Essay

Spheres of influence

Print edition : May 30, 2014

September 28, 1939: Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov (seated) signed in Moscow with Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop (second from left behind Molotov) a "Friendship and Border Treaty". It defined the division of Poland and had three secret protocols. Stalin is to the left of Ribbentrop. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The map of the Sykes-Picot Agreement showing France's ("A": comprising Syria and Lebanon) and Britain's ("B": Iraq, Transjordan and Palestine) spheres of influence in West Asia. Photo: The National Archives (United Kingdom)

November 9,1990: Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of the newly unified Germany signing a non-aggression treaty in Bonn. Photo: The Hindu Archives

The strong and consistent Anglo-American tradition of maintaining spheres of influence continued all through the last century and exists still. Yet, all hell broke loose when Russia claimed its own sphere of influence in areas adjoining its own territory.

THE Ukraine crisis and Russia’s justified resentment at the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation’s (NATO) expansion eastwards raise serious questions about the extent to which any country would permit another to establish a potentially hostile presence in its immediate neighbourhood. The concept of “spheres of influence”, so dear to imperialist powers, is discredited because of its connotation of dominance over a country by agreement between two imperial overlords. It is akin to a protectorate which, unlike a colony, is not directly governed by the protecting power. While internally self-governing, it is robbed of an independent international personality. In contrast, the country that is the subject of a “sphere of influence” accord between two powers might well have an international personality, but its freedom of action in foreign affairs is circumscribed. There are many shades of spheres of influence. However, it is not only legitimate but statesmanlike not to intrude wantonly in a region’s affairs and upset good relations between the region’s powers. The regional power is not permitted to dominate the region. The country’s independence is not curtailed one bit. But there is a wise restraint by the outside power.

Such a restraint, by agreement or otherwise, is a rarity. The United States bristles when it is accused of exercising regional hegemony, which has been its policy for nearly two centuries. But it has no qualms about riding roughshod over the rights, interests and sensitivities of not only its perceived rivals but also its own stooges as Britain has discovered more than once.

In India, Jawaharlal Nehru acquired the reputation of being a visionary and a romantic if not, indeed, the halo of a political saint. He abandoned the concepts he had espoused soon after India became independent. He was a hardliner, and a not wise one either. He took to heart the concept of spheres of influence. So did Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and Inder Kumar Gujral of the bogus self-proclaimed Gujral Doctrine.

In September 1947, Nehru nearly went to war with Pakistan over its acceptance of Junagadh’s accession to it. After the tribesmen from Pakistan entered Kashmir, the Defence Committee of the Indian Cabinet met, on October 26, 1947, under the chairmanship of Governor General Lord Mountbatten to hear V.P. Menon’s report after a visit to Kashmir. The minutes make interesting reading. “The Prime Minister [Nehru] said that the Government of India would not mind Kashmir remaining an independent country under India’s sphere of influence” (emphasis added throughout). This was in response to Mountbatten’s suggestion that a plebiscite should offer three options: accession to either country “or to remain independent”. The Ministry of States was asked “to prepare” an Instrument of Accession, to be signed by the ruler of Kashmir, and a letter to him “stating the temporary acceptance of this Instrument” pending a plebiscite.

The context of Nehru’s remarks and the circumstances in which he spoke are relevant. But Nehru extended his doctrine to Nepal as well. It was an independent country under British protection. The Swadeshi Curzon stepped into its boots as a matter of course and prevented the stationing of the envoy of any other country in Kathmandu. The minutes of Nehru’s talks with Prime Minister Zhou Enlai in Beijing on October 20, 1954, reveal Nehru’s concept of India’s relationship with Nepal. Zhou said: “We want to have diplomatic relations with Nepal and they have already expressed their agreement.” Nehru replied at length: “I am glad you have mentioned this also. Nepal’s foreign affairs are looked after by us and we have been giving them aid and training facilities for their personnel, but we do not interfere in their internal affairs. But you will understand that traditionally Nepal and India are closely linked together and according to the treaty the foreign policy of India and Nepal is to be coordinated.” Neither the India-Nepal Treaty of Peace and Friendship, signed on July 31, 1950, nor the exchange of letters, published much later, support this or other assertions that Nehru confidently made.

