The Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union created a bipolarity within which pretty much every country in the world was forced to choose whose side it wanted to be on. For those that joined the U.S. in NATO, or the Soviet Union in the Warsaw Pact, the choices were explicit. The story was quite different in the case of Third World countries.

In Africa, bitter struggles against colonialism naturally led several post-independence leaders to align their countries with the Soviet bloc. Some of those leaders had previously lived and studied in the West, and had personally experienced racism. That served as additional motivation in their opting for relationships with the Soviet Union, which, by virtue of not having been a colonial power, was seen as a more just society.   

To counter the growing influence of the Soviet Union in Africa, the U.S., through the CIA, helped overthrow several Soviet-friendly governments on the continent. Similar activities took place elsewhere, including in South America where the CIA reportedly supported the military coup in Chile that deposed Salvador Allende, a Socialist president. He was succeeded by Augusto Pinochet, who ruled the country for 17 years with the help of the U.S. despite being widely known as a brutal dictator.

During the 1960s, in the immediate aftermath of independence, many newly sovereign African nations were just beginning to chart their own socio-economic development paths. Unfortunately, their elected governments were not afforded the time and space to come up with governance models suitable for their nascent societies. Excessive meddling in their internal affairs by external powers ended up throwing these nations off course. Many have since been ruled in chaotic fashion by despots whose primary aim is to stay in power, regardless of how unloved they are by their countries’ citizens.

With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, the hope was that this global ideological battle would fade away, leaving developing countries to take charge of their own destinies. That has not happened, unfortunately. Russia, the dominant Soviet state, has emerged as the new foe and is intensely engaged with the U.S. in competition for influence around the world. Complicating matters, China has joined the fray and is also working hard to win hearts and minds not only in Africa, but globally.

The argument used to be about capitalism versus socialism. That is no longer the case. Largely, Russia now has a capitalist economy, while China’s economic model is broadly characterized as state-led capitalism. What those two countries and the U.S. are currently engaged in is a global battle for geopolitical influence.

There is a longstanding and quite interesting debate about the concept of “spheres of influence.” Some people seemingly argue that major powers like America, Russia, and China have the right to exert control over the political preferences of smaller countries in certain regions of the world. That was essentially the point made by John Mearsheimer in his 2014 Foreign Affairs essay, in which he fundamentally blamed the West for the crisis in Ukraine that led to Russia’s annexation of Crimea. According to him, NATO’s eastward expansion toward Russia’s border was a serious provocation, making President Vladimir Putin’s actions in Ukraine understandable.

Mearsheimer implied that because Ukraine lies within Russia’s sphere of influence, Putin was justified in his attempt to prevent the then Ukrainian president, Viktor Yanukovych, from signing Ukraine’s Association Agreement with the European Union. An overwhelming majority of Ukrainians were clearly in favor of the closer ties with the European Union, as demonstrated by the Maidan Revolution, because they saw it as a means to enhance the rule of law system that had been elusive since the country’s independence.

As Mearsheimer rightly argued, America has always felt similarly entitled as a hegemon. It routinely employs whatever means it can to prevent Marxist regimes from taking hold in its backyard. Its involvement in Allende’s overthrow, and past actions in Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela, and elsewhere in Latin America are illustrative. But that fact should not be used to automatically deny Ukrainians the right to have a say in the relationships their country forms with the rest of the world, or in how they are governed. The idea that realpolitik makes such meddling inevitable should not be so readily accepted. That so-called reality is often nothing more than the personal ambition of a hegemonic power’s leader. The will of the people should always matter more.

In many ways, NATO’s aggressive push to admit the former Soviet satellite states was an unforced error. Judging by the historically high level of political agitation around the world, it is clear that the vast majority of ordinary people everywhere prefer to live in free and open societies, which liberal democracies offer. From my numerous conversations with average Soviets when I lived in the Soviet Union during the perestroika years, I learned that they had similar aspirations. They did not need prompting to demand real democratic changes in their countries after independence. By getting so openly involved, the West inadvertently provides license to leaders like Putin to subvert other countries.

It is wrong for America and its allies to impose their governance models prematurely on others because that always does more harm than good. Much has been written about how shock therapy, the hastily implemented economic reforms in Russia championed by Western experts in the 1990s, ended up destabilizing the country socially and economically. It yielded an oligarchy, instead of the prosperous democracy the Russian population had hoped for.

The harsh reality is that most countries do not yet have the proper institutional architectures in place to effectively adopt Western-style governance systems. Recent history in places like Iraq and Afghanistan provides enough evidence. Without organic development of institutions and cultures in such Third World countries, trillions of dollars will continue to be spent without much to show for them. Developing countries certainly need financial assistance and technical guidance, but the freedom to shape their own futures is even more imperative.