08 February 2009

Biden: "No sphere of influence"

The Vice-President has promised a moderation of American foreign policy under President Obama, specifically inviting Russia to go back to the drawing board as far as the two countries' relations are concerned. He seems to have received a positive response despite signals of residual American intransigence. Biden made a point of saying that "We will not — will not — recognize any nation having a sphere of influence. " This was by way of explaining why the U.S. continues to deny recognition to the Russian client states of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. Doing so, apparently, would concede that territory theoretically belonging to the Republic of Georgia fell into a Russian sphere of influence. Americans aren't alone in this attitude. Few countries, to my knowledge, have recognized the sovereignty or independence of either region. Rejecting spheres of influence is also a noble idea. "It will remain our view," Biden said, "that sovereign states have the right to make their own decisions and choose their own alliances."

If Biden and Obama believe this, however, it behooves them to show their good faith by once and for all renouncing the Monroe Doctrine. American exceptionalists might argue that the Doctrine doesn't define a sphere of influence because it only forbids foreign control of western hemisphere countries. But in practice, the Doctrine has been invoked whenever any neighbor of ours wanted to get too chummy with the Soviet Union. Just like Russia, we don't want enemies or potential enemies to have friendly countries that could provide bases too close to home. But if Russia's neighbors have a right to make alliances with the United States, then countries like Venezuela, for instance, have as much right to ally with Russia or China, no matter how much that might disrupt American strategic calculations. Fair is fair.

Of course, the apparent fact that no one objected to Biden's forbidding of spheres of influence may indicate that no one, including Biden himself, really takes the statement seriously. I doubt that any power in this day and age would blatantly assert that it has a sphere of influence. They will talk about strategic interests in neighboring countries that require the establishment of spheres of influence in all but name, but as long as no one is really crass about it, no one else might object. Part of diplomacy is recognizing that leaders have to say certain things for domestic consumption. Wise diplomats won't begrudge Biden his comments, at least until they figure out how the practice under Obama, Biden and Clinton will differ from the theory.

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