One could be forgiven for throwing up hands in despair at the multitude, severity, complexity, and convergence of threats the United States and its allies now face. From China, Russia, and Iran striving together to subvert the world order, to the worldwide rise of authoritarianism, human rights abuses and religious persecution, to fast-growing nuclear and missile threats, to a deluge of propaganda targeting the West, challenges to the Free World are formidable. Add to all this the malign acts and actors in the domains of cyber, energy, and space, along with the menace of transnational terrorism and trafficking, and the picture becomes more concerning. Renewed great power rivalry, heightened grey zone warfare, and escalating hostilities and atrocities in global hotspots call for a resolute, principled, and wise American foreign policy.
Metastasizing threats expose both the erosion of the post-World War II American foreign policy framework and the inadequacies of post-Cold War policies. Reeling from the horrors and devastation of fascism and total war, America resolved to stop expansionist aggression in its tracks and counter extremist ideologies with ideas of political liberty and human rights. During the Cold War, inspiring presidential speeches for freedom, the Voice of America radio broadcast, and U.S. leadership in democracy initiatives and international organizations existed alongside robust military alliances. But, after the Cold War, democracies let down their guard while enemies of freedom seized the day. Insufficient deterrence and resolve; modern relativism and uncertainty about what the Free World stands for and why; and the susceptibility of open, digital age societies to demagoguery and disinformation created openings for anti-democratic powers.
Today, the ideas that we will “never again” ignore intensifying dangers to our humanity and our security and that a Pax Americana will preserve the rules-based international order have been overtaken by reality. Russia’s success (along with Iran and Hezbollah) in saving murderous Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad, its war of conquest in Ukraine, and China’s rapid and massive military build-up and planned subjugation of Taiwan, are among the indicators that we live in a very different world from the one envisioned when the Berlin Wall collapsed. The fact that there are now prison camps in China, North Korea, and Russia to rival those under twentieth-century totalitarianism adds to the disheartening picture. So does the fact that China is steadfastly increasing its nuclear and missile arsenal while North Korean and Iranian nuclear and missile programs are progressing alarmingly.
Furthermore, China’s seat on the UN Human Rights Council and Iran’s leadership of the Council’s Social Forum are glaring reminders of the UN’s deviation from its stated ideals. So too is the way authoritarian regimes succeed in obstructing UN penalties for each other’s extreme human rights violations and breaches of international protocols.
Authoritarian Defense Cooperation
China, Russia, and Iran provide diplomatic cover for the foreign policy misdeeds of each other and constitute an anti-Western axis. Their expansive partnerships enhance the power of all three and impair U.S. influence. They benefit from trade, weapon and technology transfers, joint military exercises, and sanctions breaches. Their militaries recently participated in a third trilateral drill in the Gulf of Oman and the North Arabian Sea. Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amir-Abdollahian recently announced that the comprehensive strategic accord forged last year between Iran and China has entered into force. China and Russia implicitly support Iran’s brutal crackdown on brave protestors, and China provides Iran with technology for repression.
Iran supplies attack drones and munitions, while China provides dual-use rifles, body armor, drones, and financial support, for Russia’s ferocious assault on Ukraine. The only “peace” China wants in Ukraine will advantage Russia and strengthen Chinese influence over Europe. Trade between China and Russia rose to $190 billion last year, and China’s imports of Russian energy have increased to $88 billion since Russia launched a full-scale war. Building on Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin’s “unlimited partnership,” Chinese defense minister Li Shangfu recently pronounced that China and Russia would “expand military ties, military-technical ties and arms trade.”
Moreover, Pentagon officials have warned that Russia is providing highly enriched uranium for China’s rapidly expanding nuclear program, that Russia and China are producing space weapons to attack U.S. satellites and bypass U.S. missile defense systems, and that China’s overall military might is on a trajectory to surpass the United States.
