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The Return to the Era of Spheres of Influence in Eurasia

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The end of the Cold War brought hope to the West that the world had evolved past the concept of spheres of influence. No longer, it was thought, would large Eurasian states strive to carve out territories for the expansion of their own geopolitical influence. But spheres of influence are a tenacious concept. They have been pursued throughout history and are likely to return in the coming decades.

One geopolitical constant is that the emergence of spheres of influence coincides with the pursuit by a rising or re-emerging power of higher status in international affairs. This usually takes the form of a power trying to attain a certain level of influence over neighboring states or far-flung territories.

Several large Eurasian states are aspiring toward a bigger geopolitical influence over the super-continent. China, for example, strives to attain undisputed control over the islands in the Asia-Pacific and its neighbors in Southeast Asia. And through the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), it plans to extend its influence well beyond its immediate neighborhood into what Beijing calls “West Asia,” otherwise known as the Middle East.

India, which fears China’s rising power in Asia, is also pursuing an exclusive sphere of influence in south and Southeast Asia. India’s geographic location and economic and military might give it a pivotal role in the region and position New Delhi as key to the Indo-Pacific strategy—the rival concept to the BRI.

Further east, Iran, though smaller in size and in economic and military power, is energetically pursuing its agenda of expanding its geopolitical influence even as it is buffeted by sanctions and other trials. Though hard-pressed by the West (particularly the US), the Tehran regime has neither desisted from its hegemonic regional drive, whether directly or via its vast network of proxy Shiite militias, nor abandoned the hope of spreading its Islamist message as far and wide as possible.

To the west of Iran is Turkey, which has been heavily involved in both Syria and northern Iraq. These activities have raised fears in the West that Ankara aims to create its own sphere of influence along its southern and southeastern borders. However, it can be argued that of all the Eurasian contenders, Turkey is perhaps the least likely to achieve this goal, and doing so might not even be Ankara’s intention. There have been instances when the West ascribed unrealistic geopolitical ambitions to the Turkish leadership.

Then comes Russia, which in the past two decades has been working to extend its influence in Eurasia, primarily across the former Soviet space. These areas are considered by Moscow to be its rightful and exclusive sphere of influence. The creation of the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU) and the Collective Security Treaty organization (CSTO) reflects Russia’s geopolitical aim to encompass its territory with closely linked military and economic allies.

These pivotal Eurasian states all have one thing in common. Their increasing geopolitical activity over the past two decades was the result of either an alternating magnitude of crises along their respective frontiers or a longing for their never-to-be-forgotten imperial grandeur.

Let us again take the example of Turkey. That country borders on five geographic regions with varying geopolitical importance: the Black Sea, the Balkans, the Mediterranean, the South Caucasus, and Syria-Iraq. What these regions have in common is crises of different levels that directly affect Turkey’s borders. It is this matter of simple geography, not an overblown imperial agenda (as many think), that has conditioned Ankara’s active foreign policy in the Middle East from at least the early 2010s.

Then comes Iran. That country’s aggressive foreign policy reflects the changing geopolitical situation along its borders, which allows it to undermine the US military presence in Afghanistan and Iraq by carrying out clandestine operations against American forces and assets.

Similar arguments apply to India, Russia, and China. All three respond to varying uncertainties along their borders while simultaneously building their foreign policy ambitions around a yearning for past grandeur.

As noted, the pursuit of spheres of influence has been a factor throughout recorded history. Another interesting factor is geography. As the above-mentioned Eurasian states are mostly continental powers (either deep inland or partially bordering on seas), there is a constant fear among their political elites of land invasion, a cutting of trade routes, and spillover from border territories.

Geography largely explains why the notion of pursuit of spheres of influence can never be excised from geopolitics. Geography is also at the heart of the perpetual conflict between land and maritime powers and largely explains why the sea powers (Great Britain in its heyday; the US today) have always worked to limit the creation of spheres of influence.

Over the past 100 years, Washington has fought consistently against the creation of spheres of influence in Eurasia. This does not mean it has always been successful. During the Cold War era, for example, the US stood back from rebellions in Hungary (1956) and Czechoslovakia (1968). A similar aloofness was visible in 2008 when Russia invaded Georgia and in 2014 during the Ukraine crisis and Moscow’s military moves in Crimea.

