It takes time for societies and policymakers to understand that a major shift in global affairs is afoot. But we are now witnessing the emergence of a new constellation of powers, an authoritarian axis comprising China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela, writes William C. Martel. an Associate Professor of International Security Studies at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
There are two common fears that animate the policies of these authoritarian governments. One is their apparent fear of democracy, freedom, and liberty, which each of these societies works aggressively to curtail.
Second, these authoritarian regimes fear the power and influence of the United States and the West. As the single most powerful state in economic, military, and technological terms, the United States exemplifies the success of free societies that authoritarian societies most deeply oppose.
States in the authoritarian axis share many common political and economic characteristics. These states, fearing transparency and democratic institutions, face serious levels of domestic opposition. Fundamentally unstable, such states have authoritarian and repressive governments whose leaders will impose any burden on their own people to ensure their survival.
The members of the authoritarian axis have – with the exception of China, although recent data points to problems ahead – profoundly weak economies.
The only exception – which, if current economic data holds, may not last – is China. Its economy is large, dynamic, and prosperous, but China’s authoritarian political system remains a powerful drag on its economy. Leaders in Beijing reportedly worry that China – without significant economic growth – is a recipe for dramatic social and political unrest that could undermine the government’s control on power.
A critical problem for the axis is that half of its members generate most of their wealth from oil and gas sales. Worse, states like Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela contribute little in the way of industry and technology to the global economy. Dependent on energy exports, these states fear that declining energy prices will throw their economies into recession and political upheaval.
Several principles govern the foreign policies of the axis states. The first is reflexive opposition to the United States. No principle seems more important, particularly to Russia, than to resist and restrain American power and influence whenever the opportunity arises.
Another principle is apparent fealty to rules. Whether it’s the United Nations or other institutions, members of the axis claim to support international rules, but they actively oppose efforts to impose them. Opposing actions to restrain the civil war in Syria is a case in point.
These states oppose democracy and free markets in their own societies. With these governments guided by authoritarian leaders, their visceral opposition to democracy and free markets is apparent and enduring.
Recently – and all the more troubling – we see signs of increasing foreign policy coordination among the axis members. This has obvious repercussions in Asia-Pacific/Indo-Pacific and Eurasia as well as globally.
What does this authoritarian axis mean for international security? What should the rest of the world do? Most importantly, what implications will this have for the Asia-Pacific and elsewhere?
The first step is for the democracies and their allies to identify the problem – and they must remember that axes emerge as a normal event in geopolitics. In practice, Russia likely is the prime mover in motivating and organizing this. It solidified at the moment when Putin, in running for the presidency for a third term, needed to strengthen his domestic base of support.
Societies in the West have every reason to be optimistic about the future – and none of us wants to see another cold war. In effect, the members of the authoritarian axis are economically and politically weak – and unstable. Keep in mind that such regimes, recalling the cases of the Soviet Union, Serbia, Ukraine, and Georgia, can collapse unexpectedly.
Knowing that, the West’s countervailing strategy rests on three principles.
First, identify regularly what the authoritarian states do, say, and stand for. Transparency is a powerful antidote to authoritarianism. Second, emphasize the power of the values of democracy, freedom and free markets, and human rights as the basis for true prosperity and power. Third, be prepared to engage the authoritarian states on the “playing fields” of democracy and freedom. If recent history is any guide, these authoritarian regimes in the long term are unlikely to survive – a reality they likely understand.
For now, if the authoritarian axis prospers, it will rewrite the rules that govern foreign policy. However, the vastly more likely outcome is that, if the West organizes itself to deal effectively with this challenge, we perhaps might see the last gasp of authoritarian states.
Dr. William C. Martel is an Associate Professor of International Security Studies at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy: Tufts University. He is the author of “Victory in War: Foundations of Modern Strategy.” Follow him on Twitter: @BillMartel234