The next day, October 21, 1954, Nehru amplified: “Our desire is that Nepal should be independent and in fact we do not want to exercise the rights which Britain did. But her foreign policy must be coordinated with ours. America, however, is creating a lot of trouble. Although America has no embassy in Kathmandu, the American Ambassador in India is accredited to Kathmandu. They are further sending books for libraries and a lot of money is thrown about. Nepalese are easily bribed and they are thus inducing Nepal to allow America to establish an embassy there, but on our advice they postponed.” Nehru also ran down Ceylon’s (now Sri Lanka) Prime Minister and its freedom movement itself. He said: “The main difficulty is that if China opened an embassy there, America will also do likewise. Therefore, Nepal should be treated with indulgence. After the King’s return from Switzerland—and in view of the frequent changes in the Prime Ministers, he is a more important and popular figure—this can be considered. I would suggest that you can accredit your Ambassador in Delhi as concurrently Ambassador to Nepal, thus obviating the difficulty of Nepal being also forced to allow Americans to open embassy in Nepal.… India has a special position in Nepal and it must be recognised” ( Selected Works of Jawaharlal Nehru, Volume 27, pages 20, 30 and 31).

Zhou accepted Nehru’s suggestion of concurrent accreditation of China’s Ambassador to India and Nepal. Nehru was livid when less than a year later, in August 1955, China and Nepal exchanged Ambassadors. To India’s chagrin, Nepal and China signed a boundary agreement on March 21, 1960.

Which brings us to a much smaller man, I.K. Gujral. As External Affairs Minister in the V.P. Singh government, he offered Nepal a draft treaty far worse than the 1950 treaty. It was then battling against the autocratic King. Avtar Singh Bhasin, an informed authority, records: “If the draft published in the Nepalese texts, which is in line with the hints thrown by the EAM [External Affairs Minister] and the MEA [Ministry of External Affairs], is to be accepted as authentic, it is an unfortunate document to put it mildly. Events moved fast and the emergence of a new democratic order in Nepal deservedly dealt the draft a death blow. The Indian draft smacked of neocolonialism, to use a haggard cliché, as it sought to bind Nepal in an unequal relationship more tightly than even the 1950 Treaty had envisaged. Apart from affirming the 1950 Treaty, the draft sought to recreate a defence arrangement of a binding nature and sought to obtain for India a monopoly control on Nepal’s natural resources, thus closing all options for Nepal once and for all.

“If the 1950 Treaty, after more than four decades, still haunts Indo-Nepalese relations, the draft, if accepted by a beleaguered regime [of the discredited King], would have been a constant source of friction. Internationally, India would have found it difficult to live with it, and neighbours like Bhutan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, etc., [would have] moved away from India to look for security elsewhere. A new era of tensions would have commenced in South Asia.” So much for the much-touted Gujral Doctrine (for the text of the draft treaty see Avtar Singh Bhasin’s excellent compilation Nepal-India, Nepal-China Relations, Geetika Publishers, New Delhi, Volume 1 (1947-2005), pages 1,311-1,315).

Like Topsy, the U.S.’ Monroe Doctrine on Latin America simply grew. Its proclaimed imperialist implications have been little noticed. Those formulations propounded by the U.S. have a contemporary ring in 2014. Only, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, it has virtually applied those very formulations of its unilateral Monroe Doctrine (see box) to the rest of the world.