The US has always been burdened to navigate between hard geopolitical reality on the ground and exceptionalism in its foreign policy. “Realpolitik,” though much despised by the American political establishment, tends to prevail. In the coming decade, as it faces Eurasian states that are actively trying to carve out of spheres of influence, the US will have to adjust to changing circumstances on the ground.

Though tensions in Eurasia are likely to rise further, Washington still possesses several foreign policy tools with which to limit the Eurasian actors’ expansion of their spheres of influence. A primary ally could be India, which fears China’s efforts to increase its influence in Pakistan as well as extend its military power into the Indian Ocean. For New Delhi, which is bordered from the north and northwest by an unstable Middle East and an economically poor Central Asia, the rich Southeast Asian region and consequent competition with Beijing represents the most probable foreign policy priority in the next few decades. US foreign policy decision-makers should be able to use India’s resistance to China to keep Beijing’s ambitious BRI in check.

Another possibility is for the US to build closer relations with Turkey by using Ankara’s uncomfortable relations with Moscow over its military activities in Syria and support for Bashar Assad. Considering the divergence of Turkey’s and Russia’s interests on a number of issues (apart from Syria), such as Moscow’s militarization of the Black Sea, territorial conflicts in the South Caucasus, and politics in the Balkans, Ankara needs American support.

In contrast to Turkey, the US has few foreign policy tools with which to limit the ambitions of China, Russia, and Iran. All three are motivated to limit US influence in Eurasia, which occasionally drives them closer. But the three pivotal Eurasian states also share wide-ranging differences that are bound to reappear once the US ceases to be a priority in their foreign policy.

The Eurasian continent of the 2020s will be a space of re-emerging or newly emerging powers either pursuing grand historical ideas or simply responding to crises along their borders. Washington will have to adjust to a certain level of emerging spheres of influence, exacerbating the troublesome debate so characteristic of US foreign policy decision making: American exceptionalism and denial of spheres of influence as a remnant of 19th-early 20th century imperial politics poised against unescapable “realpolitik.”

Author’s note: first published in BESA Center

Emil Avdaliani specializes on former Soviet space and wider Eurasia with particular focus on Russia's internal and foreign policy, relations with Iran, China, the EU and the US. He teaches history and international relations at Tbilisi State University and Ilia State University (Georgia).

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Diplomacy

Chinese-style soft power

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US soft power once meant that the rest of the world dreamt of living like Americans. Recently, soft power is something attributed to China as well, but as much as all of us use Chinese-produced goods, no one really wishes to live in China. Upon closer inspection, China’s soft power is nothing more than lazily hidden strong power, i.e. attempts to achieve economic, political and military dominance through the use of force.

In response to China’s rapid economic growth, the establishment of networks of economic cooperation and its increased role on the global political stage, many political experts are tempted to talk about China’s soft power. However, most often they must talk about aggressive tactics employed by China that has nothing to do with the true meaning of soft power.

The wealth acquired by the Chinese through hard work began to worry the West when it became clear that China has aspirations to become a global superpower. China has the second largest defense budget, although it makes up only a third of that of the US. China has many trade partners, but they often complain that China tries to force unfair rules. Former US president Donald Trump began a trade war with China, and the EU has also accused China of favoring protectionism instead of a competition-based system. When in 2018 Canada, after a request by the US, detained Huawei’s chief financial officer Meng Wanzhou, China responded by detaining several Canadians, although Huawei denied having any ties to the Chinese government.

China has territorial claims in the South China Sea, of which it reminds by holding military exercises and causing tensions in the region.

What concerns China’s soft power, the usual suspects are the Confucius Institutes, which have been established all over the globe, and the Belt and Road Initiative. Another soft outlet of influence is China’s participation in international organization. However, if we look closer at each of them, none can be considered soft power instruments.

The Confucius Institutes teach not only the Chinese language, but also the Chinese government’s worldview. Professors in the US, Canada and Europe have urged to close the Confucius Institutes that operate in their universities, saying that they restrict academic freedom.

There have also been allegations that the Chinese Embassy has attempted to disrupt meetings between Latvian and Tibetan representatives. Former head of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Latvian Saeima (parliament) Ojārs Ēriks Kalniņš revealed that in 2015, after a protest phone call from the Chinese ambassador, he tried to convince his colleagues not to welcome the Tibetan delegation in the Saeima. In 2013, after “instructions from higher authorities” posters advertising Dalai Lama’s lectures were removed from Riga International Airport, and since 2010 Latvia’s highest officials – president and the prime minister – have not officially met with Dalai Lama. The Latvian Ministry of Foreign Affairs advises officials not to meet with Dalai Lama or ministers of the Central Tibetan Administration, as confirmed by Latvian Minister of Foreign Affairs Edgars Rinkēvičs.

