The emergence of an anti-American Chinese-Russian-Iranian-North Korean axis of tyranny magnifies and multiplies the serious threats the United States and our allies face. Overcoming this Axis requires sound grand strategy, perseverance, and resolve. What follows are some principles and policies that should guide us.

First, this axis of tyranny is not just tactical, but strategic, especially the partnership between Russia and China. Sino-Russian collaboration has burgeoned since Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping signed a comprehensive Security and Economic Pact on February 4, 2022, pledging mutual support for their revisionist ambitions. China has not only blunted the effect of sanctions Western nations imposed on Russia for its invasion of Ukraine but has supported Putin diplomatically, offering a meretricious peace plan that would have frozen Russian territorial gains in place. Although China has yet refrained from providing Russia with lethal aid to wage war, that may change: Xi Jinping will not tolerate his most important partner losing.

China, Russia, and Iran also have coordinated their polices in the Middle East, exploiting the vacuum that the American strategic withdrawal from the region has created. Xi Jinping, Putin, and the Mullahs are collaborating to redeem the Assad regime in Syria. In March 2023, China brokered a deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, aimed, among other things, at drawing the Saudis away from their traditional alignment with the United States. Russia and Iran have become full-fledged defense partners amidst the Ukraine War. China and Russia now “encourage Iran to go nuclear,” according to Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, to quote from one of the finest analyses of the current Iranian regime.[1] Cooperation has deepened likewise between Russia and North Korea, with former Russian President Medvedev warning that North Korea may send advanced weapons if South Korea provides lethal aid to Ukraine.

The United States and its allies—to paraphrase the Supremes—have no place to run nor any place to hide from the ramifications of the axis’s strategic collaboration. We are in the early stage of a second Cold War just as dangerous and as global as the first. For the foreseeable future, the axis of tyranny will resemble the Sino-Soviet communist monolith circa the late 1940s through the 1950s, impervious to a divide and conquer strategy that unrealistic realists continue to proffer—be it the futility of yet another attempted reset with Putin, or even more feckless, Daniel Drezner’s advocacy of pursuing a new equilibrium with an exponentially more dangerous and implacable China. What unites the axis of tyranny—enmity towards U.S. preponderance—overshadows for the time being the fallout among these regimes that will invariably occur later.[2]

Second, there is no plausible alternative to the United States leading a coalition of the willing to prevent the members of this axis, singularly or collectively, from dominating the world’s major power centers. American allies can considerably supplement but not substitute for American power. As Stephen G. Brooks and William Wohlforth observe, “the world is neither bipolar nor multipolar and it is not about to become that either.” Although the margin of U.S. dominance has narrowed over the past two decades, the United States remains “on top,” still measurably above China, our closest peer competitor, and toweringly above any other rivals.[3]

Even the most motivated conceivable combination minus the United States could not prevent China from achieving hegemony in the Indo-Pacific, the world’s most important power center for the 21st century. Nor does more than a century of experience offer much optimism that Europe minus the United States has the political coherence and will to stop Putin’s Russia. For all of Ukraine’s heroism and NATO’s unexpectedly vigorous response, especially from Poland and other Eastern European members of NATO, the Russian army would be on the Polish border at this moment minus the United States taking the lead.

Nor are any variants of offshore balancing—often appeasement in thinly veiled disguise—popular on the progressive American Left and isolationist Right to offer a prudent alternative. Writing in 1967, Harold Rood encapsulates the inexorable logic of U.S forward positions in Eurasia serving the national interest at the lowest possible cost and risk: Military threats to the United States originate from the Eurasian landmass because that enormous area—the largest in the world—is the home of all the world’s other great powers. It remains more prudent “to defend the United States” by deterring or if need be “fighting the enemy as close to the enemy’s homeland as possible, or at least as far away from the continent as possible.”[4]

Third, overcoming the axis of tyrannies will depend on getting our geopolitical priorities straight. By every metric, China is our most formidable adversary, above Russia and far above Iran and North Korea. Our most pressing immediate imperative is therefore to accelerate at warp speed the arming of Taiwan with sufficient numbers and types of weapons so that any Chinese direct or indirect attack on the Island becomes prohibitively costly. The loss of Taiwan to Chinese tyranny bent on taking it sooner rather than later, according to Xi Jinping himself would strike a devastating blow to the credibility of our American power, not just in the Indo Pacific.

