WASHINGTON, D.C. — Corban Teague, director of the Human Rights & Freedom Program at the McCain Institute, and Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute (IRI) wrote a joint op-ed for National Review outlining the need for an American strategy to effectively counter the authoritarian axis of China, Russia, and Iran.
“The reality is that China, Russia, and Iran pose a connected threat and must be addressed collectively. Accepting this premise does not then require dividing American resources and capital equally across the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. However, it does mean that Washington cannot simply ignore or withdraw from any of these theaters. Consider how the abandonment of Afghanistan emboldened Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, which if successful is likely to trigger a Chinese assault on Taiwan. Authoritarian aggressors connect the dots, even if not all Western strategists do. ‘Pivoting’ away from one region only invites aggression, as the U.S. has now seen in both Europe and the Middle East,” Teague and Twining write in the op-ed.
Read the full op-ed HERE and below.
Op-Ed: How the U.S. Can Deter and Defeat the Axis of Autocracy
America needs a strategy that can effectively counter the authoritarian collaboration between China, Russia, and Iran.
By Corban Teague and Daniel Twining
January 23, 2024
The United States once again finds itself locked in a great-power competition with hostile revisionist powers. Like the first iteration, Cold War II is at its core an ideological clash over the future of the global order. Does Washington want a world in which the balance of power tilts toward freedom and individual liberty, or a world dominated by brutal autocrats oppressing their own people and terrorizing their neighbors?
There is no question that Washington will need to make tradeoffs and that American resources and political capital are finite. But any serious conversation about strategy must start with a clear understanding of the challenges facing the free world and how they are linked.
The reality is that China, Russia, and Iran pose a connected threat and must be addressed collectively. Accepting this premise does not then require dividing American resources and capital equally across the Indo-Pacific, Europe, and the Middle East. However, it does mean that Washington cannot simply ignore or withdraw from any of these theaters. Consider how the abandonment of Afghanistan emboldened Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, which if successful is likely to trigger a Chinese assault on Taiwan. Authoritarian aggressors connect the dots, even if not all Western strategists do. “Pivoting” away from one region only invites aggression, as the U.S. has now seen in both Europe and the Middle East.
The goals of this authoritarian axis and its proxies are clear: cripple American leadership, break American alliances, and make the world safer for autocracy. Iran supplies Russia with weapons to support its war in Ukraine. Russia in turn helps Iran circumvent international sanctions, which allows Iran to continue supporting terrorist militias such as Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis. Russia supports China’s bogus claims to Taiwan, while China in turn gives Russia a lifeline to keep its economy and military afloat amid Western sanctions. All three consistently reinforce one another’s anti-American and anti-Western agendas.
These dictators make no attempt to hide their coordination or their shared objectives. Any fault lines between Moscow and Beijing are papered over by their leaders’ common hatred of America and desire to tilt the global balance in favor of autocracy. Xi and Putin have openly spoken about their aims to remake the world order by undermining America and the free world, replacing it with an international system grounded in their authoritarian values.
Any response based on the premise that America does not need to care about one or more of these threats is simply not serious. Advocates of disengagement, often using the nomenclature of “restraint,” ignore the reality that America’s strategic position will not get better if we isolate ourselves or cede spheres of influence to revisionist powers. Calls to focus just on China, or conversely, to placate China or Iran as a way to isolate Russia, will not serve America’s interests. Nor is it realistic to assume others will step up absent continued American leadership; as three successive American presidents have shown, the opposite is the case.
Given this reality, America needs a strategy that can effectively counter this authoritarian collaboration. First, it is imperative that the U.S. continues to provide critical assistance to the three countries on the immediate front lines: Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan. Credibility and resolve matter, particularly when the United States and its allies control 70 percent of global GDP. Despite the strange passivity of American leaders on both sides of the aisle in the face of authoritarian aggression, the U.S. remains ally-rich, effectively energy independent, militarily predominant, geographically secure, and technologically superior to its rivals. In short, Washington has a very strong hand to play.
However, if the lesson that Xi, Putin, and Khamenei draw from the current conflicts in Ukraine and Israel is that American resolve can be easily shaken, they will be further emboldened. Autocrats around the world will calculate that even stalemates will ultimately work to their advantage since Washington will likely back down first.
To effectively support all three partners, America must drastically scale up its defense-industrial base by invoking the Defense Production Act and increasing defense spending. Incredibly, defense spending is near its lowest levels relative to GDP since before World War II — despite the remarkable ability of American politicians to find trillions of dollars to spend on lesser priorities. This will require hard tradeoffs, but a hot war that directly involves U.S. forces will be far more expensive; protecting American national security and lives through effective deterrence is worth the sacrifice of lesser domestic priorities. Savings to dedicate to national security would accrue by significantly reforming deficit-increasing social programs and cutting wasteful spending on ill-conceived, minimally impactful climate projects.
Second, the United States must work with its democratic partners to strengthen democratic resiliency against coordinated authoritarian aggression. Democratic states need more effective collective defenses, with a particular focus on protecting free elections and free economies. To do this, America should work with its fellow democracies to adopt a “political and economic Article 5” — modeled after Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty — that would spur collective responses to the economic and political coercion of democracies by authoritarian powers.
Autocracies have become adept at interfering with democratic electoral processes, including in the United States, Taiwan, France, and Australia. These same regimes have also become increasingly willing to attempt economic blackmail to bully democratic countries, as illustrated by China’s retaliation against Lithuania for allowing a Taiwanese representative office to operate in Vilnius.
A collective response under the new “Article 5” could include retaliatory trade measures, individual sanctions against those responsible for ordering and carrying out attacks, and stepped-up defenses to disrupt cyberattacks. Democracies should also be prepared to provide financial support or increase market access to support those of their industries that are targeted by autocratic regimes.
Third, America must put this autocratic alliance on the back foot, both as a means of reestablishing more effective deterrence and seizing the momentum. Washington should lean much farther forward to support democratic activists and human-rights defenders within autocratic regimes, providing technological support to prevent authoritarians from shutting off access to the internet and other communications, helping pro-democracy movements circumvent state surveillance, and sharing information on regime corruption with activists who can publicize it to de-legitimize autocrats and divide ruling elites.
Dictators fear their own people, making autocracies far more brittle than is commonly understood. In 2022, Iran witnessed its largest street protests since the 1979 revolution, China confronted the largest public demonstrations since the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, and Putin was shown to be surprisingly vulnerable to the Prigozhin mutiny. Particularly where there are robust opposition movements, as in Iran, the U.S. should be supporting these actors as they work to peacefully break the holds of their repressive governments. In instances where American troops are directly attacked, such as the missile strikes by the Iranian-backed Houthis, the United States should respond with swift, decisive military force.
America has no other option but to robustly counter this emerging authoritarian axis. Accepting this reality does not eliminate the tradeoffs involved in deciding how to deploy our resources and political capital, but it is the proper starting place for developing a more effective strategy grounded in a complete understanding of the challenge.
Corban Teague is the director of the Human Rights & Freedom Program at the McCain Institute. Daniel Twining is the president of the International Republican Institute.
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