Is the United States creating a Legion of Doom?

Moscow has directed much venom at the West in the past year. The volume of this rhetoric sometimes drowns out an uncomfortable fact about Moscow’s foreign policy reorientation away from the West and towards allies like China and Iran: Russian elites are not exactly enthusiastic about their new partners. In my conversations with Russian academics, for example, there was a lot of grumbling about the meager quality of Chinese support. This reflects a longstanding Russian hubris towards its eastern neighbor, dating back to the days of Stalin and Mao. Russian contempt for Iran is even greater.

These feelings are mutual. In my talks with Chinese diplomats, they expressed considerable irritation at Russia’s actions in Ukraine. For them, the invasion disrupted a strategic situation that they believed was favorable to China. Ordinary Chinese still harbor resentment towards Russia; I have heard Chinese students speak at great length about territorial land grabs by 19th-century tsars that have yet to be reversed. Similarly, my Russian colleagues have complained that their bilateral relations with Iran have been hampered by Tehran’s historical grievances.

Despite this lingering resentment, however, the past year has taught all of these countries an important lesson: as much as they may have problems with each other, they have much bigger problems with the United States. While the United States imposed sweeping sanctions on Russia over the past year, it has also taken an extremely restrictive stance on China. The policies expressing this sentiment range from strict export controls to public support for Taiwan to the potential ban on TikTok. At the same time, the Biden administration has essentially continued its status quo policy toward Iran. Attempts to revive the Iran nuclear deal have failed.

This puts all three countries under US-led sanctions regimes to varying degrees – and not surprisingly they are beginning to work more closely together. Iran is in the final stages achieve full membership at the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a China-Russia-led security forum. China helped mediate an entente between Iran and Saudi Arabia. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is “increasingly concerned‘ that China could supply arms to Russia to help Ukraine. The relationship between Iran and Russia has mushroomed over the course of the war in Ukraine, and NSC spokesman John Kirby described it as “a comprehensive defense partnership.”

The United States has good reasons to resist all three countries. China is a peer competitor that has behaved increasingly autocratically and belligerently during Xi Jinping’s rule. The Iranian regime remains highly illiberal and is pursuing policies that have threatened US allies in the Middle East. Russia’s actions in Ukraine speak for themselves. Still, if you throw in allegations like North Korea is said to have sold weapons For Russia, it sometimes seems as if the United States inspired its own less weird Legion of Doom.

This nascent alliance feeds Americans’ penchant for lumping all US opponents together. During the height of the Cold War, many US politicians assumed that the communist bloc was monolithic. In this century, sections of the foreign policy community have often posited that the United States faces an axis of something. In January 2002, George W. Bush called out Iran, Iraq and North Korea its State-of-the-Union address, which warns that “states like these and their terrorist allies represent an axis of evil armed to threaten world peace”. Although neither of these countries was a paragon of virtue, they did not cooperate with each other or with al-Qaeda. A decade later, during the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney’s foreign policy warned of an emerging axis of authoritarianism. Romney’s warning was dismissed at the time, but last year observers from afar The politicallyspectrum I totally embraced the idea. The vague uneasiness that US observers feel that most of the Global South disagrees with sanctioning Russia feeds fears that much of the world is uniting against the United States.

At the present moment it is hard to deny that Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, et al Take action contrary to US interests. However, it is not obvious that the cooperation between these countries is anything more than tactical. For Iran and North Korea, any opportunity to tweak the hand of the United States and break out of their current economic isolation is a welcome step. Similarly, Russia is desperate for help from all sides to combat the toll the sanctions and war are taking on the Russian economy. All the historical grievances and fears 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 unsavory. One approach is to embrace the Manichaean worldview and continue to pursue policies that oppose this group of countries for the foreseeable future. Examining every country in this burgeoning Legion of Doom, the United States has valid reasons for sanctions and other forms of containment. Iran is pursuing a nuclear weapons and ballistic missile program and is spending significant resources to destabilize US allies in the Middle East. Russia has repeatedly invaded its neighbors and bears responsibility for starting the largest land war in Europe since World War II. That glaring fact aside, Vladimir Putin was perfectly willing to wreak havoc in NATO countries, ranging from disinformation campaigns to attempted assassination attempts on dissidents. of China Wolf Warrior Diplomacy abroad and increased repression at home do not go together with being a responsible actor. North Korea is… well, it’s North Korea.

While lumping America’s opponents together may seem conceptually appealing, it also introduces complications. First, it makes it much harder to form containment coalitions. India could be on board to contain China, for example, but historical links will make it harder to oppose Russia. The US will have little choice but to rely on it ad hoc Coalitions that don’t fully sync.

The bigger problem is that the Manichaean worldview overlooks the myriad ways in which US foreign policy has succeeded in dividing rather than uniting opposing coalitions. A key element of George Kennan’s containment doctrine was the exploitation of cracks in the communist bloc. This led to warming relations with Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1950s and with Mao’s China in the 1970s. Neither of these countries remotely resembled a liberal democracy, but the United States found in them a common ground to focus on the greater threat – the Soviet Union. (Oddly, this point lies 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 by Russia is either wasted effort or a rapprochement between the two largest land powers in Asia.)

The paradox for American politicians is that of all countries opposing the United States, China is both the greatest threat and the country most ripe for more positive public relations. In every respect, China is the only country that comes close to the United States. Opposing China is one of the few foreign policies that does truly inspires bipartisan support. At the same time, compared to Russia or North Korea, China is the member of the Legion of Doom with the largest shares in the current international system. The main reason China’s support for Russia has been limited so far is that Beijing benefits much more from its trade with the rest of the world than it does with Russia. This week’s summit between Putin and Xi should provide some clues as to how robust their partnership is growing.

Going forward, US policymakers will be faced with a series of unsavory options to choose from. You can continue to pursue a foreign policy that supports an anti-American coalition. They can prioritize containment of China and soften their approach to countries that pose a more immediate threat to the United States and its allies and partners. Or they can decide that China is the devil they know best and seek to promote a new balance in Sino-US relations.

Given the unstable state of the world, restoring Sino-US relations is the most promising option. Regrettably, given the unstable state of American politics, this is the option both President Joe Biden and his Republican opponents are least likely to embrace.

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