Fourth, although the Indo-Pacific has eclipsed Europe as the world’s most important power center, the United States still has a vital economic, strategic, moral, and ideological interest in preventing Putin’s tyranny from imposing a 21st-century version of an autocratic expansionist Russian Empire across Central Europe, neutering the NATO alliance in the process. A muscular NATO that Putin’s invasion of Ukraine has reinvigorated not only serves to keep Russia at bay, but also establishes a strong gravitational pull to keep Germany anchored to the West.

So another pressing imperative—second only to arming Taiwan—is to accelerate at warp speed the dilatory pace of the Biden administration’s military aid to Ukraine. This is necessary to maximize the chance for Ukraine to inflict a major defeat on Russia in its impending spring offensive. Contrary to the complaints of isolationists and the progressive Left, we ought to consider Ukraine one of the most low-cost/high-yield bargains in our security portfolio. Should the war end in a stalemate, leaving Ukraine more vulnerable than before to Russian aggression at a later time of Putin’s choosing, NATO will pay a steeper price for drawing the line in less felicitous circumstances. A Putin victory also would boost China’s leverage in Europe as well as the Indo-Pacific. As Rebecca Heinrich observes, conversely, a Ukrainian victory and a stronger NATO with an augmented Eastern front would not only raise the barriers to future Russian aggression, but bolster deterrence and containment of China in the Indo-Pacific, undercutting Xi Jinping’s narrative of China’s inexorable rise and America’s decline.[5]

Fifth, the conflict between the United States and its allies and the axis of tyranny is ideological as well as geopolitical. China is not a traditional great power, but organically communist, determined to displace the United States as the world’s preeminent power, starting in the Indo-Pacific. The Iranian Mullahs believe what they say when they chant “Death to Israel” and assail the United States as the Great Satan. Putin means it when he laments the demise of the Evil Empire of the Soviet Union as the greatest tragedy of the 20th century. The dynamics of the war in Ukraine highlight in bold relief the ideological dimensions of the conflict with the axis of tyranny. The Zelensky government has received its most unstinting support from a coalition of stable liberal democracies: The United States, Eastern European members of NATO, the UK, Canada, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, Taiwan, and the EU.

President Biden is indeed right generally and in in this case specifically to emphasize that stable liberal democracies make better and more reliable allies—despite congenital French and German wavering—in building a coalition of the willing not only to thwart Putin, but also Xi Jinping, with three caveats:

1. The United States should welcome non-democracies to the coalition such as Vietnam in the Indo-Pacific and, as President Trump did, enlisting Saudi Arabia to cooperate with democratic Israel to deter Iran in a Middle East—a region bereft of viable democratic alternatives but for Israel.

2. President Biden should desist from demonizing his Republican opponents as threats to freedom equivalent to the axis of tyranny, if his or any administration hopes to forge a durable domestic consensus for a policy of vigilantly containing Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea.

3. The United States must take cognizance of an emerging non-aligned movement—including many of the larger nations of the Global South—reluctant to take sides in the conflict between the United States and its democratic allies on one side, and the axis of tyranny on the other. As during the Cold War, the United States should make reasonable distinctions in our dealings with the unaligned. 1) Respect genuine rather than counterfeit neutrality of many Latin American nations and Indonesia; 2) Expose the counterfeit neutrality of an increasingly authoritarian, pro-Russian, anti-American Turkey, which does not belong in NATO; and 3) Recognize that securing democratic India’s participation in the Quad, and other strategic endeavors to contain China and resist radical Islam, trumps India’s frustrating neutrality on Ukraine and waning but vexing cooperation with Russia in other areas.[6]

