Yalta, the site of the 1945 conference where American, Soviet, and British leaders shaped postwar Europe through the creation of respective spheres of influence, has become a dirty word of sorts in the annals of U.S. diplomacy.
“Yalta” has come to represent the alleged Western betrayal of its legal and moral obligations to the Czechoslovak and Polish states in the prelude to the Cold War as part of an agreement with the Soviet Union, not unlike the Western duplicity represented by “Munich.”
The latter was named after the 1938 conference where, in the prelude to World War II, under a similar sphere-of-influence deal with Nazi Germany, the Brits and French discarded their commitments to Czechoslovakia.
From that perspective, Yalta, not unlike Munich and the notion it represents of great powers dividing the international system into the spheres of influence, has been criticized by American liberal internationalists as a demonstration of a cynical and duplicitous realpolitik approach and an example of deceitful European diplomacy that seeks to achieve worldwide stability at the expense of the weak.
There is an element of hypocrisy in this critique if one considers that the Monroe Doctrine, which was followed by President Theodore Roosevelt’s “corollary,” turned the entire Western Hemisphere into a U.S. sphere of influence where the Americans have had the exclusive responsibility of preserving order and protecting the life and property in the countries in that region.
Or, as political thinker Walter Lippmann put it, “We have never thought of acknowledging the ‘right’ of Cuba or Haiti or the Republic of Panama – all of them independent and sovereign states – to contract alliances which were inconsistent with the concert of the whole North American region.”
Yet this policy pursued by liberal internationalist presidents like Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Delano Roosevelt ended up protecting U.S. political and economic interests in its strategic backyard and prevented turning it into an arena for confrontations between great powers, with the exception of the 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis.
In a way, the dynamics of superpower diplomacy that led to the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. coupled with the building of the Berlin Wall a year earlier, helped transform the deal signed in Yalta—cynical or not—into a viable power-sharing agreement between Washington and Moscow.
That agreement secured stability and preserved peace in Europe for three decades and protected the interests of the United States and its NATO allies. At the same time, it prevented the turning of out-of-area regional conflicts, like in Southeast Asia or the Middle East, into military conflagrations between the two superpowers.
It formed what the late Australian international affairs scholar Coral Bell described as a “shadow condominium”: that with the relationship between Washington and Moscow swinging between competition and cooperation—not diplomatic engagement—it made it possible to manage the relationship between the two “frenemies.”
Ironically, it was in the aftermath of the Cold War, starting with Yugoslavia’s wars of succession and up to the current war in Ukraine, that bloody military conflicts have re-occurred in Europe. The sphere-of-influence system dubbed by critics as a conspiracy between great powers has been more conducive to allowing the weak, Serbs and Croats, Georgians and Ukrainians, to live in peace.
For a while in the aftermath of the Cold War, following the integration of China into the international system and the growing diplomatic engagement between the world’s two largest economic superpowers, there was some talk promoted by realpolitik types like Henry Kissinger and Zbigniew Brzezinski about the possibility of forming power-sharing agreements between Beijing and Washington.
Indeed, the notion of a G-2 of these two economic superpowers—proposed by Brzezinski and Fred Bergsten of the Peterson Institute for International Economics—as members of the UN Security Council, and as the most prominent rising power and the strongest “status-quo” power, working together to address the big challenges facing the international system and providing the global public goods that the world required, became quite popular—until it wasn’t.
Reality has bitten. It has become clear that under the conditions of rapid international power transition—when the rising power would inevitably challenge the status quo and the position of the state or states that were securing the established order—rivalry between Washington and Beijing is more likely, as it is today. The idea of a G-2 now sounds more and more like science fiction.
But as Bell’s concept of “shadow condominium” suggested, when applied to Soviet-U.S. relationship after the Cuban Missile Crisis and the pre-Détente era, a temporary power-sharing arrangement can emerge during periods of acute crisis engaging the interests of the two dominant powers. To put it differently, rising tensions between the two could also encourage the development of mechanisms that prevent an international crisis from turning into a full-blown war, as it did in 1962.
But as foreign policy expert Brendan Taylor points out, once that danger had passed, that arrangement retreated “into the shadows of the future,” and default adversarial postures resumed; although there was always “a prospect for the condominium to re-emerge out of those shadows during times of deep crisis,” becoming an integral element of their relationship to be re-activated when the threat of military confrontation rises.
Is it possible, wonders Taylor, that while we need to recognize the way that our period of power transition affects the relationship between China and the United States in an adversarial or even dangerous direction, we could also envision the existence of the “shadow condominium” “during such periods could provide stability through joint great power management of the balance of power between the two.
In a way, the current mix of competition and cooperation in Sino-American relationship, especially when one considers the continuing deep economic ties between them notwithstanding all the talk about “de-coupling,” creates the conditions for the management of the balance of power. Indeed, Taylor mentions the way the two have tried to stabilize the Korean Peninsula in face of North Korea’s nuclear strategy and despite growing Sino-American tensions has averted a military conflict over the issue.
From that perspective, the concept of a U.S.-China “shadow condominium” could manifest itself in the event of a crisis between the United States and China over Taiwan. Both countries have an interest in avoiding direct military conflict, much like America and the Soviet Union did in 1962, which could include a possible nuclear confrontation.
That kind of arrangement wouldn't amount to a formal power-sharing agreement between two nations. They don't share common values or understanding of international relations. It certainly won't take the form of respective spheres of influence in Asia.
But in the long run, it could create incentives for the evolution of a more stable balance of power system in the Indo-Pacific region. The nations of Southeast Asia seek to avert a military conflict between the two regional giants. Meanwhile, Japan, South Korea, and Australia would not be under pressure to acquire nuclear military capabilities, on one hand, and yet won’t feel marginalized under a Sino-American co-management system, on the other hand. Additionally, India, like Western Europe during the Cold War, could help promote Sino-American détente in the future.
Dr. Leon Hadar, a contributing editor at The National Interest, has taught international relations at American University and was a research fellow with the Cato Institute. A former UN correspondent for the Jerusalem Post, he currently covers Washington for the Business Times of Singapore and is a columnist/blogger with Israel’s Haaretz.