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Grand strategy of the authoritarian axis: How will the west respond?
ANALYSIS: Recent events – like those in Syria – show increasing coordination among some of the world’s most dangerous states.
(For more background, please see: An Authoritarian Axis Rising?)
Once subtle in the making, we are watching the unfolding of a dramatic shift in international politics.
Why, we may ask, is this happening?
When the Soviet Union collapsed, no major power emerged to challenge the United States and the West. Simply put, for two decades policymakers failed to define a grand strategy to govern its foreign policy. Washington, in effect, enjoyed a “free ride” in conducting its foreign policy.
In moving from crisis to crisis without an overarching set of goals or principles to guide its policies, the U.S. and the West have lost strategic momentum. Simultaneously, a new bloc of states – an “authoritarian axis” – is gaining strategic momentum. Dangerously, this rival bloc is mounting serious geopolitical resistance to the West and altering the balance of power.
Recent matters only make this new alignment of states all the more clear. Recently, Russia and China vetoed a third UN Security Council Resolution to impose sanctions on Syria for attacks that have killed thousands of people. Due to axis coordination, Russia and China consented to another watered down UN resolution. A recent suicide attack on innocent civilians in Bulgaria, which U.S. official’s claim “had the characteristics of an attack by Hezbollah,” only points to Iranian involvement.
This rising concert – Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela, among other states–shows increasing evidence that their foreign policies are aligned, which is not to say perfect or near-perfect alignment.
Now, more than ever, the West must ask itself two simple questions: Has the axis put into practice a coherent, if still evolving, grand strategy, and will this create an effective counterweight to the U.S. and the West?
The answer is a resounding “yes.”
For the West to understand the gravity of this shift, we must consider what principles animate the axis grand strategy, its strengths and weaknesses, how effective it is, and can the West counteract it?
To be clear: the rise of the axis is the most momentous development – if not the fundamental shift — in geopolitics in recent history. How well the West deals with the axis grand strategy will determine the tenor of world politics — whether peaceful or confrontational – for the next generation.
General Principles of Axis Grand Strategy
In foreign policy, the authoritarian axis follows several unifying principles that produce highly coordinated policies. In practice, these policies provide the foundation for a unified grand strategy against the West.
First, axis states routinely oppose and resist the policies and actions of the U.S., the United Nations, and its allies. No better examples exist than their policies toward Syria or Iran. They actively resist the West whenever it moves against or otherwise seeks to restrain other axis states. Attempts to impose sanctions, whether against Iran or Syria, generate sustained opposition from the axis.
Second, the axis grand strategy aspires to undermine the values and influence of the West. Initially, its grand strategy organized opposition to U.S. policies, until President Putin redefined the axis grand strategy. Before a meeting in Moscow of Russian ambassadors, Putin pronounced in highly charged and provocative language the West’s decline. Warning that, “domestic socio-economic problems… are weakening the dominant role of the so-called historical West,” Putin’s strident words shifted the attack from the United States to a broad condemnation of the U.S. and the West.
In effect, Putin’s sharp criticism established the foundations for a more expansive grand strategy for the axis. The chairman of Russia’s Duma’s (parliament) International Affairs Committee, Aleksey Pushkov, joined the chorus, warning “we are in for a very hard year in Russia-U.S. relations.” It is time, he said, “to reset the reset.”
Putin’s criticism of the West signals a remarkable shift. Only several years ago, commentators hoped democracy would flower in Russia, Iran, and Syria – perhaps in China, too. Strategically, focusing on the West encourages states in the authoritarian axis to attack freedom and democracy, free markets, and human rights.
Third, the axis grand strategy, which is hostile to liberal political values, is dangerous precisely because it promotes and legitimizes authoritarianism. Such governments rightly fear that democracy, freedom, and liberty directly threaten their power. If this principle sounds counter-intuitive, recall that what all of these states share are highly repressive, authoritarian governments. These states also share, if we exclude China, totally dysfunctional command economies, which survive from revenues generated by oil and gas exports and military sales.
Fourth, the axis grand strategy, by actively opposing the West, seeks to encourage self-doubt, perhaps fear, in the West that it is, once again, under assault from authoritarianism. While it has been two decades since the West worried seriously about confrontation, the axis seeks to undermine the West’s confidence and sense of security by acting in unison to oppose, through overt and subtle means, the West’s values and policies. Regrettably, democracies are vulnerable when the public believes that some states conspire to undermine their values and institutions.
Fifth, the axis grand strategy works, aggressively when necessary, to protect its members. Directly put, the axis seeks to maintain the number of authoritarian states – at all costs. While we see more democracies today than at any time in history, the axis states likely understand how profoundly vulnerable they are to revolutions. Predictably, the axis grand strategy elevates the principle of preserving like-minded authoritarian states, while the West naturally wants to see more democracies.
