Putin, Xi, Assad, and Maduro vs. the American Hegemon
The American foreign policy Blob’s latest worry is that Venezuela’s radical leftist government is reaching out to the Middle East for support against growing pressure from Washington.
Specifically, President Nicolás Maduro is reportedly trying to establish extensive political and financial links with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and his ally in Lebanon, Hezbollah. The latter has repeatedly condemned U.S. policy towards Maduro, and already appears to have shadowy economic ties to Caracas. There are indications that Maduro’s regime may be utilizing Hezbollah to launder funds from the illegal drug trade.
Washington’s fear is that lurking behind an Assad-Hezbollah-Maduro alliance is America’s arch-nemesis, Iran, which has close relations with both Assad and Hezbollah. Tehran’s apparent objective would be to strengthen the Venezuelan regime, boost anti-U.S. sentiment in the Western Hemisphere, and perhaps acquire some laundered money from a joint Maduro-Hezbollah operation to ease the pain of U.S. economic sanctions re-imposed following the Trump administration’s repudiation of the nuclear deal.
Although Iran, Assad, and Hezbollah remain primarily concerned with developments in their own region, the fear that they want to undermine Washington’s power in its own backyard is not unfounded. But U.S. leaders should ask themselves why such diverse factions would coalesce behind that objective.
It is hardly the only example of this to emerge in recent years, and the principal cause appears to be Washington’s own excessively belligerent policies. That approach is driving together regimes that have little in common except the need to resist U.S. pressure. Washington’s menacing posture undermines rather than enhances American security, and especially in one case—provoking an expanding entente between Russia and China—it poses a grave danger.
The current flirtation between Caracas and anti-American factions in the Middle East is not the first time that American leaders have worried about collaboration among heterogeneous adversaries. U.S. intelligence agencies and much of the foreign policy community warned for years about cooperation between Iran and North Korea over both nuclear and ballistic missile technology. During the Cold War, a succession of U.S. administrations expressed frustration and anger at the de facto alliance between the totalitarian Soviet Union and democratic India. Yet the underlying cause for that association was not hard to fathom. Both countries opposed U.S. global primacy. India was especially uneasy about Washington’s knee-jerk diplomatic and military support for Pakistan, despite that country’s history of dictatorial rule and aggression.
Alienating India was a profoundly unwise policy. So, too, has been Washington’s longstanding obsession with weakening and isolating Iran and North Korea. Those two countries have almost nothing in common, ideologically, politically, geographically, or economically. One is a weird East Asian regime based on dynastic Stalinism, while the other is a reactionary Middle East Muslim theocracy. Without the incentive that unrelenting U.S. hostility provides, there is little reason to believe that Tehran and Pyongyang would be allies. But Washington’s vehemently anti-nuclear policy towards both regimes, and the brutal economic sanctions that followed, have helped cement a de facto alliance between two very strange bedfellows.
Iranian and North Korean leaders have apparently reached the logical conclusion that the best way to discourage U.S. leaders from considering forcible regime change towards either of their countries was to cooperate in strengthening their respective nuclear and missile programs. Washington’s regime change wars, which ousted Iraq’s Saddam Hussein and Libya’s Moammar Gaddafi—and the unsuccessful attempt to overthrow Syria’s Assad—reinforced such fears.
The most worrisome and potentially deadly case in which abrasive U.S. behavior has driven together two unlikely allies is the deepening relationship between Russia and China. Washington’s “freedom of navigation” patrols in the South China Sea have antagonized Beijing, which has extensive territorial claims in and around that body of water. Chinese protests have grown in both number and intensity. Bilateral relations have also deteriorated because of Beijing’s increasingly aggressive posture toward Taiwan and Washington’s growing support for the island’s de facto independence. The ongoing trade war between the United States and China has only added to the animosity. Chinese leaders see American policy as evidence of Washington’s determination to continue its status of primacy in East Asia, and they seek ways to undermine it.
Russia’s grievances against the United States are even more pronounced. The expansion of NATO to the borders of the Russian Federation, Washington’s repeated trampling of Russian interests in the Balkans and the Middle East, the imposition of economic sanctions in response to the Crimea incident, the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Forces treaty, U.S. arms sales to Ukraine, and other provocations have led to a new cold war. Russia has moved to increase diplomatic, economic, and even military cooperation with China. Beijing and Moscow appear to be coordinating policies on an array of issues, complicating Washington’s options.
Close cooperation between Russia and China is all the more remarkable given the extent of their bitterly competing interests in Central Asia and elsewhere. A mutual fear of and anger toward the United States, however, seems to have overshadowed such potential quarrels—at least for now.
There even appears to be a “grand collusion” of multiple U.S. adversaries forming. Both Russia and China are increasing their economic links with Venezuela, and Russia’s military involvement with the Maduro regime is also on the rise. Last month, Moscow dispatched two nuclear-capable bombers to Caracas along with approximately 100 military personnel. The latter contingent’s mission was to repair and refurbish Venezuela’s air defense system in light of Washington’s menacing rhetoric. That move drew a sharp response from President Trump.
Moscow’s policy toward the Assad government, Tehran, and Hezbollah has also become more active and supportive. Indeed, Russia’s military intervention in Syria, beginning in 2015, was a crucial factor in tilting the war in favor of Assad’s forces, which have now regained control over most of Syria. Washington is thus witnessing Russia getting behind two of its major adversaries: Venezuela and an Iran-led coalition in the Middle East.
This is a classic example of balancing behavior on the part of countries worried about a stronger power that pursues aggression. Historically, weaker competitors face a choice when confronting such a power: bandwagon or attempt to balance against that would-be hegemon. Some very weak nations may have little choice but to cower and accept dependent status, but most midsize powers (and even some small ones) will choose the path of defiance. As part of that balancing strategy, they tend to seek any allies that might prove useful, regardless of differences. When the perceived threat is great enough, such factors are ignored or submerged. The United States and Britain did so when they formed the Grand Alliance with the totalitarian Soviet Union in World War II to defeat Nazi Germany. Indeed, the American revolutionaries made common cause with two reactionary autocracies, France and Spain, to win independence from Britain.
The current U.S. policy has produced an array of unpleasant results, and cries out for reassessment. Washington has created needless grief for itself. It entails considerable ineptitude to foster collaboration between Iran and North Korea, to say nothing of adding Assad’s secular government and Maduro’s quasi-communist regime to the mix. Even worse are the policy blunders that have driven Russia to support such motley clients and forge ever-closer economic and military links with a natural rival like China. It is extremely unwise for any country, even a superpower, to multiply the number of its adversaries needlessly and drive them together into a common front. Yet that is the blunder the United States is busily committing.
Ted Galen Carpenter, a senior fellow in security studies at the Cato Institute and a contributing editor at The American Conservative, is the author of 12 books and more than 800 articles. His latest book is Gullible Superpower: U.S. Support for Bogus Foreign Democratic Movements (2019).