With the Middle East primed for a conflagration, American policy-makers must recognize two realities. First, the United States is embroiled in a major Eurasian rimland war, one that must be fought and won to preserve American power. Second, the benefits of fighting forward — and fighting limited small wars rather than purely focusing on “the biggest threat” in Asia — are on full display in the Middle East today. The U.S. must stay the course in Europe and the Middle East to win the struggle for Eurasian mastery.
Russia, China, and Iran have forged an entente with clear resemblance to the Axis of the mid 20th century. These new revisionist powers share a number of strategic objectives with their historical forerunners. They chafe under the restrictions of an international system that refuses to grant authoritarian states the right to aggrandize themselves at the expense of smaller neighbors. They seek to dominate their regions to ensure their long-term economic control over the world around them, primarily for domestic purposes. And they espouse ideologies — Russian national fascism with its syncretic blend of racial hierarchy and Soviet nostalgia, Iranian Khomeinism with its universalist demands and antisemitism, Chinese totalitarianism with a cult of personality — that are inimical to liberalism, representative government, and prudent and balanced rule.
The revisionist powers have a series of unmistakable coordination problems, however. This is natural for actors with structurally similar but intellectually distinct ideologies and, in turn, an unbounded desire for power and expansion. Again, they resemble the 20th century’s revisionists, a coalition equally divided over fundamental strategic questions. Until the Nazi invasion of France, Italy strongly considered defecting from the Axis. Mussolini’s essential failure was his lack of recognition that the German partnership severely limited his freedom of action. Japan, despite having joined the Berlin Pact, looked with unease at German escalation against the Soviet Union. The Soviets, meanwhile, were squarely within the revisionist camp and joined the Allies only by virtue of necessity after the Nazis invaded the USSR. Otherwise, Stalin would have been content to let the Germans topple England while the Soviets dealt with Japan separately.
Of the three ideologies, only Iranian Khomeinism has legitimate universalist appeal, by virtue of its religious bent. Russian national fascism is too rooted in Soviet symbolism, mythologized Russian history, and Slavic-Aryan racial theories to attract long-term support beyond the Russkiy mir (the ideologically and geographically defined “Russian world”) and receives limited support within it. Chinese totalitarianism has yet to transcend the specter of Mao Zedong. Even if Xi Jinping is a committed Stalinist in practice, in principle he and his intellectual coterie grasp the need to articulate an alternative to Maoist or Stalinist communism, given the emptiness of post-1970s Marxism.
The result is that, while all three powers can be extraordinarily flexible in their choice of partners, Russia and China cannot but view each other with suspicion, since neither can articulate a framework that accommodates the other’s role. Both revert to discussion of “multipolarity” and “democracy,” by which they mean an international system that protects illiberalism and leaves will to power unchecked. This allows for tactical partnerships with Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, and increasingly Pakistan and Brazil, for either legitimate ideological or cynical political reasons, along with growing coordination with one another and with Iran. But mutual suspicion remains paramount.
Far weaker than China economically and, at this point, militarily, Russia seeks to avoid vassal status even as it maintains a strong relationship with Beijing. Indeed, while Chinese electronics are essential to sustaining Russian economic and military capabilities — and while China undoubtedly would see Russian success in Ukraine as furthering its own objectives — Russia has resisted providing China with access to its territories in the High North and, equally critically, turned increasingly to North Korea and Iran for sustainment. Russia and China are not currently at odds in Central Asia, but at some point the vast resources compressed between Beijing and Moscow, combined with the proclivity of regional capitals to balance between poles, will spark friction. Moreover, it is very unlikely that Russia wants to play second fiddle to China. The grandiose Russian mission of supposedly saving civilization from Western decadence and Nazism already rings hollow. Serving as China’s decrepit gas station would be all the more humiliating.
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Seth Cropsey is the founder and president of Yorktown Institute.