Axis states may be optimistic that they can “grow” the number of authoritarian states – or at least maintain those already in the axis. The strategy of preventing the West from destroying authoritarian governments explains precisely why Russia, China, and Iran actively support Syria’s authoritarian government even when thousands of civilians are dying.
This logic works in the opposite direction. If the axis states can prevent the West from encouraging democratic opposition movements, say in Syria and Iran, the number of authoritarian states might increase. For example, without Russia’s political and economic support, Belarus likely would collapse and fall out of Moscow’s firm grip. If the axis could prevent the West from intervening in such states as Libya, where an opposition movement destroyed Libya’s authoritarian government, it could halt democratic revolutions.
Policies in Axis Grand Strategy
To translate this grand strategy from theory into practice, the axis states employ several political, military, and economic policies.
Step one is to implement policies whose singular purpose is to build and sustain a politically cohesive axis. Politically, its strategy is to build a functioning consensus on the value and benefits of opposing and counteracting the West’s policies. Strategically, the axis hopes to put the West on the defensive and keep it there. In practical terms, it encourages more effective foreign policy coordination among the axis states.
Axis states pay careful attention to U.S. policies. China, for instance, is reportedly so concerned about pursuing policies seeking to limit U.S. power that observers have asked whether “China’s foreign policy…is all about the United States.” Russia’s policies align quite well with the political strategy of the axis, as Moscow opposes threats of sanctions against Syria.
Axis states also work closely with one another. China and Russia work closely with their allies and trading partners to develop more effective political coordination. China works closely with client states, such as North Korea, while other axis states oppose the West’s policies in the cases of North Korea, Iran, and Syria. These states use multilateral relationships to strengthen their power and bolster the axis.
Axis states work closely together. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton criticized Russia and China for blocking UN efforts to remove Syria’s president Bashar al-Assad, saying that Russia and China should “pay a price” for supporting Syria. Both Moscow and Beijing responded in concert. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman said attempts to “slander” China are “totally unacceptable.” In a reference to Russia, China’s spokesman warned that, “any words or deeds that…sow discord between China and other countries will be in vain.” Immediately after Clinton’s comments, Russia criticized her comments as “incorrect.”
Axis states deeply distrust the Arab Spring, often blaming the West for provoking these movements. Putin specifically warned that the West was behind the Arab Spring democratic uprisings in Egypt, Libya, and Tunisia. It is fundamentally uncertain whether these states will become democracies or edge toward authoritarianism.
The risk is that democratic movements pose an immense opportunity for the axis. If governments, such as Egypt, wrestle with extremism, it is a short step to authoritarianism. If the Arab Spring gains momentum, leading these societies to slide toward greater authoritarianism, this would weaken the West and bolster the axis.
It is no exaggeration to say that the balance of power is at risk. Axis states understand what is at stake, which explains why Russia and China support Syria, and why Moscow effectively blocks Western efforts to pressure axis states – whether pressure on Iran to give up its nuclear program or pressure on Syria to stop attacking the political opposition. Ultimately, the axis political strategy seeks to protect its own by aggressively preventing the spread of democracy and quarantining democratic movements.
Step two is to develop policies that strengthen the military capabilities of axis states. In practice, their military strategy seeks to improve military coordination and share technologies. Its strategy is to build up axis military capabilities to counterbalance the West’s military advantage and put the West on the defensive.
These military policies involve threats by axis states to intimidate, and on occasion, attack other states. For example, Iran threatened to attack U.S. military bases in the Middle East – and Israel – if attacked. Warning that U.S. military bases were within range of its ballistic missiles and that its missiles could strike states in the Middle East, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards conducted several days of missile test-firings (in its “The Great Prophet 7” drill).Tehran routinely threatens to block the Strait of Hormuz, which rattles global energy markets. Oil prices increased by $2 per barrel the day after the U.S. Navy fired on a boat in the Gulf.
Russia has harshly criticized U.S. and NATO missile defense policies. In May, a senior Russian general threatened pre-emptive strikes against missile-defense sites in Europe in “the event of a crisis.” Recently, Russia conducted operations with nuclear-capable strategic bombers in the Arctic during a military exercise. Russia is working on new ICBM, SSBN, and long-range bomber programs, and a fifth-generation stealth fighter aircraft (T-50), which it hopes to export.
We see many examples of military sales and transfers between Axis states. For example, Russian engines likely power China’s J-20 stealth fighter, while China buys ultra-quiet Kilo class submarines from Russia. Furthermore, reports suggest that China sold anti-ship ballistic technology (ASBMs) to Iran, which Tehran likely refashioned for Hezbollah to attack an Israeli naval vessel in 2006.
