How to Defeat the New Axis of Evil

by May 2024
Photo credit: Shutterstock.

Two blocs emerged after the Russian invasion of Ukraine and the Iran-backed terror in the Middle East: The Free World and the New Axis of Evil. By supporting each other, the countries of the New Axis of Evil are more dangerous together than they are separately. The Free World countries must design new policies to prevail in this contest.

The Free World is boycotting Russia’s energy products, but China is happy to buy them. China sells Russia machine tools that can be used for both civilian and military purposes, drones, and turbo jet engines. China supports Russia in the UN Security Council. Russia buys from Iran ballistic missiles, military drones, and munitions, and from North Korea artillery shells. It is doubtful that Russia would have started the 2022 Ukraine invasion without knowing that it can count on this economic, military, and diplomatic support. Or that it could carry on today without it.

Iran sows chaos in the Middle East. It backs the Hamas and Hezbollah terrorists with money, weapons, and training. Iran also supports the Houthis, another terrorist group, who attack ships in the Red Sea, but not those from China, Russia, and Iran.

Iran sells oil to China. It buys from Russia fighter jets and military helicopters and may soon get the S-400 missile defense system. North Korea is giving Iran advanced missile technology and it may soon sell it intercontinental ballistic missiles. In a show of force in February, Chinese, Russian, and Iranian navy ships held live fire exercises in the Gulf of Oman.

China gets mostly diplomatic support in its shows of force against Taiwan, the Philippines, and Japan. But this is about to change. Russia is now ready to sell China high-tech weapons it was holding back. This includes Amur-class diesel submarines, Su-35S jets, and S-400 batteries.

North Korea’s malign actions are a national security threat mainly to Japan and South Korea, both U.S. treaty allies. But its recent advances in intercontinental ballistic and nuclear weapons mean they can now threaten U.S. territories and the U.S. mainland too. In violation of international sanctions, North Korea is getting food and energy from China and Russia. Chinese banks process North Korean transactions. Russia and China recently provided diplomatic support in the Security Council to alleviate sanctions on North Korea. And Iran is delivering drones.

What should be the U.S. and Free World policy response?

First, recognize that we are in a New Cold War against an expansionist New Axis of Evil and that, as in the First Cold War, only peace through strength policies can lead us to victory. The Free World must be so strong militarily that it will deter our adversaries from trying a hot war. The US and Free World must aim for defense budgets of 4%, like Israel and Poland.

Second, use sanctions and tariffs even more aggressively against our adversaries to make them pay for their malign actions. China’s business dealings with the world are too often unfair. We need high tariffs to level the playing field. The Biden administration must again enforce the maximum sanctions put in place against Iran during the Trump administration. And Russia and North Korea can be sanctioned more than they currently are.

Third, recognize that China is an implacable adversary and take further steps in the selective economic decoupling from China. It is unacceptable for the US and other Free World countries to depend on Communist China for any national security items (high dependence in legal drugs, for example). And we should not sell them any advanced semiconductors because they are key components of modern weapon systems.

Fourth, adopt a growth-oriented energy policy as a key element of both national and economic security. The US must unleash its oil and gas industry, one of its major national security assets. China and North Korea depend on energy imports. Russia and Iran rely on energy exports. In case of conflict, Russian and Iranian exports would need to be curtailed. And the US would need to supply both its own market and that of its allies. Furthermore, all countries should adopt realistic energy policies that emphasizes reliability and affordability. Pursuing renewable energy on an unrealistically fast timetable saps economic vitality. Over the next few decades, countries should favor gas, one of the cleanest fuels, and nuclear over wind and solar that are not ready for mass production.

The current international environment is more dangerous today than it has been in decades. This is a moment for thoughtful, careful and decisive action.

Dan Negrea
Dan Negrea is the senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Freedom and Prosperity Center. He served in the U.S. Department of State between 2018 and 2021 as a member of the Secretary’s Policy Planning Office and as the Special Representative for Commercial and Business Affairs. He is a co-author with Matthew Kroenig of “We Win They Lose. Republican Foreign Policy and the New Cold War.”
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