Many nations cooperate with China, but quite often they complain about China enforcing unfair conditions. This is a state-level policy – to further economic relations with numerous countries, at the same time imposing different restrictions and obstacles against them in order to tip the scales economic benefit in China’s favor.

Nevertheless, none of this can hide the ugliness of China’s communist regime in the eyes of other nations, especially at a time when China is suspected of withholding information on the true extent of the Covid-19 pandemic in the country, after the outbreak in Wuhan in 2019. Moreover, China is also being accused of Uyghur genocide, with more and more information on this issue coming to light in recent years.

Authoritarian regimes in their essence are incompatible with true soft power, as it’s three main pillars are an attractive culture, political values and a morally just foreign policy, and the only thing China has is an attractive culture. To compensate for the lack of benign political values and foreign policy, China employs means that cannot be considered part of the arsenal of soft power.

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Diplomacy

Cutting Distances with a Cricket Stump

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Sports are the common threads that bind people and countries together. The interlocking rings of the Olympics rings symbolize the coming together of all nations. The former US President Nixon successfully used “ping-pong diplomacy” to open the US-China relationship leading the US to lift embargo against China on June 10, 1971. Cricket has been used in a similar manner to bring together the people of different countries, especially South Asians. Sport in South Asia is a significant part of culture. For South Asians, it is not only a sport but part of their collective identity. Some legends of Cricket in South Asia like Imran Khan, Sachin Tendulkar, Waseem Akram, Sunil Gavaskar, Kumar Sangakkara, Shahid Afridi, Shakaib Al Hasan, Shoaib Akhtar and Virat Kohli are the household names. Though, Pakistan is known as the manufacturer of the official FIFA World Cup ball, football is not popular in Pakistan. Pakistan has remained world champions in Squash, Hockey, Cricket, Snookers, Kabaddi and many other individual events of athletics, yet cricket is the most sought-after sport in Pakistan despite bottlenecks like terrorism and COVID-19.

While the overall sports spectrum went down, Pakistani cricket maintained its presence in cricketing world. Since last few years, Pakistani cricket team has been able to revive and reinvent itself internationally. I remember one of the slogans during Independence Cup 2017 in Lahore that said “It is not Pakistan vs. World, it is Pakistan vs. Terrorism”. In Pakistan, cricket is also a measure of national strength. Pakistan’s cricket teams take part in domestic competitions such as the Quaid-e-Azam Trophy, the Patron’s Trophy, ABN-AMRO Twenty-20 Cup, and the ABN-AMRO Champions Trophy. In 2015, Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) organized a franchise based T20 cricket league known as the Pakistan Super League (PSL). The two seasons of PSL, 2020 and 2021 are held entirely by PCB. Additionally, Mr. Imran Khan, incumbent Prime Minister of Pakistan has conceived the new basic structure of the game in country.

Pakistan-World Champion

Pakistan has won international cricket events, which include the 1992 Cricket World Cup, the 2009 ICC World Twenty20 and the 2017 ICC Champions Trophy besides finishing as runner-up in the 1999 Cricket World Cup and the 2007 ICC World Twenty20. Women’s cricket is also very popular, with KiranBaluch holding the current record of the highest score in a women’s test match with her innings of 242. Mr. Imran Khan has the honour of leading Pakistan national cricket team which won the 1992 Cricket World Cup. In 2010, he was also inducted into International Cricket Council’s Hall of Fame.

Hitting Balls not Borders

In South Asia, cricket and politics are interwoven. Wars have been fought and conflicts have been de-escalated alongside the bat hitting ball. The history of India-Pakistan relations did not inspire confidence in rebuilding relations through non-political means. However, the cricket matches between them are loaded with deeper political and diplomatic meaning.

