By Ryan Barnes & Steinar Dyrnes
When President Bush coined the infamous term “Axis of Evil” in his 2003 State of the Union address to describe the non-existent coalition of Iran, North Korea and Iraq, these three states assumingly represented the biggest threat to American interests. Yet they had little contact or mutual interests—Iraq and Iran actually went to war with each other from 1980-1988—which is why pundits are still trying to grasp what the president exactly meant by the phrase.
If evil is equated with the ability and motivation to block American efforts around the world, then one might come to the conclusion that Russia and China, not the three above, now constitute the Axis of Evil. Indeed, as permanent members of the UN Security Council, they can frustrate most U.S. interventions with one word: veto.
And they are. Be it the genocide in Darfur, independence for Kosovo, or the nuclear ambitions of Iran, Russian and Chinese intransigence denies the West the ability to effectively deal with these situations. The threat of a veto in the UNSC blocks any hope of a united international front. Seen through this light, Russia and China could be on roughly the same level as the original axis.
The 2008 Republican presidential hopefuls—hopeful until John McCain locked up the nomination—on the campaign trail seemed to agree. Mitt Romney, now a potential running mate for McCain, deemed the United Nations an “extraordinary failure,” and proposed a democratic alternative. “We should develop some of our own—if you will—forums and alliances or groups that have the ability to actually watch out for the world and do what’s right,” declared the former Massachusetts governor.
Rudy Giuliani followed suit, albeit more subtly. Stating in his contribution to Foreign Affairs, “The UN has proved irrelevant to the resolution of almost every major dispute of the last 50 years,” he concludes, “We must be prepared to look to other tools.”
John McCain, the Republican nominee, has also floated a similar proposal. In Foreign Affairs, he suggests, “We should go further by linking democratic nations in one common organization: a worldwide League of Democracies,” which “could act when the UN fails.”
McCain does not stop there. If the remarks above were not explicitly aimed at Russia and China’s contribution to the failures at the UN, which apparently necessitates a League of Democracies, McCain leaves little doubt of his ill-feelings toward the two by calling for the expulsion of Russia from the G-8, as well as the indirect exclusion of China. In a showcase foreign policy address in Los Angeles in March of this year, he declared, “We should start by ensuring that the G-8, the group of eight highly industrialized states, becomes again a club of leading market democracies: it should include Brazil and India but exclude Russia.” Fareed Zakaria deemed this “the most radical idea put forward by a major candidate for the presidency in 25 years”.
To be sure, UN-bashing is a common practice among GOP circles. Many conservatives cheered the bypassing of the UNSC in the run-up to Iraq, but never before have mainstream, powerful Republicans unanimously recommended going outside the UNSC framework to create a permanent “Coalition of the Willing”. Their point that Russia and China continually hamper American and Western initiatives is well taken. But is a League of Democracies or Coalition of the Free really necessary or practical?
At first glance, the idea seems worthy of consideration. Why not sidestep Russian and Chinese obstruction and garner more legitimacy for Washington’s endeavors by creating a new forum?
First, whether democratic allies in Europe and elsewhere would go along with this enterprise is dubious. Officials in Brussels still extol the multilateralism of the UN.
Second, what would stop Russia, China, perhaps along with other U.S.-labelled international pariahs such as Venezuela and Cuba, from doing the same and creating an anti-American organization? There is already a precursor entity, the Central Asia-based Shanghai Cooperation Organization, which is led by Russia and China, and grants Iran “observer” status. SCO would likely gain teeth if a rival democratic coalition was formed.
The world would then be further divided, not only ideologically, but now institutionally, between the West and its adversaries. Gideon Rachman concurs, noting, “The formation of a league of democracies would harden antagonisms and might even be seen as the launching of a new cold war.” The advent of a new cold war may be an exaggeration, but the threat of this coming to fruition renders the idea counterproductive.
Furthermore, McCain’s sensational G8 proposal would only add fuel to the fire. As Zakaria correctly points out, “It would reverse a decades-old bipartisan American policy of integrating these two countries into the global order,” and “alienate many countries in Europe and Asia who would see it as an attempt by Washington to begin a new cold war.”