Russia and China’s Growing Influence in the Middle East
In backing anti-democratic forces and dictators across the region, worst among them Syria’s murderous Bashar al-Assad, Russia and Iran have pushed the Middle East backward. China, until recently, acted behind the scenes to capitalize on the growing vacuum of U.S. influence. Now it energetically concludes commercial and strategic deals across the Middle East. The recent strengthening of energy, defense, economic and technological partnerships between China and Saudi Arabia and the détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran negotiated by Beijing are on everyone’s mind. Especially bad for human rights, the Saudi-led Arab League member states agreed to a statement endorsing China’s “efforts” and “position” in Hong Kong and “rejecting Taiwan’s independence in all its forms.”
China’s peacemaker status gives it another wedge against America’s hard and soft power and another step forward in creating a China-oriented world order. China’s trade with the Middle East now exceeds that of the United States.
The deterioration of U.S. relations with regional partners and allies like Saudi Arabia and Turkey and Iran’s brazen regional provocations and steadily advancing nuclear program are signs of the times. The United States must, on the one hand, stand firmly against aggressors and atrocity committers and, on the other, cultivate partnerships with countries that, while less than ideal partners from our democratic perspective, can help deter the Free World’s gravest threats. Developing these partnerships need not preclude applying behind-the-scenes pressure regarding human rights nor making arms deals contingent upon basic alignment with American priorities.
Recalling how disparate malign forces capitalized on the conflict in Syria is helpful as we consider how to deal with emerging and converging threats today: Obama administration officials and Arab and European leaders sat idle and quiet as Assad’s brutal crackdown on peaceful protests turned into a war on civilians. They continued to do and say little after Iran and Russia entered the war on Assad’s side and Damascus’ terrible hostilities and atrocities escalated. The White House even entertained Russia’s supposed “peace plans,” which only bought Assad time and cover for more aggression.
Neglect by the United States and the international community under the Obama administration allowed Iran, Russia, and extremist groups, such as al-Nusra Front, Hezbollah, and ISIS, to grow in influence. The Trump administration focused on defeating ISIS but not on the whole confluence of threats. Instead, President Donald Trump continued the moral and strategic retreat trajectory emphasized by the simplistic mantras of avoiding “endless war” and “America First.” Thus, Russia attained power broker status in Syria and military bases from which it tested weapons now used against Ukraine. Iranian militias wreaked endless havoc in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Yemen, and elsewhere. Terror groups and drug traffickers gained new footholds. Today, Syria is not just a playground for extremists; it is a narco-state.
The appalling move of many Arab League countries and some Western countries toward normalizing relations with Assad, and President Joe Biden’s apparent acceptance of that trend, reveals an ongoing deficit of U.S. leadership. Making matters worse, the Biden administration failed to build on the Abraham Accords negotiated by the Trump administration and enacted the disastrous Afghanistan withdrawal. Pivots from one region to another that forget the worldwide interconnectedness of modern threats, simplistic equations of hard power with “boots on the ground” and soft power with “cultural appropriation” gave enemies vacuums to fill.
Iran, Russia, and China are not only united against the Free World: they’ve created worldwide partnerships with dictatorships and radical forces. Take Iran’s tangled web: Putin’s Belarusan ally Alexander Lukashenko recently visited Iran, where he and President Ebrahim Raisi signed a “cooperation roadmap document.” Iran arms and sponsors Hamas, Hezbollah, Houthi rebels in Yemen, and Shia militias in Iraq. To add to the complex inter-connectedness, Iran uses Syria as a hub for weapons proliferation, relies on bad actors in the UN to relieve pressure on its nuclear program, and benefits from a flourishing arms trade with North Korea.
China’s global network, combined with China’s formidable power, is particularly alarming. Having focused more on mutually profitable economic interaction than on the dramatic rise of China’s military might and geopolitical clout, the West now faces a significant threat to the Free World’s security and way of life. Western dependence on Chinese goods and supply chains and China’s major commercial agreements and loans on every continent augment Chinese power. China has spent over $900 billion on Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure, transportation, and mining projects in Asia, Africa, the Middle East, and beyond into Europe and the Americas. Despite setbacks, the BRI has led not only to new security agreements and ports and docking rights for China’s fast-expanding navy but also to the insidious expansion of Chinese information and surveillance technology. The China-Myanmar Economic Corridor and Cambodia’s Ream military base are among new avenues for China’s imperialistic drive.