From 1947 to 1965 only three test series were played between India and Pakistan. The 1965 and 1971 wars led to complete stoppage of cricket exchanges between two countries and there was a very little window to use cricket as a tool to maintain goodwill. After a gap of 17 years, cricket was resumed between them in 1978. The first instance of cricket diplomacy was in 1987 when General Zia-Ul-Haq visited India to attend a test match in Jaipur, and the resulting diplomatic dialogue cooled relations. In 2004, Prime Minister of India, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, went to Pakistan to attend the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) summit. He also allowed Indian cricket team to visit Pakistan to play and advised the cricketers to not only win the matches, but also the hearts of Pakistani public. Over the next three years, the two countries played each other three times. Cricket diplomacy again emerged when then-Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his Pakistani counterpart, Yousuf Raza Gilani, met each other for the World Cup 2011 semifinal between India and Pakistan. Peace talks started again and Pakistan toured India in December 2012 for a T20 and three One Day Internationals (ODIs). The efficacy of cricket diplomacy in Indo-Pak relations can also be gauged from the fact that it brought both states to the negotiating table to manage the issue of Jammu & Kashmir (J&K).

All for One and One for All

Any major international sporting event like a World Cup gives one a sense of belonging to a larger global community. Sportsmen have always been successful goodwill ambassadors for any country and have admirers across borders. Fans’ love for cricket break all barriers that is why the peacekeepers see cricket as a tool to bind people together. Despite tensions, Pakistani fans recently celebrated India’s historic win over Australia. Nelson Mandela also believed that “Sport can create hope where once there was only despair. It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers.”In short, a link between international cricket’s revival and national resilience need to be established. Restarting international cricket in South Asia would enhance the opportunity to establish aspired will of peace and prosperity.

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Can diplomats be proactive online without becoming “wolf-warrior”?

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Photo: camilo jimenez/Unsplash

With the increasingly important digital world, traditional, offline tools and approaches are becoming less and less sufficient and effective in shaping the public conversation, influencing the global or national public opinion, and obtaining trust.

As a part of reform that veers towards revolution in a domain well known for its adherence to norms, today’s diplomacy is also experiencing functional changes in terms of what strategic communications means in the digital environment. As we are witnessing lately, the emerging diplomatic virtual presence has become a significant part of public diplomacy and policy.

Today, the undeniable power of social media lies in its fundamental role of linking the public and political sphere as part of a worldwide conversation. It is notable that the general reason behind its effectiveness and the steep rise of adoption lie in the power of this environment of building strong brands and credibility. This certainly is today’s Zeitgeist and involves the systematic cultivation of the attempt to influence the public opinion with every single action and to boost social legitimacy, in a more and more interconnected world that seeks to turn individual gestures and actions into symbols.

However, does this fully explain why social media is becoming an emerging playground for sarcasm and open battlefield for a digital war of accusations and threats? 

One of founders of today’s Twiplomacy phenomenon is the former US president, Donald Trump, who proved to be, for better or worse, one of the most vigorous and captivating presences on social media among world leaders.  What is striking in this is the gradual increase in the adoption of the new diplomatic style, known as the Wolf-warrior approach, which gained prominence in the context of the COVID-19 crisis and Chinese presence in the social media. This approach, which originated from a Chinese patriotic movie, in which the main mission of the warrior is fighting back foreigners, is characterized by a more aggressive and assertive style of conducting foreign policy.

It is argued by some that this approach is not being adopted in order to display authoritarian tendencies and to project but rather it is more often adopted by Chinese diplomats as a defense response to the repeated attacks and accusations. It seemed to be the straw that broke the camel’s back. Drastic times call for drastic measures?

Either way, the US-China digital war leads to questioning the adequate behavioral approaches to addressing the continuous global power competition and diplomatic tensions. Assertive and offensive or proactive? What makes a wolf-warrior and where do we draw the line?

When credibility and national identity are under threat, assertive approaches seem to come in handy when defending one’s stance and strengthening confidence. We know it very well from the Chinese ancient wisdom: project strength when you are weak. This general principle applies to political stances and authority in advancing agendas, as well as preserving independence in hegemonic environments. However, when increased assertiveness is taken down the wrong road, the world ends up being divided into conflicting blocs. While proactiveness is certainly the adequate modus operandi to overcome such blockages and prevent escalating disputes from bouncing back, the line is certainly crossed when it reaches bullying and propaganda levels.

What is the smart and well-balanced dose of actions when interests and sovereignty come first? Assertiveness or smart power? 

Proactiveness and high reliance on social media can also be channeled into advancing one’s objectives and consolidating strategic gains through smart use of power or through soft power. One of the best examples of this strategy is India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who’s presence on Twitter proves that, most of the time, the tone defines the effectiveness of the message and that balance is to be preferred to unhinged assertiveness. In the end, the art of persuasion is not limited to the right choice of words and actions here and now but also includes the challenging task of building trust in the long run. 

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