Carving up Arab territories

Britain and France did not lag behind. Their notorious Sykes-Picot Agreement, concluded secretly on May 16, 1916, during the First World War, carved up the Arab territories of the Ottoman Empire as their respective spheres of influence in West Asia, specifically Palestine, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

The limit was reached with Britain’s reservations on the Treaty for the Renunciation of War signed in Paris on August 27, 1928. It was sponsored by the U.S. and France. Britain’s Foreign Secretary Sir Austen Chamberlain cautioned the U.S. Ambassador in a Note of May 19, 1928, even while the treaty was under consideration. “The language of Article 1, as to the renunciation of war as an instrument of national policy, renders it desirable that I should remind your Excellency that there are certain regions of the world the welfare and integrity of which constitute a special and vital interest for our peace and safety. His Majesty’s government have been at pains to make it clear in the past that interference with these regions cannot be suffered. Their protection against attack is to the British Empire a measure of self-defence. It must be clearly understood that His Majesty’s government in Great Britain accept the new treaty upon the distinct understanding that it does not prejudice their freedom of action in this respect. The Government of the United States have comparable interests, any disregard of which by a foreign power they have declared that they would regard as an unfriendly act.”

This strong and consistent Anglo-American tradition of maintaining spheres of influence continued all through the last century and exists still, except that the U.S. cleverly ousted Britain from its position in Saudi Arabia way back in the mid-1940s. Yet, all hell broke loose when the Soviet Union claimed its sphere of influence, not in areas far away but in areas adjoining its own territory.

Treaties and protocols

The Nazi-Soviet pact of August 23, 1939, was a cynical deal, brutally executed. But it was no more cynical than the Anglo-French pact with Hitler in Munich in 1938 at the expense of Czechoslovakia. In 1939, Britain dragged its feet on the conclusion of an agreement with the Soviet Union against Hitler’s aggressions. Moscow took the hint and bought time with the pact with Berlin. It endured until Hitler invaded the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) on June 22, 1941.

Attached to the Nazi-Soviet Treaty of “non-aggression” was a secret protocol by which the parties defined “their respective spheres of influence in eastern Europe”. Finland, Estonia and Latvia were assigned to the USSR, as also the Rumanian province Bessarabia, later the Soviet republic of Moldavia. Lithuania went to Germany; Poland was partitioned.

On September 28, 1939, Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav M. Molotov signed in Moscow with Nazi Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop a “Friendship and Border treaty”. It defined the partition line in Poland on a map and had three secret protocols. One concerned persons of German descent; another pledged them to “suppress” on their respective territories “any Polish agitation”; and another now assigned Lithuania to the Soviet Union.

Hitler sought, on November 15, 1940, Stalin’s adherence to the Three Power Axis (Germany, Italy and Japan) on the basis of agreed “spheres of influence”. The USSR was offered the region to the south “in the direction of the Indian Ocean”. Ribbentrop personally mentioned “British India”. In Berlin, Hitler assured Molotov on November 13, 1940, that after the War the British Empire would be apportioned as “a gigantic world-wide estate in bankruptcy”.

Stalin countered on November 16, 1940, by demanding German withdrawal from Finland, from bases near the Dardanelles, concessions in Northern Sakhalin and “provided that the area south of Batum and Baku in the general direction of the Persian Gulf is recognised as the centre for the aspirations of the Soviet Union”. He was to pursue these very goals after the Second World War.

We have authentic texts exchanged between Berlin and Moscow on the division of spheres of influence. The Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Molotov’s talks in Berlin with Hitler and Ribbentrop on November 12 and 13, 1940, did not yield any accord. Article 2 of the German draft of an agreement between Germany, Japan and Italy, on the one side, and the Soviet Union, on the other, provided that “Germany, Italy, Japan and the Soviet Union undertake to respect each other’s natural spheres of influence. Insofar as these spheres of interest come into contact with each other, they will constantly consult each other in an amicable way with regard to the problems arising therefrom. Germany, Italy and Japan declare on their part that they recognise the present extent of the possessions of the Soviet Union and will respect it.”

