Politico notices the formation of the Axis of Evil

Sergei Bobylev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP

Something that we’ve been tracking for quite a while now is attracting attention among more liberal analysts in western media. It’s no longer possible to deny that there has been a global realignment taking place in the 21st century among nations that are correctly viewed as taking adversarial positions against the United States and, more broadly, the NATO alliance. I’ve been describing this coalition as the new Axis of Evil for what I would hope would be obvious reasons. Over at Politico, Daniel Drezner of the Brookings Institution examines this trend and has decided on a somewhat more cartoonish moniker, positing that the United States has created a new Legion of Doom.

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While this is no laughing matter, the competing interests of the various nations involved are creating a world that is moving closer to the brink of additional armed conflict or at least an expansion of the economic warfare taking place. And the latter is a war that we would still be in danger of losing. But at the same time, Drezner points out that any relationship between Russia, China, Saudi Arabia, and Iran comes with significant baggage that has to be overcome. And not all of the participants see it as a maximally beneficial arrangement.

In my conversations with Chinese diplomats, they express considerable exasperation with Russia’s actions in Ukraine. For them, the invasion upset a strategic situation that they believed was favorable to China. Ordinary Chinese people still harbor resentments toward Russia; I have heard Chinese students vent in great detail about territorial land grabs by 19th century tsars that have yet to be reversed. Similarly, my Russian colleagues have complained that their bilateral relations with Iran have been stymied by Tehran’s historical grievances.

Despite these lingering resentments, however, the past year has taught all of these countries an important lesson: as much as they might have issues with each other, they have much bigger issues with the United States. Over the past year, while imposing extensive sanctions on Russia, the United States has also taken an extremely hawkish turn on China. The policies expressing this sentiment range from stringent export controls to public support for Taiwan to the possible banning of TikTok. At the same time, the Biden administration has essentially continued status quo policies toward Iran. Efforts to revive the Iranian nuclear agreement have failed.

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I was writing about (and tagging) this new Axis of Evil back in 2016 when Venezuelan dictator Nicolas Maduro began cozying up to Russia and Iran while making increasingly hostile moves toward United States holdings in his country. The pace accelerated a couple of years ago when China and Iran announced a 25-year economic and potentially military “partnership agreement.” And there are now concerns that China’s deliveries of both aid to and trade with Russia will include lethal weapons of war. A little over a year ago, Senator Marsha Blackburn stood up on the floor of the upper chamber and spoke the words “Axis of Evil” when describing this growing collection of adversarial nations, seemingly making the moniker official.

Drezner may be a bit more optimistic than I am currently, but some of his analysis is definitely worth a look. He examines two possible approaches that the United States and our allies can take regarding these developments. One is to simply ignore the non-monolithic nature of an alliance between China, Russia, and Iran (and the other players mentioned above) and adopt the Manichean worldview, wherein all parties are viewed in one of two ways: light vs dark, good vs evil, communist vs capitalist. We and our allies are always the good guys in this scenario while the Axis of Evil members wear the black hats.

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There’s an argument to be made for such a view, at least from the American perspective. We embrace the less totalitarian form of government, though our standing has been a bit shaky in the past few years. Russia, China, and Iran, on the other hand, openly commit abuses against their own people as well as the countries where they impose their will.

But Drezner points out two problems with that view that I hadn’t fully considered before now. First of all, the “global sanctions” against Russia that were imposed after Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine really aren’t all that “global” in nature. Large parts of both Africa and South America have simply refused to take sides (at best) with some countries such as South Africa openly taking Russia’s side. This has made the economic warfare approach far less effective than it might otherwise have been. We may see ourselves as the good guys in this confrontation, but we’re in a minority globally, without much strong support outside of the NATO alliance.

The other, more subtle angle that Drezener points out is that we could realize some additional advantages by abandoning the Manichean worldview. Standing equally firm against all of these nations and treating them as a unified block gives them every excuse in the world to act in that fashion. But if we were to soften up on some (for example, China) while taking a hard line with others, their natural differences and desire for more trade with the west might undermine that alliance.

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It could also make it more palatable for some potential allies to take our side in some, though not all cases. Drezner cites India’s potential willingness to help contain China’s ambitions, but their historical ties to Russia will keep them on the bench in terms of Russian sanctions. Other examples are available. This approach could allow us to exploit cracks in Russia’s uneasy alliances, as well as China’s and Iran’s. Ronald Reagan was quite successful in doing this while dealing with the Soviet Union. And we are a much richer potential trading partner for China than Russia is. China may abhor our style of government but they still very much like our money.

There are no clear answers here and the situation is more complicated than any snap analysis will be able to sort out. But these are valid concerns we should be keeping in mind as our various foreign policy positions continue to evolve in a shifting, global geopolitical landscape.

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John Stossel 12:00 AM | April 24, 2024
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