Antony Blinken, Biden, Biden adminisration, Cuban Missile Crisis, Fidel Castro, Jake Sullivan, James Monroe, Monroe Doctrine, Our So-Called Foreign Policy, Russia, Sergei Ryabkov, sphere of influence, Ukraine, Vladimir Putin, Western Hemisphere
Now here’s an utterly whacko turn taken by U.S. policy toward the Ukraine crisis that pretty astonishingly has gone unnoticed: The Biden administration keeps insisting (e.g., in the words of Secretary of State Antony Blinken), that “One country does not have the right to dictate the policies of another or to tell that country with whom it may associate; one country does not have the right to exert a sphere of influence. That notion should be relegated to the dustbin of history.”
At the same time, this same administration has recently reemphasized that the United States will keep exerting a sphere of inflence in the Western Hemisphere – the same sphere of influence that was first declared when President James Monroe laid out his famous doctrine in 1823,and that has been rigorously enforced repeatedly. (Google, e.g., “Cuban Missile Crisis.”)
“[W]e should consider any attempt on their part to extend their system to any portion of this hemisphere as dangerous to our peace and safety. With the existing colonies or dependencies of any European power we have not interfered and shall not interfere, but with the Governments who have declared their independence and maintained it, and whose independence we have, on great consideration and on just principles, acknowledged, we could not view any interposition for the purpose of oppressing them, or controlling in any other manner their destiny, by any European power in any other light than as the manifestation of an unfriendly disposition toward the United States.”
President Biden’s White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan wasn’t quite so wordy answering a reporter’s question on January 13, but here’s his response when asked to
“address the [Russian] Deputy Foreign Minister’s comments suggesting that the — that Russia could deploy forces — or wouldn’t rule out deploying forces in Latin America? Is that something that the U.S. is concerned about? Is that something that came up in those discussions?”
Said Sullivan: “I’m not going to respond to bluster in the public commentary. That wasn’t raised in the discussions at the Strategic Stability Dialogue. If Russia were to move in that direction, we would deal with it decisively.”
Do you see any significant difference with Monroe’s remarks? Of course not. But they could not be more different than Blinken’s declaration, especially when you consider that the Russian official in question, Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov, never suggested that Moscow would send forces to Latin America against a prospective host country’s will.
This last observation matters a lot because during the most important invokation of the Monroe Doctrine – that aforementioned 1962 Cuban Missile Crisis and the run up to it – it was Cuban dictator Fidel Castro who asked the Soviet Union to provide him with weapons and even troops to defend his regime (following the failed U.S.-sponsored Bay of Pigs invasion by Cuban exiles), not the other way around. And Castro had no problem with the alternative proposed by Moscow – those missiles.
At this point, it’s absolutely vital to point out that I’m not contending here that since the United States has declared – and still declares – a sphere of influence in its neighborhood that Russia or any other country has some kind of innate right to declare one in their neighborhood. I’m not even arguing that the United States is being hypocritical in claiming a sphere of its own while decrying similar claims by others.
That’s because it’s nothing less than inane, and in fact downright childish and often dangerous, to view these matters in terms or rights or even simple consistency. Because in the international sphere — which lacks any commonly accepted, much less enforceable, definitions of acceptable behavior – questions of principle and the like have absolutely nothing to do with a country’s ability to protect or advance interests it considers important, right up to survival. A country either has the power (in any of its dimensions, either alone or in combination with others) or some other capacity (shrewdness?) to achieve these goals or it doesn’t. And relying on these kinds of abstractions (including the illusion, in the security field, of effective international law), as opposed to power considerations, is a surefire formula for failure, defeat, or even worse.
As a result, it is supremely unimportant whether the United States or Russia or any other country or group of countries views anything like another’s sphere of influence as legitimate or hypocritical or downright despicable or possessing any other moral or ethical characteristic. What is supremely important is whether or not the United States or Russia, or any other actors, has the capacity, or determination to create the capacity, to defend its own sphere or any other claim, or to challenge successfully anyone else’s claim.
When it comes to Ukraine, nothing could be clearer than Russia’s ability to defend a sphere and the United States’ inability to bring it to an end it and unwillingness to build the ability to do so. When it comes to the Western Hemisphere, the reverse holds.
Just as important: The consolidation of a Russian sphere in Ukraine or other neighbors not already U.S. treaty allies shouldn’t significantly trouble Americans in the slightest. They literally have no dog in that fight. That’s because, as I’ve written repeatedly, the United States has no vital or even significant stake in Ukraine’s status, and because, as a result, any effort to change this status with the only instrument capable of succeeding (the military), could all too easily amount to suicidal folly given Russia’s conventional military superiority in its own backyard and its vast nuclear arsenal,
By a comparable token, the United States shouldn’t be troubled in the slightest by any arguments by neighbors or others that policies like the Monroe Doctrine undermine their sovereignty or any other rights they think they possess. That’s because the United States does have vital stakes in keeping foreign military forces out of the Western Hemisphere. In other words, those claims by other countries can never be remotely as important to Americans as whatever requirements for their national security or well-being their own political system determines – that is, unless they don’t attach much value to self-preservation and similar goals.
There’s no telling how the Ukraine crisis will turn out, and how Washington will ultimately respond. But it does seem clear that an administration that issues such totally conflicting statements on spheres of influence as those by Sullivan and Blinken isn’t increasing the odds of anything that any Americans could justifiably applaud.