sphere of influence, term formerly applied to an area over which an outside power claims hegemony with the intention of subsequently gaining more definite control, as in colonization, or with the intention of securing an economic monopoly over the territory without assuming political control. A sphere of influence was usually claimed by an imperialistic nation over an underdeveloped or weak state that bordered an already existing colony. The expression came into common use with the colonial expansion of European powers in Africa during the late 19th cent. A sphere of influence was formalized by treaty, either between two colonizing nations who agreed not to interfere in one another's territory, or between the colonizing nation and a representative of the territory. Theoretically, the sovereignty of a nation was not impaired by the establishment of a sphere of influence within its borders; in actuality, the interested power was able to exercise great authority in the territory it dominated, and if disorders occurred it was in a position to seize control. Thus the creation of spheres of influence was frequently the prelude to colonization or to the establishment of a protectorate. The term in this sense is no longer recognized in international law, however. Currently, it is used by the more powerful nations of the world to denote the exclusive or predominant interest they may have in certain areas of the globe, especially for the purposes of national security.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.