These policies strengthen military ties and expand the axis sphere of influence. Until very recently, Russia sold military technology to Syria, including helicopters and anti-ship missiles.
In Latin America, President Hugo Chavez announced plans that Venezuela will buy amphibious tanks from China, which subsidized this loan in exchange for oil. Venezuela plans to buy significant numbers of fighter aircraft, helicopters, and surface-to-air missiles from Russia. Venezuela supports terrorist organizations, such as Hezbollah, and retains close ties to Iran.
Step three is that axis states pursue policies designed to strengthen their economic power and influence and promote greater economic coordination.
Axis states actively increase the level of economic coordination. Recently, Cuban President Raul Castro met in Beijing with China’s president, Hu Jintao, to sign economic agreements. To strengthen the axis economic base, China’s State Grid Corporation signed a $1.3 billon deal with Venezuela’s National Electric Corporation, which is Beijing’s largest electric power transmission project in Venezuela and first overseas project.
Russia, predictably, works to build a closer relationship with China to make it a critical partner for business and military investments. China is an economic dynamo whose economy dwarfs Russia by every standard. However, China faces serious economic problems amid reports that its export economy is weakening and not performing as well as advertised. Russia’s economic weakness disqualifies it from becoming an economic superpower.
The energy sphere, however, reverses somewhat this economic relationship. Russia surpassed Saudi Arabia as the world’s largest energy supplier, while China is among the largest energy consumers. Facing this mutual dependency, both states seek to strengthen their energy coordination. Russia is creating stronger economic ties with China. Gazprom’s East Siberian-Pacific Ocean (ESPO) pipeline, which opened on January 1, 2011, this direct pipeline from Russia to China provides a guaranteed supply of significant amounts of oil. Yao Wei, general manager of Pipeline Branch of Petro China, said, “the China-Russia crude oil pipeline is the start of a new phase in China-Russia energy co-operation.”
China is unquestionably the economic center of gravity in the axis – a fact that must rankle Moscow. As the most powerful economy in the axis, China recently passed Japan as the state with the largest number global companies. With its weak command economy and public pledges by Putin to privatize its economy, Russian leaders, such as Prime Minister Medvedev, understand that Russia’s “petro-state” economy condemns it “second tier” economic status. The decision to ratify the agreement for Russia to join the World Trade Organization reaffirms that policymakers realize that Russia’s weak economy impedes its ability to be a world-class power.
Strengths and Weaknesses of Axis Grand Strategy
Facing a rising authoritarian axis, what are the strengths and weaknesses of the axis grand strategy?
Its principal strength is the ability to focus singularly and laser-like on its strategy. Largely on the offensive, it can choose its targets, so to speak. Authoritarian governments can focus on problems without worrying about such “democratic” pressures as lack of public support.
Second, the axis states can relentlessly target the West whenever it shows weakness, indecision, or an unwillingness to confront the axis. Undoubtedly, authoritarian states count on democratic governments to react slowly to emerging dangers.
Third, the axis gains strength from the West’s fear of a domestic political backlash if its policies are seen as reactionary, extremist, or confrontational. But if the West hesitates to challenge the axis, this strengthens the axis because it weakens the West’s willingness and ability to respond.
What of its weaknesses? While the axis has geopolitical momentum, it inevitably will dissipate once the West organizes itself. Overall, the axis grand strategy has several profound weaknesses and vulnerabilities.
One is that authoritarian governments are far less powerful, dynamic, and effective than democratic societies. With rigid, sclerotic political systems, they are less flexible than free societies and able to compete effectively. Just as free societies adapt and evolve constantly, authoritarian governments are vastly less dynamic.
Two, authoritarian states are dramatically less flexible and agile economically and technologically than their free market counterparts. Why? The answer is their profoundly dysfunctional and inefficient command economies. Just as the West outclassed the Soviet Union and China economically during the Cold War, this logic likely applies to states in the authoritarian axis – with the possible exception of China. China’s weakness, however, is that it builds technologies as a supplier for the West but is not a technological innovator. That neither Russia nor China possesses any global brands is direct evidence of economic weakness.
A case in point of economic weakness is Russia’s dependence on energy exports. Without oil and gas sales, which accounts for 50 percent of its national income, Russia would collapse economically. Meanwhile, the West produces the advanced technologies for extracting energy from the ground. Technologically, Russia is "seriously lagging behind" in microcomputer production – according to Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin – compared to Europe and other parts of the world. China, while growing by leaps and bounds for the last twenty years, is facing declining economic output and is handicapped by its authoritarian political system.
Three, authoritarian governments are vulnerable to internal and external sources of opposition. Russia, China, and Iran impose Internet censorship laws to hobble domestic opposition movements. Authoritarian governments resist UN intervention against other members of the axis, notably Syria, because they fear cascading revolutions in authoritarian states. If one state falls, others are not far behind.