A draft secret protocol delimited the respective spheres. “(1) Germany declares that, apart from the territorial revisions in Europe to be carried out at the conclusion of peace, her territorial aspirations centre in the territories of Central Africa. (2) Italy declares that, apart from the territorial revisions in Europe to be carried out at the conclusion of peace, her territorial aspirations centre in the territories of Northern and North-eastern Africa. (3) Japan declares that her territorial aspirations centre in the area of Eastern Asia to the south of the island Empire of Japan. (4) The Soviet Union declares that its territorial aspirations centre south of the national territory of the Soviet Union in the direction of the Indian Ocean.”

Stalin refused to be diverted from his security concerns in the Balkans to an adventure in India. The Soviet draft of November 26, 1940, precisely spelt out the USSR’s demands. “(1) Provided that the German troops are immediately withdrawn from Finland, which, under the compact of 1939, belongs to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. At the same time the Soviet Union undertakes to ensure peaceful relations with Finland and to protect German economic interests in Finland (export of lumber and nickel). (2) Provided that within the next few months the security of the Soviet Union in the Straits is assured by the conclusion of a mutual assistance pact between the Soviet Union and Bulgaria, which geographically is situated inside the security zone of the Black Sea boundaries of the Soviet Union, and by the establishment of a base for the land and naval forces of the USSR within range of the Bosporus and the Dardanelles by means of a long-term lease. (3) Provided that the area south of Batum and Bakum in the general direction of the Persian Gulf is recognised as the centre of the aspirations of the Soviet Union. (4) Provided that Japan [renounces] her rights to concessions for coal and oil in Northern Sakhalin.…

“Furthermore, there should be agreement upon: (a) a third secret protocol between Germany and the Soviet Union concerning Finland. (b) a fourth secret protocol between Japan and the Soviet Union concerning the renunciation by Japan of the oil and coal concession in Northern Sakhalin. (c) a fifth secret protocol between Germany, the Soviet Union, and Italy, recognising that Bulgaria is geographically located inside the security zone of the Black Sea boundaries of the Soviet Union and that it is therefore a political necessity that a mutual assistance pact be concluded between the Soviet Union and Bulgaria, which in no way shall affect the internal regime of Bulgaria, her sovereignty or independence.”

Hitler resented this and decided to invade the Soviet Union. Significantly, after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR resulted in its alliance with Britain, its aims remained the same. In December 1941, British Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden went to Moscow with drafts of an Anglo-Russian Declaration. Stalin said that he wanted an agreement, not a declaration. “A declaration I regard as algebra, but an agreement as practical arithmetic.” He produced a detailed Russian draft agreement about the Soviet Union’s frontiers after the war, with secret protocols—in essence, a British acceptance of the western frontiers of the Soviet Union in June 1941, most of it along the German-Russian partition line arrived at two years before.

To the Americans, Yalta was an agreement for free democratic elections in Europe. To Stalin, it meant a tacit American acceptance of the partition of Europe. “What is ours is ours; what is theirs,” he said to a visiting Yugoslav Communist a few months later. In a message to Churchill shortly before Hitler’s suicide, Stalin wrote: “The question of Poland is for the security of the Soviet Union what the question of Belgium and Greece is for the security of Great Britain.”

Percentages Agreement

The Yalta Agreement in February 1945 was preceded by the Percentages Agreement concluded between Churchill and Stalin at a dinner in Moscow on October 9, 1944, which Churchill flamboyantly described in his memoirs but which the U.S. refused to support. “Let us settle our affairs in the Balkans. You have armies in Romania and Bulgaria.” He proposed a division of interests and wrote it out on a half-sheet of paper while it was being translated. In Romania, Russia had 90 per cent interest; in Bulgaria, 75 per cent. Britain had a 90 per cent share in Greece; 50 per cent each in Yugoslavia and Hungary. “I pushed this across to Stalin, who had by then heard the translation. There was a slight pause. Then he took his big blue pencil and made a large tick upon it.” It was cynical. Churchill proposed: “Let us burn the paper. ‘No, you keep it,’ said Stalin.”

