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As liberals, we cringe at reductionist language like “axis of evil.” We hated it when former President George W. Bush used the phrase to justify his invasion of Iraq, and we cringe every time old-school neoconservatives utter one of its many variations.
Recent history shows, however, that there is indeed an axis of nations wishing ill upon the world. And unfortunately, it’s been proven once again that if the United States doesn’t lead the opposition, then no one will.
And that’s the reason every dictatorial strongman in that axis—from Russia’s Vladimir Putin to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un—is rooting for Donald Trump to win.
International relations are a thorny and complicated matter. And while there are obviously many additional layers to this story, the fundamentals are clear. Forget the nonsense about the “global south” and BRICS—the geopolitical group consisting of Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates—as a counterpoint to Western hegemony. The real danger is in the new axis between Russia, Iran, North Korea, and China.
Russia has expansionist aspirations (with its invasion of Ukraine), as does North Korea (with its threats to South Korea), Iran (with proxy militias across the Middle East), and China (with its lusting after the former breakaway province now known as Taiwan). Those imperialistic tendencies are currently tempered by—kind of ironically—the formerly imperial powers of the West.
Because of this, the fault lines have erupted roughly between democratic countries and autocratic ones. That’s why BRICS isn’t a core part of this equation. Unlike partners China and Russia, key members Brazil, India, and South Africa are democracies and lack the same expansionist zeal of this new, expansionist axis. (And yes, we can argue India, Kashmir, and Pakistan, but like I noted, this is complicated, and I’d argue those conflicts are of a different nature.)
Beyond a disdain for democracy, this new axis lacks much ideological or cultural cohesiveness. Russia’s fundamentalist Orthodox Christianity bears little resemblance to Iran’s Shia Islamic fundamentalism. China is officially an atheist nation and one that brutally represses some religious and ethnic minorities, such as the Islamic Uyghurs. And North Korea’s state religion is the Kim family itself. And while autocratic in nature, the countries’ forms of government vary as well. Russia is ostensibly a republic but functionally a dictatorship and oligarchy, and China was a politburo (communist government by committee) before its leader Xi Jinping consolidated power in 2022. North Korea is, as mentioned, a cult of personality. Iran is a theocracy.
And yet these nations have realized that their global aspirations cannot be accomplished as long as a militarily and economically dominant West acts as a roadblock to their regional ambitions. Still, that doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. Take a look at the world’s war-ridden hotspots and you’ll see that virtually every one of them has at least one of these nation’s fingerprints on it.
In Ukraine, Russia launched a hot war and, having failed so far to conquer its neighbor, is increasingly relying on North Korean rockets and artillery shells and Iranian drones to strike Ukrainian targets. In return, Russia is providing Iran with advanced military technologies, and North Korea with desperately needed cash.
The Middle East has been on fire for decades, fueled in large part by Iran’s proxy militias. It built up both Hamas—enabling the current war in Israel and Gaza—and Hezbollah, which is bedeviling Israel on its border with Lebanon. Iran’s Houthi allies in Yemen have partly shut down shipping lanes in the Red Sea, forcing costly detours around South Africa that threaten to worsen inflation.
In Africa, Russia and China have provided diplomatic cover for coup-plotters. And in a particular masterstroke for Russia, its backing of a coup in Niger negated a $110 million drone base the U.S. built to combat ISIS in the region.
Things seem to have simmered down since I last wrote about the brewing conflict between Venezuela and Guyana, but who is the power behind the former’s autocratic leader Nicolás Maduro? Russia. (And China.)
In Asia, China’s belligerence toward its neighbors has intensified to the point that the Philippines invited American forces back after unceremoniously kicking them out in 1992. And, in a mind-blowing move, the U.S. and Vietnam have entered into a military cooperation agreement. Meanwhile, due to threats from China and North Korea, Japan has been taking incremental but steady steps to move beyond its post-World War II pacifist orientation. And in response to China’s growing power, Australia has been on a spending spree to upgrade its naval capabilities because, as an isolated island nation, it needs open shipping lanes to survive.
All of this is expensive and a boon to weapons manufacturers—and a detriment to those of us who wished a more peaceful world would negate the need for arms spending. Instead, we’re seeing just how dependent the free world is on American economic and military might.
Part of it is a legacy of WWII. Though post-war constitutions and norms in Germany and Japan called for pacifism, there was a fear of a future global conflict, and the reluctance to let those former Axis powers remilitarize was part of the justification for the U.S.’s historically astronomical defense budgets. It was a great deal for Japan and Germany, which, in a stunning success, each became democracies and among the world’s great economies! Plus, they got universal health care … and we did not.
But the current war in Ukraine has exposed the limits of that pacifism and our allies’ neglected militaries. While the U.S. has thousands of battle tanks and armored infantry vehicles in storage, Europe struggled to find tanks to send to Ukraine. Like many countries in Europe, Japan has little to give (in part because of its pacifist constitution), and South Korea is facing its own, closer-to-home threats (North Korea).
And while Europe has given Ukraine hundreds of billions, they just don’t have the weapon systems Ukraine so desperately needs. The U.S. has those, and now they’re blocked by a Republican Party that pretends to hate China and Iran but is happily doing the bidding of those countries’ biggest ally—Russia.
Ukraine is the front line of this new global struggle. You better believe that Russia’s allies are carefully tracking the Western response to Russia’s invasion. If Putin succeeds in even annexing part of Ukraine, it will be a rousing victory and a call to arms for this new axis. But if the West rallies, builds up its military arsenal, maintains and even strengthens its sanctions, the axis will likely determine that any military adventurism is too fraught with risk, and the status quo, however tense, will remain. The alternative—a hot war in the Korean peninsula, the Taiwan strait, or Europe—would be catastrophic both in terms of lives lost and to the global economy.
The bigger the cost to Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, the less likely a war between major powers becomes. The bigger Russia’s defeat, the greater the damage to Iran, North Korea, and maybe even China. (At the same time, China appears to be in a win-win scenario at Russia’s expense. If Russia wins, China has an emboldened ally that would almost assuredly aid in an invasion of Taiwan. And if Russia loses, China gains a new vassal state with the natural resources to feed its own machine.)
Ultimately, the West needs to do everything in its power to help Ukraine win—and do so as quickly as possible. We need the Republican Party to stop being Iran and China’s biggest international ally. (Their support of Putin is well past absurdity.)
Global peace depends on it.