In the end, the axis grand strategy is fundamentally weak. That democracies are chaotic and unpredictable, but know reflexively how to adapt and advance, puts authoritarian states on the defensive. Knowing that, the best strategy for axis states is to maximize their power by working closely together to coordinate their policies as a way to put the West on the defensive. Ultimately, authoritarian societies cannot compete effectively with the West because the strengths of the axis grand strategy are more than matched by its weaknesses
Can the West Defeat the Axis Grand Strategy?
The question for the West is: can they defeat the axis grand strategy?
The answer is “yes.”
First, the West must express, in words and actions, that it is and truly should be, supremely confident in its abilities and policies – largely because the force of history is on its side. Is anyone willing to argue that the authoritarian axis represents anything other than a failed past?
The West’s anti-authoritarian axis strategy should build from an inner sense of confidence, sadly somewhat lacking at the moment, that free societies and free markets are the wave of the future. While the West faces a stalling economic recovery with most of the European Union in recession, the cyclical nature of economics suggests that the West and its confidence will rebound. Eventually, the West will organize effective leadership against the axis.
Second, the West has other reasons to be confident. Energy reserves in the U.S. and elsewhere are increasing, as new oil and natural gas reserves are found. For the first time in decades, observers openly ask if the U.S. might achieve energy independence, utilizing domestic and North and South American sources of oil and gas. This development rests purely on economic and technological élan, as the axis states are unlikely to marshal the wherewithal to achieve such breakthroughs.
In demographic terms, China and Russia face serious difficulties. Russia is experiencing emigration as talented people are leaving to pursue the opportunities that abound in free societies. Why would young, talented stay in Russia with its authoritarian government and moribund economy? China, by contrast, faces the classic problem of suffering the consequences of massively mismanaged demographic policies. China’s population has rising economic aspirations that economic growth may simply not satisfy. Beijing’s export model is failing. They are having trouble moving to a service economy while using domestic consumption to power growth.
Politically, several states in the axis face serious domestic problems. North Korea always seems to be hovering on the brink of collapse. Syria is practically in a full-scale civil war, as seen by an attack that killed senior members of the government in Damascus. Iran faces increasingly determined adversaries, notably Israel and the United States, who threaten military intervention to prevent Tehran from gaining nuclear weapons. Venezuela’s economy is in shambles after Chavez’s mismanagement, while he is reportedly quite ill.
States such as Russia, Iran, and Venezuela depend on high oil prices to keep their economies afloat and public expectations in check. In the worst case, North Korea, without China’s energy and food support, would collapse.
Third, the West should not feel, much less show, any sense of weakness, indecision, or dithering. The West’s grand strategy rests on freedom, while authoritarian states adhere slavishly to the failed logic of controlling all facets of life in their societies, as seen in North Korea.
Put directly, the authoritarian axis grand strategy cannot succeed unless the West fails to respond.
Fourth, the West must guard against the twin dangers of under- and over-reaction. Just because the Russian government uses provocative language does not mean that Washington, Tokyo, Tel Aviv, London, or Warsaw should reciprocate. However, failing to respond forcefully and patiently only emboldens the axis. In the end, the West must marshal its self-confidence into a coherent strategy that permits it to deal with the axis states in a direct, measured, and statesmanlike fashion.
The West’s strategy is to identify the challenges posed by the axis grand strategy, while taking steps to counteract it in a thoughtful and deliberate fashion. The West’s resources, despite current economic difficulties, so vastly outstrip that of the Axis states that the outcome is not in doubt.
The West could be forgiven for wondering why we are back to struggling with authoritarian states. Most observers believed the end of the cold war signaled the death throes of authoritarianism.
Strangely, however, authoritarianism experienced resurgence from the birth of free markets in China and energy exports by Russia, Iran, and Venezuela. North Korea survives in part from China’s free market successes and the subsidies it provides. Diplomatic cover provided by Russia and China allows Syria to survive open revolt and massacre its own people.
Sooner or later, the West will seriously organize itself to deal with the challenges posed by the axis grand strategy – sooner if the axis continues to push beyond the limits of prudence. What operates in the West’s favor is that authoritarian states often fail to exercise sound strategic judgment because their policies are not moderated by public opinion. If the West’s weakness is its failure to postpone dealing with threats, the weakness of authoritarian states is their tendency to overreach.
Ultimately, the West’s grand strategy is to restrain the actions and manage the decline of the authoritarian axis. We did this before, and we can do so again. The playbook has already been written – it just depends on the West re-reading it.
Dr. William C. Martel is an Associate Professor of International Security Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University. He is the recent author of “Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Strategy.”Follow him on Twitter: @BillMartel234