens in Abkhazia, they were coming to draw their pensions, obtain medical prescriptions and take their children to school. Things had been like this since 2008, when Russian and Russian-backed troops took control of Abkhazia to keep Georgia in Moscow’s orbit.

Spheres of influence have been a feature of international relations for centuries. They can be positive (think of the attractive power of American culture) and negative (think American-backed coups in Latin America). They marked imperial China’s system of “tributary states” that paid dues and kowtowed to the emperor; the colonial land-grabs of European powers in the 19th century; and the Cold War division of the world into American and Soviet spheres. The fall of the Berlin Wall 30 years ago made spheres of influence fall from fashion. This seemed to be a new, post-Westphalian, post-geography era defined by the spread of liberal democracy, multilateral institutions and America’s military pre-eminence.

It was Vladimir Putin who launched the fightback. Having dubbed 1989 “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century” he rose to power in the Second Chechen War in 1999 by pioneering hybrid warfare methods – proxy and unconventional forces, information warfare and the installation of loyal local leaders – that he later applied in Georgia and Ukraine. Today Putin is extending Russia’s sphere of influence to the Middle East by co-opting governments in Damascus, Tehran and, increasingly, Ankara. Tartus, Syria’s port on the Mediterranean, is now as good as Russian; the Russian flag flies above bases in northern Syria recently ceded to Turkey by America; Moscow’s influence is also growing with Iranian influence in Iraq.

And the West? The Bush administration’s disastrous intervention in the Middle East has been followed by disastrous American indifference. The Obama and Trump administrations have been peripheral during the Syrian War. An isolationist who admires strongman leaders, Donald Trump has suggested that Russia’s annexation of the Crimea was valid and has, his would-be impeachers allege, used America’s military aid to Ukraine to blackmail the country’s new president. Last month he betrayed Kurdish allies by withdrawing US troops from northern Syria to let Recep Tayyip Erdogan send in his Turkish, anti-Kurdish forces.

Europe lacks Trump’s nihilism, but makes up for it in sheer inconsistency. Nice words about the continent’s responsibilities stream from the same leaders who have done little to halt the Syrian nightmare, have boosted Putin with projects like Nord Stream 2 (a Russia-Germany gas pipeline that undermines Ukraine and the Baltics) and are now ceding the Middle East to Moscow. Macron, who is pushing for a thaw, seems to believe that Putin stands between France and further Islamist attacks like the massacre at the Bataclan Theatre in Paris in 2015.

British politics, too, is marked by the shift to spheres-of-influence geopolitics. The Corbynite left’s objection to “imperialism” ends where Russian and Chinese spheres start and the Brexiteer right both overestimates Britain’s sphere of influence and underestimates those of other powers.

All of which leaves the way open for a rising China, whose belief in its gravitational pull as zhong-gu, the middle kingdom, is rooted in its old tributary-state network. It has mostly used carrots to re-establish that system. The recent election in Sri Lanka, where the pro-Beijing Rajapaksa dynasty has won power again, is just the latest illustration of China’s growing strength in south-east and central Asia. But the threat of the stick has also played a part. Historians may look back on Beijing’s violent response to the protests in Hong Kong as they do now on Moscow’s war in Chechnya; as an intervention, in a semi-autonomous region, that pioneered methods later used to rebuild a wider sphere of influence. How long, ask nervous observers, until this violence finds its way to the streets of Seoul or Manila to China’s east, of Bangkok and Colombo to its south, or of Tashkent or Baku to its west.

As the Cold War showed, rival power blocks mean rival spheres of influence. So expect more clashes on the borders of these spheres: between the US and China in the western Pacific, between India and China in the Himalayas and the Bay of Bengal, and between an array of domestic and foreign powers in Africa. The contest will also rage across the intangible expanses of the internet. Google is shut out of China, Huawei is being shut out of America. The regions in between are being forced to choose; south-east Asia’s internet is increasingly dominated by Chinese platforms and Germany, caught between Washington and Beijing, is debating whether to let Huawei run its 5G telecoms infrastructure.

A time traveller from the 19th century would struggle to understand 5G. But she would recognise today’s geopolitics: a world of power blocks, overlapping geopolitical gravitational fields and balances of power. The old fragile, fragmented world order is back.

Jeremy Cliffe is International Editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 20 November 2019 issue of the New Statesman, They think it’s all over