Sixth, although the United States remains potentially more powerful than China and although open societies generally prevail in existential contests with tyrannies thanks to their greater capacity to generate wealth, innovate, and recover from their mistakes, the United States’ defense spending is woefully inadequate to meet the simultaneous threats we face, especially in the Indo-Pacific. China’s has steadily continued its massive two-decade military buildup while the Obama and Biden administrations in particular have combined to erode the margin of American superiority essential for credible deterrence and for winning wars should deterrence fail. As a result, a dangerous window of vulnerability for Taiwan has materialized, which Xi Jinping appears eager to exploit before long-term trends adverse to China close it.[7]

Increasing American military spending from 3 to at least 5 percent of the GDP is a necessary if not sufficient condition for overcoming the axis of tyranny and other unanticipated threats we may face. It is not just what we spend but how we spend it. Time is of the essence for rebuilding our once immense but now excessively downsized military industrial complex and reforming our sclerotic procurement process. Weak, declining, and irresolute nations do not attract strong allies or defeat dangerous foes. On the contrary, the perception of American decline that the Biden administration has put on steroids with its ignominious Afghan pullout has not only emboldened the axis of tyranny, but prompted some of our traditional partners such as Saudi Arabia to hedge their bets.

Seventh, overcoming the axis of tyranny will depend on a strong, dynamic, innovative, economic base, with a robust private sector at its core. Unfortunately, the Biden administration’s determination to carry forward the progressive wing of his party’s ambition to increase the size, scope, and cost of the regulatory state risks squandering the huge advantage we enjoy over the command economies of the axis. So does the administration’s untenable green agenda imperiling the energy independence that the Trump Administration had achieved, freeing the United States from depending on unstable tyrannies for our supply while offering our European allies an alternative to relying on Russian oil and natural gas.

Eighth, we must counter China not just militarily and politically but economically. That means stopping China’s grand theft of America intellectual property, costing American businesses and consumers hundreds of billions while subsidizing our enemy’s capabilities. That means, above all, accelerating the pace and scope of decoupling our economy from China’s in all realms but for palpably non-strategic goods.

Ninth, any state unwilling to defend its borders undercuts the reliability of its commitments to friends and the credibility of its threats to foes. We cannot generate the vital domestic consensus for bearing the burden and reaping the even greater benefits of overcoming the axis of tyranny—with China the leader of the pack—without a sane immigration policy that (a) continues to attract the best and the brightest from all corners of the world, (b) remains a haven for genuine refugees, and (c) welcomes legal immigration while shutting down the deluge of economically costly and culturally divisive illegal immigration inimical to well-ordered liberty.

Whether we overcome the Axis of Evil will depend above all on remembering how and why the United States attained its post-World War II preeminence in the first place: Only a strong United States will survive and thrive as the last best hope on earth.[8]

[1] Reuel Marc Gerecht and Ray Takeyh, “China and Russia Encourage Iran to Go Nuclear,” Wall Street Journal (May 8, 2023). 

[2] Daniel W. Drezner, “Is the United States Creating a ‘Legion of Doom’?” Politico (March 19, 2023).

[3] Stephen G. Brooks and William Wohlforth, “The Myth of Multipolarity: American Power’s Staying Power,” Foreign Affairs (April 18, 2023).

[4] Harold. W. Rood, “Distant Ramparts,” U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol.93/3/769 (March 1967).

[5] Rebeccah L. Heinrichs, “Empowering Ukraine Prepares Us for China,” Hudson Institute (April 20, 2023).

[6] Teresa Mattela, “What’s behind India’s strategic neutrality on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine," ABC News (March 29, 2023).

[7] Hal Brands and Michael Beckley, Danger Zone: The Coming Conflict with China (New York: Norton, 2022).

[8] Tom Cotton, Only the Strong: Reversing the Left’s Plot to Sabotage American Power (New York and Boston: Twelve, 2022).

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