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The Return of the “Authoritarian Axis” That Doesn’t Exist

William Martel follows up his earlier bad argument about the non-existent “authoritarian axis” with another one: Simultaneously, a new bloc of states – an “authoritarian axis” – is gaining strategic momentum. Dangerously, this rival bloc is mounting serious geopolitical resistance to the West and altering the balance of power. Well, there is no such bloc, […]

William Martel follows up his earlier bad argument about the non-existent “authoritarian axis” with another one:

Simultaneously, a new bloc of states – an “authoritarian axis” – is gaining strategic momentum. Dangerously, this rival bloc is mounting serious geopolitical resistance to the West and altering the balance of power.

Well, there is no such bloc, so it’s hard to see how it could be “gaining strategic momentum.” What serious resistance are the members of this so-called bloc or axis offering? Martel’s list of particulars is not very persuasive. Russia and China have vetoed another U.N. resolution on Syria, which proves that Russia and China are opposed to international intervention in Syria, but not much more than that. Hizbullah or some other Iranian-backed group launched a terrorist attack in Bulgaria, which confirms that Iran and Hizbullah are hostile to Israel, but this attack has nothing to do with any other members of the so-called “axis.” It was an atrocious and despicable attack, but it isn’t part of a grand authoritarian strategy. The members of this “rising concert” are mostly neither rising nor are they acting in concert.

Martel continues:

To be clear: the rise of the axis is the most momentous development – if not the fundamental shift — in geopolitics in recent history. How well the West deals with the axis grand strategy will determine the tenor of world politics — whether peaceful or confrontational – for the next generation.

As the “axis” isn’t real, its rise is of no consequence. It’s fair to say that the future will be filled with many more confrontations if the West pretends that this axis exists and treats its members as enemies. The quickest way to drive these states closer together is to imagine that they form such an “axis” and actively oppose their individual interests so that they are willing to band together. Policies informed by Santorumesque rhetoric about an anti-Western or anti-American alliance of authoritarian states will help to create an alliance that does not now exist.

The authoritarian states in question aren’t generally opposing the “policies and actions” of the United Nations, since many of Martel’s chief examples of Russian and Chinese intransigence and opposition come from their roles at the U.N. in determining what the U.N. will do in response to different international issues. Western governments aren’t actually willing to intervene in Syria, and they certainly aren’t going to do so without U.N. approval, so it isn’t really true that Russia and China are doing very much oppose the actions of the U.S. and our allies in Syria. Martel doesn’t acknowledge that Russian and Chinese opposition to international sanctions isn’t a matter of solidarity with its supposed fellow “axis” members. They oppose those sanctions for entirely different reasons, including their traditional hostility to foreign interference in the internal affairs of states.

The most bogus part of Martel’s argument is the claim that the “axis” promotes authoritarianism internationally:

Third, the axis grand strategy, which is hostile to liberal political values, is dangerous precisely because it promotes and legitimizes authoritarianism.

I’m not sure how these states would be able to legitimize authoritarianism, but they definitely do not promote it in any meaningful sense. These states may have relations with pariah states, but this is mostly a matter of taking advantage of Western governments’ refusal to have dealings with them. As long as another government is not openly hostile to their respective national interests, these states are generally not interested in promoting political change in other countries, and except for Venezuela they have no record of trying to export their different political systems.

Martel keeps exaggerating the mutual support these states provide one another:

Directly put, the axis seeks to maintain the number of authoritarian states – at all costs.

In fact, the major authoritarian states tend not to risk very much on behalf of other authoritarian governments. It’s true that they usually won’t turn on them immediately, and they certainly aren’t going to participate in efforts to destabilize or overthrow them, but Russia and China are not willing to bear significant costs on their behalf. If Russia and China were willing to maintain authoritarian states at all costs, they would be actively aiding the Syrian and Iranian governments in much more direct and overt ways instead of merely doing business with them and opposing efforts at the U.N. directed against them. Martel greatly exaggerates the degree of active Russian and Chinese support for the Syrian regime, which he has t do in order to make the extremely shaky “axis” thesis hold together.

Unwittingly, Martel badly undermines his entire “axis” argument:

If the axis could prevent the West from intervening in such states as Libya, where an opposition movement destroyed Libya’s authoritarian government, it could halt democratic revolutions.

Of course, the “axis” could not prevent this. They did not act as an “axis,” because there is no “axis.” Russia and China felt no obligation to Gaddafi as a fellow authoritarian, which is one of the reasons why they were willing to abstain on UNSCR 1973. Both feel burned by what they consider Western bad faith in that instance, but it wasn’t as if Russia and China were ever going to do more than veto U.N. resolutions. The reality is that these states cannot stop Western military interventions unless Western governments seek their support at the Security Council. Their ability to “resist,” such as it is, is limited by Western willingness to go through the U.N. Russia and China respond similarly and predictably when lectured by the U.S., but that common response is nothing more than a predictable reaction of governments that resent being told what to do by Western leaders.

The so-called “axis” states aren’t pursuing a common grand strategy, and they aren’t “on the offensive.” On the whole, the foreign policy of most of these states tends to be reactive, defensive, and preoccupied with what they see as external threats to regime stability and their respective security interests. The “authoritarian axis” is a fantasy, and to the extent that anyone in Western governments takes the fantasy seriously it is a dangerous one.