Third, it is rather awkward timing for McCain and fellow Republicans to introduce their blind love for democracy at a stage when Condoleezza Rice and the administration are arguably reverting back to realism, after around a five year spell in the neo-conservative camp. Philip Gordon contended back in mid-2006, “Although the administration does not like to admit it, U.S. foreign policy is already on a very different trajectory than it was in Bush’s first term.”
Indeed, witnessing what democracy meant for Iraq and Palestine, Rice has made a remarkable u-turn. Coming to Cairo in January 2007—having cancelled a prior trip to protest the incarceration of dissident Ayman Nour—she publicly praised Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak "for receiving me and for spending so much time with me to talk about the issues of common interest."
One can also see this shift in the Administration’s recent multi-billion dollar arms deal to Saudi Arabia and five of its Sunni neighbors, in an apparent attempt to counterbalance Shia Iran’s regional influence, as well as in the nuclear deal with North Korea. These actions are in stark contrast to previous bouts of democracy promotion.
Fourth, the West lacks legitimacy in the Arab world, and the forum would do nothing to alleviate this situation. The world’s most serious problems arguably lie in the Middle East, and a league of democracies would perhaps only include regional members, Israel, Iraq, and Lebanon—a handful of weak, fledgling democracies with vast internal security problems. Thus, it would lack any credibility among the people of the region.
Peace in the Middle East must involve non-democratic regimes in Egypt, Saudi Arabia—U.S. allies—and elsewhere. Alienating these autocracies, which also hold the keys to reforms and counter-terrorist efforts in their countries, would hardly further the cause.
Fifth, defining the criteria for membership is a potential source of rancor. China and Russia would not be the only big names missing. What about Pakistan? The whole league would be discredited on day one if, for example, discretion was used to include countries friendly to the U.S. and exclude others. League of Democracies advocate Robert Kagan has proposed using the same standard as required for EU membership. However, some might argue these benchmarks would favor western style democracies.
Finally, there is already such a forum of U.S.-led democracies—it is called NATO. If President McCain really wishes to seek other international outlets apart from the UN, then expand NATO. Such a scheme was recently put forward by former Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, and included adding non-European liberal democracies such as Israel, Australia, and Japan to the membership directory in order to garner more troops, support, and legitimacy from other like-minded countries for peace-keeping and military operations.
Do Russia and China truly constitute an Axis of Evil? No, they are neither evil nor an axis. They are indeed autocratic and belligerent, especially in their own backyards. Russia has bullied neighbors Ukraine, Georgia, and Estonia, and has used its vast energy resources to pressure the entire European continent, not to mention its heavy-handed tactics in Chechnya. Likewise, China continues to suppress dissent and use violence to keep an iron grip on Tibet. But China and Russia do not—as far as we know—sponsor terrorism or subscribe to an expansive, totalitarian ideology.
Mutual interests may include thumbing their noses at Washington every once and a while, and pursuing pet projects at the expense of the U.S. in the UNSC—China’s thirst for Sudanese energy supplies prevents its backing of intervention in Darfur, while Russia opposes the U.S. and EU by supporting its fellow Slavs in Serbia in their ultimate quest to regain Kosovo—yet there is no long-term allegiance between the two. In fact, the quest for power and resources means they are likely to be competitors, not collaborators.
Realist power politics largely lies behind the Eurasian neighbors’ belligerence towards the West. Preventing the superpower from getting its way, while at the same time increasing one’s power and prestige, is the name of the game. The two are playing it well, to the detriment of Washington and many of its foreign policy goals.
What is the solution? In tackling most of the pressing issues of the day—Iran and nuclear non-proliferation, to name a few—the assistance of China and Russia is needed. Aznar’s NATO expansion proposal should be analyzed, but a League of Democracies is not the answer. There is no panacea. Unfortunately, the obstructionist threat from Russia and China is real and will endure. Branding it an Axis of Evil, however, is misleading. How about Axis of Exasperation?
Steinar Dyrnes is a Deputy Business News Editor at the Oslo daily Aftenposten. He received his Master of International Service from American University in August 2007 and also holds a Master of Business and Economics from the Norwegian School of Management.
Ryan Barnes holds an M.A. in International Affairs from American University and is currently a Trade and Industry Analyst at the U.S. Department of Commerce. Any views expressed herein are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government.
|Comments in Chronological order (0 total comments)