The Beijing-Moscow-Tehran Axis: A New Challenge for US Foreign Policy
To survive autocracies’ bid for increased multipolarity and weakened American resolve, the Western-led coalition in Ukraine must achieve a military and political victory.
The ongoing war in Ukraine, China’s recent brokering of a rapprochement between Saudi Arabia and Iran, and rising tensions in the Pacific all point to an irrefutable truth: we are witnessing the formation of a system of alliances seeking to alter the distribution of both soft and hard power by challenging the current world order.
Currently, illiberal and partially liberalized states can be split into two categories. The first category covers states that resist liberal democratization as a means of retaining sovereign power over their own governments. These states fear or suspect that liberal democratization is accompanied by an erosion of local values in favor of contemporary, Western ones, or that the advent of Western liberal non-government organizations, under the guise of helping build “civil society,” will act as instruments of foreign influence. Yet these states take a defensive posture, while the second category of states is those that are actively trying to challenge the Western-led liberal world order, with Iran, Russia, and China as leading examples. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the most direct and open challenge to the United States and the rules-based international liberal order that Washington supports.
To survive these autocracies’ bid for increased multipolarity and weakened American resolve, the Western-led coalition in Ukraine must achieve a military and political victory against Russia’s aggression.
This past Monday, China’s President Xi Jinping arrived in Moscow for a three-day visit and spoke extensively with Russian president Vladimir Putin. In this meeting, Beijing affirmed that it shared “similar goals” with Moscow and openly supported Putin’s reelection despite a recent call for his arrest by the International Criminal Court. In the leadup to Xi’s visit, China concluded an impressive joint military exercise with Iran and Russia off the Gulf of Oman and successfully brokered a normalization agreement that saw the restoration of diplomatic ties between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
As part of its commitment to alter the current distribution of power in the international system and the subsequent world order that accompanies it, the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran axis is determined to see Russia achieve some form of territorial victory in Ukraine. China has supported Moscow’s endeavor by increasing trade with Russia by nearly 30 percent and selling Russia a massive number of semiconductors, mostly through shell companies in the United Arab Emirates and Hong Kong. Tehran’s efforts to support Moscow’s war can be seen in the massive number of Iranian drones used to strike civilian and military infrastructure in Ukraine, as well as growing security commitments that may signal the development of a full-fledged defense partnership between both states.
Containing the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran axis requires a general understanding by Washington the international hegemony America has enjoyed for the past few decades is no longer guaranteed and faces the risk of collapse. It requires a renewed commitment to preserving a liberal world order that is continually threatened by revanchist states motivated by the pursuit of relative gains. It requires a renewed commitment to geostrategic partners and friends around the world that may have felt sidelined over the last decade by American attempts to disproportionally rely on soft power capabilities while allowing adversaries to accrue the necessary hard power, both military and economic, to challenge its hegemony.
To achieve this, the United States will need to reconsider its grand strategy. This includes strengthening ties with U.S. partners in the Pacific while re-examining the levels of tolerable U.S.-China economic interdependence, dismissing the fantasy that Iran’s nuclear program can be reversed or contained through diplomacy, and, most notably, increasing the amount of military aid being supplied to Ukraine as well as demanding European counterparts contribute as well.
The latter can be achieved in the short term. To do so, the Biden administration and its European counterparts must increase the number of Javelin systems, howitzers, ammunition, air-defense systems, armored vehicles, and aircraft being sent to Ukraine. Russia will only sue for peace when there is an irrefutable understanding in the Kremlin that it cannot acquire new territory, or even perhaps even continue holding the territory taken, in Ukraine.
A Western victory in Ukraine would not keep U.S. adversaries at bay forever. It would, however, give America and Europe an opportunity to invest in the much-necessary conventional hard power to continue deterring their adversaries in other theaters, mainly the Middle East and the Pacific. This will require many hard conversations in Washington and European capitals, but these will be necessary for the sake of preserving the rules-based international liberal order.
Yoni Michanie is a third-year international relations doctoral candidate at Northeastern University. He tweets at @YoniMichanie.