Stalin refused to support the Greek communists whose takeover Churchill feared. The Foreign Office and the Cabinet were shocked. Churchill explained that the percentages were a general “guide” to “the interests and sentiments” of the United Kingdom and the USSR. They did not establish “a rigid system of spheres of interest” but were “an interim guide for the immediate wartime future”.

The U.S. sabotaged this agreement. Churchill told C.L. Sulzberger in 1956: “Stalin never broke his word to me. We agreed on the Balkans. I said he could have Rumania and Bulgaria; he said we could have Greece (of course, only in our sphere, you know). He signed a slip of paper. And he never broke his word. We saved Greece that way. When we went in 1944, Stalin didn’t interfere. You Americans didn’t help, you know.”

Stalin refused to back the Greek communists as they tried to capture power, which was well within their reach. The Cold War began. Stalin’s methods in Eastern Europe were as brutal as the West’s refusal to concede its security interests was callous. The Soviet Union had lost 20 million lives in the Second World War. Without its contribution, the War could not have been won. It saved the world from Hitler. It bled while the West delayed opening the Second Front in Normandy.

James Reston reported in The New York Times of March 13, 1950, a Soviet offer of defining spheres of interest. There was another instructive sequel 25 years later. Helmut Sonnenfeldt, a counsellor in the State Department, who was called “Kissinger’s Kissinger’’ by Henry Kissinger himself, spoke at a conference of U.S. Ambassadors in April 1978, at which Kissinger also spoke. Sonnenfeldt suggested that the U.S. should “strive for an evolution that makes the relationship between the East Europeans and the Soviet Union an organic one”. The existing relationship was “unnatural”. The U.S. must adopt “a policy of responding to the clearly visible aspirations in Eastern Europe for a more autonomous existence within the context of a strong Soviet geopolitical influence”.

Even the hawkish Richard Nixon was prepared to cut a deal with the USSR as Kissinger told the Soviet Ambassador: “President Nixon takes into account the special interests of the Soviet Union in Eastern Europe, and does not intend to do anything there which could be evaluated in Moscow as a ‘challenge’ to her position in that region. This is Nixon’s basic approach to this question, and it is not necessary, asserted Kissinger, to pay much attention ‘to isolated critical public comments about some East European country, because that is only a tribute to the mood of certain substrata of the American population which play a role in American elections’.… Speaking about other areas where, in Nixon’s opinion, Soviet-American contacts and bilateral exchange of opinions should develop, Kissinger cited the problem of a Near Eastern settlement, questions of strategic nuclear arms control, and in the long-term, the gradual development of our trade relations.” This is what Kissinger assured Soviet Ambassador Anatoly Dobrynin.

The Soviet Union’s weakness, preceding its collapse in 1991, was fully exploited by the U.S. On February 10, 1990, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl met Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev in Moscow. Mary Elise Sarotte records that Kohl started off by explaining to Gorbachev that he wanted to unify Germany and bring it into NATO but, like U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, felt that “naturally NATO could not expand its territory to the current territory of the GDR [East Germany]. It was not technically within Kohl’s authority to make promises on behalf of NATO, but he spoke in a manner suggesting that his country’s influence would prevail in such matters. Gorbachev asked a number of questions in response. He wanted to know about the potential timeline and about border issues with Poland. He understood that Germany did not want to become a neutral state but asked if it could perhaps be non-aligned, like India. Then, according to Kohl, after hearing the Chancellor’s assurances about NATO and his answers to these questions, Gorbachev gave him a breakthrough….

“Gorbachev had just done something dangerous: he had agreed to his end of the deal (letting Germany unify) without getting the potential reward (no expansion of NATO) written down or even publicised. Unlike Gorbachev, Kohl correctly recognised a fleeting but valuable opportunity. The Chancellor moved to formalise it in public as quickly as possible.”

The U.S. broke this oral understanding by expanding NATO eastwards. It is this deceit that lies at the heart of the crisis in Ukraine and, earlier, in Georgia.

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