In the future, as in the past, Americans may find spheres of influence to be useful tools of statecraft. Advocates of U.S. global hegemony often equate demilitarized regions between great powers with stepping-stones to imperial conquest. But demilitarized zones and neutral nations like Belgium and Switzerland have always been important in international diplomacy, as one of a number of techniques to avert conflict. In the nineteenth century the United States and Britain, then military rivals, shared the Oregon Territory for several decades, demilitarized the Great Lakes and cooperated with respect to a possible Central American canal.
During World War II, Winston Churchill suggested to Stalin that after the war the USSR should get 90 percent influence in Romania and 75 percent in Bulgaria, while the UK would share influence over Yugoslavia and Hungary with Moscow fifty-fifty and have a 90 percent share of influence over Greece. What caused the Cold War was not the Soviets’ insistence on a lack of offensive forces near their post-1945 borders, but their installation of communist puppet regimes throughout eastern Europe, combined with their high level of militarism and anti-Western foreign policy.
The United States helped keep the first Cold War cold by respecting the Soviet sphere of influence in eastern Europe, refusing to intervene when the Red Army crushed rebellions in Germany, Hungary and Czechoslovakia. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, the Kennedy administration insisted that the Soviets remove nuclear missiles from Cuba—and resolved the standoff by agreeing to remove NATO missiles from Turkey near the Soviet border.
Without admitting that they have done so, the United States and its European allies in practice have already recognized a Russian sphere of influence in Georgia and Ukraine, by shelving plans to incorporate both in NATO and the EU following Russia’s hostile reaction. Russia is no more likely to give Crimea back to Ukraine than the United States is to return Texas and California to Mexico. Any stable settlement of the proxy war in Ukraine will be based on negotiated partial autonomy for pro-Russian regions and the neutralization of Ukraine as a whole. Here, as in East Asia, the only options are negotiated neutrality, power sharing or continuing conflict. Neither Russia nor China, under any conceivable political regime, is likely to accept the legitimacy of U.S. military installations and operations near its borders.
BEFORE FAILURE forces it to do so, the United States should abandon the doomed bid for global hegemony that followed Cold War I and has provoked Cold War II. The alternative should be a geopolitical version of what the philosopher John Gray, in the context of societies divided by incommensurable values, calls a “modus vivendi.”
A global modus vivendi might have a number of features familiar from great-power concerts and diplomatic settlements in the past. There would be attempts at arms control—but not total disarmament, because each great power would retain the right to maintain basic armed forces essential for its defense.
In the new global modus vivendi, spheres of influence and demilitarized zones would be legitimate objects of diplomatic negotiation, in order to reduce tensions among great powers. Small and weak nations might chafe at the constraints on their independence such agreements impose, but their discomfort is unavoidable in a world that, regardless of models of domestic government, will always be organized largely on the basis of hierarchies of military and industrial power.
In economic policy there is also a case for a pragmatic modus vivendi in the place of unachievable grand designs. A global economy governed by a single set of rules, liberal or otherwise, is not possible, and would be undesirable if it were. There has never been a single economic model adopted by all countries, at all levels of development and in all circumstances. During the Cold War, anti-statist America, social democratic Sweden, dirigiste France, economic nationalist Japan, protectionist Latin American countries practicing import substitution and feudal petromonarchies in the Middle East managed to be geopolitical allies. In the generation since Cold War I ended, the so-called Washington Consensus in favor of liberal capitalism was always ignored by successful nations in East Asia. The Washington Consensus will not be replaced by a Beijing Consensus, but by economic pluralism. If countries including the United States find that their national economic interests are better served by bilateralism and “minilateralism,” then there is no reason to lament the abandonment of the project of a single set of rules and regulations for the global economy, a utopian goal that never had any appeal beyond narrow circles of technocrats, lobbyists and academics.
As for values, there is no need for Americans to become moral or cultural relativists. But while individuals and private groups can proselytize for what they hold to be universal values—whether in the form of postmodern secular liberalism or evangelical Protestantism—it is not in the national interest for the U.S. government to treat all states that do not share them as illegitimate regimes.