Robert Merry was as unimpressed with Charles Hill’s comments last week as I was:

Hill seems to be saying that in his hallowed state system, there is only one sphere, and it should be dominated by the United States, perpetuated in the interest of gauzy Wilsonian idealism. Can’t be done.

As Merry notes, Hill made an error that many defenders of U.S. hegemony make, which is the refusal to acknowledge that major powers always have had and always will have spheres of influence. Merry writes:

Indeed, it’s always about power, and to the extent that any nation possesses an abundance of it, that nation’s central goal should be to preserve, to the fullest extent possible, a balance in its distribution among nations. That’s why Hill’s denigration of “spheres of influence” was disturbing. There are always going to be spheres of influence; the only question is whose spheres they will be and how big—and whether they can be checked by other nations dominating other spheres.

According to the hegemonist view, spheres of influence are things that other states have, and they are pernicious, but U.S. hegemony is something different and more benevolent. Hill denigrates spheres of influence because he doesn’t think other major powers ought to have significant influence over their neighbors, but the U.S. should have influence over their neighbors. Presumably, he thinks that it is the responsibility of the U.S. to keep the other major powers from having that influence. This isn’t surprising. Let’s recall that Hill was a foreign policy campaign adviser to Rudy Giuliani’s pointless 2008 campaign.

Spheres of influence have not re-emerged out of nowhere in the last few years. On the contrary, they never went away. Some Americans pretended that they had ceased to exist after the end of the Cold War or ought not to exist. That is one reason why the U.S. has blundered so frequently in its pursuit of continued eastward NATO expansion. What Hill sees as the “return” of spheres of influence is more accurately described as the end of an extremely abnormal state of affairs in which one power extended its sphere of influence so that it covered much of the world. The “return” of spheres of influence represents some movement towards a more normal, sustainable balance among the world’s major powers.

Something else Hill said about the end of the Thirty Years’ War still bothers me:

So the state then replaces the empire as the fundamental unit of world affairs.

I believe I know what Hill is trying to say here, but it’s simply not the case that “the state” replaces “the empire” in 1648. Large multi-ethnic territorial empires ruled by hereditary dynasties survived long after the Treaty of Westphalia (several of them lasting until 1917 or 1918), and for most of the modern era these were the states that dominated European and international politics. Rivalry between France and Austria predated the Thirty Years’ War and accounted for Richelieu’s decision to side with the enemies of the Hapsburgs. This was hardly the first time that France had entered into an alliance with a non-Catholic enemy of Austria. Francis I made alliances with the Sultan against Charles V. Except for the Spanish and Portuguese, large overseas colonial empires mostly post-date the Thirty Years’ War. The struggle inside the Holy Roman Empire between the emperor and the princes in the early 17th century was one over control of the majority of Electors that would decide the confessional loyalty of the next emperor. It was originally a constitutional struggle among different states that all belonged to the Empire that escalated into a European war.