Moscow has turned a lot of venom on the West in the past year. The magnitude of that rhetoric sometimes drowns out an inconvenient fact about Moscow’s foreign policy refocusing away from the West and toward allies like China and Iran: Russia’s elites aren’t particularly thrilled with their new partners. For example, in my conversations with Russian academics, there has been much grumbling about the meager quality of Chinese aid. This reflects a long-standing Russian overconfidence towards its eastern neighbor dating back to the days of Stalin and Mao. Russia’s contempt for Iran is even greater.
These feelings are mutual. In my conversations with Chinese diplomats, they express their great annoyance at Russia’s actions in Ukraine. For them, the invasion disrupted a strategic situation that they believed favored China. Ordinary Chinese still hold a grudge against Russia; I have heard Chinese students speak in great detail about territorial land grabs by 19th century czars that have yet to be reversed. Similarly, my Russian colleagues have complained that their bilateral relations with Iran have been hampered by Tehran’s historic grievances.
Despite this lingering resentment, however, the past year has taught all of these countries an important lesson: as much as they have problems with each other, they have much bigger problems with the United States. Over the past year, while imposing extensive sanctions on Russia, the United States has also turned extremely aggressively against China. The policies that express this sentiment range from strict export controls to public support for Taiwan to the possible ban on TikTok. At the same time, the Biden administration has essentially continued the status quo policy on Iran. Attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal have failed.
This leaves all three countries under varying degrees of US-led sanctions regimes – and it’s not surprising that they’re working more closely together. Iran is in the final stages of achieving full membership in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security forum led by China and Russia. China helped broker an entente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is “increasingly concerned” that China may be supplying arms to Russia to help Ukraine. Iran-Russia relations have exploded over the course of the war in Ukraine, with NSC spokesman John Kirby labeling it as “a full defense partnership”.
The United States has valid reasons to oppose all three countries. China is a competitor that has behaved in an increasingly autocratic and warmongering manner during the reign of Xi Jinping. Iran’s regime remains wildly illiberal and pursuing policies that have threatened US allies in the Middle East. Russia’s actions in Ukraine speak for themselves. But when you bring up accusations like North Korea allegedly selling weapons to Russia, it sometimes seems like the United States has inspired its own, less comical Legion of Doom.
This budding alliance fuels the American penchant for lumping all American adversaries together. During the heyday of the Cold War, many American policymakers assumed that the communist bloc was monolithic. In this century, parts of the foreign policy community have often posited that the United States is at an axis of something. In January 2002, George W. Bush called out Iran, Iraq and North Korea in his State of the Union address, warning that “states like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis of evil, armed to bring peace to the world to threaten. While none of these countries were paragons of virtue, neither did they cooperate with each other or with Al Qaeda. A decade later, during the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney’s foreign policy warned of a rising axis of authoritarianism. Romney’s warning was dismissed at the time, but over the past year observers across the political spectrum have warmly embraced the idea. The vague uneasiness American observers feel about most of the South not agreeing to Russia’s sanctions fuels fears that much of the world is uniting against the United States.
At this point it is hard to deny that Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, et al take actions contrary to US interests. However, it is not self-evident that the cooperation between these countries is more than tactical in nature. For Iran and North Korea, any chance to squeeze the hand of the United States and break out of their current economic isolation is a welcome move. Likewise, Russia is desperate for help from any side as a means to combat the toll that sanctions and the war are placing on the Russian economy. All the historical grievances and concerns that Russia, China and Iran have in dealing with each other have not magically disappeared, they have simply been sublimated by their collective resistance to US pressure.
The United States can respond to this emerging coalition in two ways, both distasteful. One approach is to embrace the Manichean worldview and continue to implement policies that oppose this cluster of countries for the foreseeable future. When one examines every country in this nascent Legion of Doom, the United States has valid grounds for sanctions and other forms of containment. Iran runs a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program and has spent significant amounts of money to destabilize US allies in the Middle East. Russia has repeatedly invaded its neighbors and bears responsibility for starting Europe’s largest land war since World War II. That glaring fact aside, Vladimir Putin has been quite willing to get up to mischief in NATO countries, ranging from disinformation campaigns to assassination attempts on dissidents. The diplomacy of Chinese wolf warriors abroad and the increased repression at home are incompatible with a responsible stakeholder. North Korea is… well, it is North Korea.
While it may be conceptually appealing to lump America’s opponents together, it also creates complications. First, it makes it much more difficult to build coalitions of containment. India may be willing to contain China, for example, but historical ties will make it more difficult to oppose Russia. The US will have little choice but to rely on it AD hoc coalitions that are out of sync.
The bigger problem is that the Manichaean worldview overlooks the myriad ways in which US foreign policy thrived when it divided rather than united opposing coalitions. A key element of George Kennan’s containment doctrine was the exploitation of cracks in the communist bloc. This led to warm ties with Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1950s and Mao’s China in the 1970s. None of these countries seemed anywhere near a liberal democracy, but the United States found a common ground to focus on the bigger threat: the Soviet Union. (In a weird way, this point is at the root of GOP opposition to supporting Ukraine against Russia. For some in the MAGA crowd, China is the bigger threat and therefore any opposition from Russia is either wasted effort or pushing the two major land powers in Asia closer together.)
The paradox for US policymakers is that of all the countries opposing the United States, China is simultaneously the biggest threat and also the country that would be most ripe for more positive outreach. By any measure, China is the only country that comes close to competing with the United States. Opposing China is one of the few foreign policy moves that inspires genuine bipartisan support. At the same time, compared to Russia or North Korea, for example, China is the Legion of Doom member with the largest shares in the current international system. The main reason China’s support for Russia has so far been limited is that Beijing benefits much more from its trade with the rest of the world than with Russia. This week’s summit between Putin and Xi should provide some clues as to how robust their partnership is growing.
For US policymakers, the question going forward will be to choose from a range of unsavory options. They can continue to pursue a foreign policy that redeems an anti-American coalition. They can prioritize containing China and soften their approach to countries that pose greater threats to the United States and its allies and partners. Or they may decide that China is the devil they know best and try to foster a new balance in the Sino-American relationship.
Given the shaky state of the world, restoring the Sino-US relationship is the most promising option. Unfortunately, given the unstable state of American politics, it is the option that both President Joe Biden and his Republican opponents are least likely to embrace.