Home/Daniel Larison/The “Authoritarian Axis” That Doesn’t Exist

The “Authoritarian Axis” That Doesn’t Exist

William Martel’s “authoritarian axis” argument is no more persuasive than it was when Rick Santorum made it earlier this year:

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.

It is doubtful that all of these governments know themselves to be on the “wrong side of history.” The North Korean government should know this, but may be so convinced by their own propaganda that they believe the opposite. To the extent that their leaders have firm ideas about the “direction” of history, the Chinese and Iranian governments probably believe for very different reasons that they are on the “winning” side. They are probably badly mistaken about this, but I wouldn’t assume that all of these governments act out of a sense of panic or inferiority. The six states in question are so different from one another in their internal conditions that it’s probably not very useful to think about them as representatives of the same sort of political and economic system.

These states are all authoritarian to varying degrees, but all that this really tells us is that they are not liberal democracies. Some of them go through the motions of democratic processes that have no effect on who controls the government (e.g., Russia, Iran), and one of them may be about to vote out the incumbent president. Venezuela is currently run by an elected strongman with a record of using heavy-handed and authoritarian tactics against his opponents, but there is the real possibility that the political opposition’s candidate might defeat Chavez at the polls. Chavez’s disastrous economic mismanagement may finally be catching up to him. I wonder how much sense it will make to include Venezuela in this so-called “axis” if it no longer has the ridiculous Hugo Chavez as its president.

The claim of foreign policy “coordination” among these six is overstated. These states will tend to be on the same side of certain international issues, especially when it involves the possibility of Western military intervention, but their support for other Russian (or Chinese) positions is hardly guaranteed. Of the other five, only Venezuela has joined Russia in recognizing the independence of South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These states do not “work systematically in a highly coordinated fashion” in presenting a united anti-American or anti-Western front. Russia and China have voted the same way at the Security Council on Burma, Zimbabwe, Libya, and Syria for their usual reasons, and they both belong to the SCO, but they actively compete with one another for influence in Central Asia and they are not allies in a meaningful sense.

The “apparent fealty to rules” is something that is hardly unique to these six states or to authoritarian regimes in general. Many states “claim to support international rules” and then “actively oppose efforts to impose them” when those efforts run against state interests. Put another way, these states privilege certain international rules while ignoring or dismissing other international norms, and they are not alone in doing so. For example, opposing international intervention in Syria is not something that is limited to these authoritarian states. India rejects military intervention in Syria for its own reasons, as do other rising democratic powers that are more suspicious of Western views of limited state sovereignty.

These six states don’t practice a “simple, yet effective, policy of supporting and protecting each other – no matter what.” This is the sort of total solidarity that doesn’t even exist in formal military alliances, much less in any so-called “axis” of vaguely similar authoritarian governments. Russia shields Syria at the U.N. for now, but it isn’t going to protect Assad’s regime “no matter what.” China has even less reason to go that far. Iran is presumably the only one of these states that would continue offering its support until the end, and that is because of Iran’s longstanding ties to the Syrian regime and not because it belongs to this mythical “axis.” Martel is trying to fashion this group of states as some sort of ideologically-coherent bloc that has a unified purpose, but there is no such unified purpose and these states don’t form a reliable bloc.

about the author

Daniel Larison is a senior editor at TAC, where he also keeps a solo blog. He has been published in the New York Times Book Review, Dallas Morning News, World Politics Review, Politico Magazine, Orthodox Life, Front Porch Republic, The American Scene, and Culture11, and was a columnist for The Week. He holds a PhD in history from the University of Chicago, and resides in Lancaster, PA. Follow him on Twitter.

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