By William C. Martel
Such a concert of nations can only inject turmoil into the international system. It is a relatively new phenomenon that represents a radical shift in international politics, perhaps as momentous as the Soviet Union’s collapse two decades ago. By coordinating their policies, this grouping of powers is beginning to profoundly reshape global affairs, especially in the Asia-Pacific, Indo-Pacific, and Eurasian regions.
Who are the members of this group? Today, it includes China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, and Venezuela.
Why does it exist? Fundamentally, this new axis signals growing anxiety on the part of its members that they are “behind the curve” of history. Simply put, these states are on the wrong side of history, politics and economics – and they know it.
Its members share certain characteristics that raise questions of how it is, precisely, that they and their peoples missed the curve in building democratic states and free markets.
Most worrisome of all: we see strong evidence that they actively coordinate their foreign policies. Such coordination appears to be a relatively recent development that coincides with Vladimir Putin’s return to Russia’s presidency.
Why the Axis is Emerging: Fear
Societies must ask why has this grouping of authoritarian states emerged?
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. Stated simply, democratic values, particularly transparency in government and society, put at risk the survival of these authoritarian, repressive governments.
Seeing the success of free societies, the axis represents a purely defensive move against the power of those nations. When we consider the economic and technological power of the United States, Europe (Germany, U.K. and France), Japan, and an emerging India and Brazil, among others – even when weakened by recession – the members of the axis (with the exception of China, current trends not withstanding) aren’t even remotely serious players in the world economy. This fear drives like-minded states and similarly authoritarian governments and goals closer together.
Another reason for this geostrategic realignment lies with Russia. Coinciding with Putin’s return to the presidency, he turned to strident anti-American rhetoric to bolster his domestic power and international reputation – the latter to persuade other states to join the axis against Washington. His ability to build this axis, with China’s collaboration, explains why Russia could be a significant geopolitical adversary – despite its profoundly weak economy fueled largely by petro-dollars. This has major implications in the Asia-Pacific: if China and Russia were to increase their economic and military cooperation, their power would be felt throughout the region, adding more tension to an area where the United States is already increasing its presence.
In building the axis, a critical stratagem was Putin’s decisions to skip the G-8 summit and Camp David, and instead to visit Germany, France, China, and Afghanistan before meeting President Obama. This calculated move strengthened Putin and put Obama on the defensive.
States in the authoritarian axis share many common political and economic characteristics.