An Arsenal of Democracies Can Best the China-Russia-Iran Axis
By bringing its allies together, the United States can confront the gravest threat the free world has faced since the end of the Cold War.
It has been a tough month for the Biden administration’s leadership of the free world.
First came the three-day summit meeting between China’s President Xi Jinping and Russia’s Vladimir Putin. Although both leaders avoided discussing a formal military alliance, their talks about “cooperation in the sphere of military-technical interaction”—as Putin coyly put it—served as one more proof that China and Russia are working together to displace the United States as the world’s leading superpower, and to impose a new totalitarian world order. The White House seems unsure of how to push back.
Then came the attack by an Iranian-origin drone on a U.S. military facility in Syria, killing an American contractor and wounding seven more—the same drones that Iran supplies to Russia in its war in Ukraine. Again, the administration seemed unsure how to respond, even though the attack makes it undeniable that the Russia-China de facto alliance includes a third revisionist power, namely Iran.
Like China’s brokered normalization agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia; its twelve-point peace plan for Ukraine and Russia; its supply of aid to Russia in exchange for Russian energy, even as Beijing invests heavily in Iran’s energy industry; and Iran’s steady progress toward developing weapons-grade uranium with Russia’s help while Russia also supplies Iran with offensive cyber weapons, all demonstrate that the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran axis I warned about back in 2015, and again in 2019, is now a full-blown reality, and is increasingly dictating the course of world affairs.
At the same time, the Biden team has been focused—arguably overly focused—on supporting Ukraine and worrying about a possible war with China over Taiwan. While supporting Ukraine and defending Taiwan are important, the United States clearly needs to develop a broader global strategy to match the global threat posed by this New Axis.
Fortunately, the United States is in a powerful position to implement that strategy, by bringing together the advanced democratic nations as an Arsenal of Democracies, to parallel the Arsenal of Democracy that prevailed against an earlier axis in World War II—this time, however, in order to deter war, rather than fight one.
Indeed, the Biden administration’s AUKUS agreement with Australia and Great Britain for the joint construction of new nuclear submarines, can serve as a springboard for this multilateral approach. However, that model needs to be expanded when it comes to the advanced systems of the future.
In creating that earlier Arsenal of Democracy, for example, the United States had the advantage of the greatest industrial base in the world and the supply chains needed to single-handedly arm itself and its allies. Today the war in Ukraine has proved that America’s industrial base is not up to being the free world’s armorer by itself—perhaps not even for ourselves in the event of a protracted conflict with China over Taiwan.
However, instead of treating the decline of that industrial base as a net strategic loss, it offers an opportunity to partner with democratic allies around the world in developing and building the present and future advanced technology arsenal that can defend freedom against its enemies, both large and small.
A look at the numbers helps to put the contest between the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran axis and the democratic nations in perspective.
As China continues to grow as the world’s second-largest economy—possibly surpassing the United States as early as 2030—Russia and Iran barely register on the list of the world’s economies in terms of GDP. By contrast, the United States together with the other democratic nations in the top ten (Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, India, France, Italy, Canada, and South Korea) total more than twice China’s GDP.
Looking more closely, according to Global Finance magazine’s 2022 estimates, the United States and its fellow democracies occupy eighteen of the top twenty slots of the world’s most advanced tech countries (the exceptions being the United Arab Emirates, a U.S. ally, and Hong Kong). China, meanwhile, ranks thirty-second on the list, while Russia and Iran don’t even score.
All this indicates that if the United States and democracies band together, they can overpower China and the New Axis not only in terms of economic muscle but with the kind of high-tech focus that will be the core of a winning Arsenal of Democracies.
For example, while China has taken a lead in using artificial intelligence (AI) as a tool for government control of its citizenry, U.S. companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Meta continue to be the world’s leaders in AI’s commercial applications, all of which can be a springboard to AI being used as a powerful battlefield asset. At the same time, allies like Japan, South Korea, and Canada are making major strides in AI development, while European countries like France and Germany working to catch up.
Hypersonics will be another decisive tool in a future Arsenal of Democracies. The United States along with Russia and China are today the leading wielders of hypersonic weapons, including missiles that can travel ten times the speed of sound. However, in September 2020 India tested its first Hypersonic Technology Demonstrator Vehicle, and has drafted a five-year plan to develop its own hypersonic missile. Australia, France, Germany, and Japan are also pursuing hypersonic weapons development, even as Israel and South Korea have started foundational research on hypersonic weaponry that could significantly improve existing systems.
Directed energy weapons, including laser weapons, will be in the forefront of future weapons systems. The U.S. government enjoys a clear lead in contracting with manufacturers such as Raytheon, Lockheed Martin, and Boeing to develop and deploy these systems. While China is a leading manufacturer of directed energy weaponry, so is India. At the same time, Japan has been following its own innovative path toward similar directed-energy arms.
The same is even more true when it comes to space technology. While Russia and China have been long-time leaders in developing anti-satellite weaponry, the United States still has a major lead in the commercial development of space technologies thanks to companies like SpaceX and Blue Origin.
In fact, in terms of the top twelve countries carrying out space launches from 2021 to December 2022, Russia and China’s 4,342 total launches still lag behind the United States’ 5,534. Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, with its $16.6 billion space agency, managed 515 launches compared to China’s 731. Japan, France, India, Germany, and Canada (the first country to launch a satellite that was not made in either the United States or Russia), taken together equal or surpass China’s launch effort over the last two years.
The numbers show that the United States and allies like Japan, India, and Europe have space-based manufacturing and technology bases that can guarantee that the great space commons will be dominated by the democratic nations, not their enemies.
The bottom line is, the advanced democratic nations enjoy a winning economic and technological edge over the Beijing-Moscow-Tehran axis. By bringing its allies together through bilateral agreements as well as joint public-private partnerships with U.S. and foreign companies that can break down regional barriers, the United States can confront the gravest threat the free world has faced since the end of the Cold War—and leave the New Axis wondering why it ever dared to challenge the forces of freedom.
Arthur Herman is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute, and author of Freedom’s Forge: How American Business Produced Victory in World War II.