The Return of the Authoritarian International

The relationship between Russia and China is the most important example of the phenomenon that can be described as increasing alignment between America’s key strategic challengers. The United States and its allies in Europe and elsewhere face the difficult task of protecting a global order that is being tested in multiple regions at once, and by authoritarian countries that are increasingly cooperating in their attacks on that system.

When China’s recently installed defense minister, Wei Fenghe, visited Moscow for a Russian-hosted security conference in early April 2018, he made headlines by publicly describing his trip as a shot across the bow of the United States. In comments that seemed to echo the Sino-Soviet alliance and anti-U.S. cooperation of the early Cold War, Wei remarkedthat “the Chinese side has come to show Americans the close ties between the armed forces of China and Russia.“ During the same visit, Chinese foreign minister and state counselor Wang Yi remarked that “China-Russia period are in the best period of history.” To be sure, a formal alliance between Moscow and Beijing remains a distant prospect, and it is easy to dismiss the comments by Wei and Wang as simple diplomatic posturing. But this episode nonetheless underscores a troubling aspect of contemporary geopolitics – the increasing alignment between America’s key strategic challengers.

The Rise of Sino-Russian Alliance?

Amid ongoing efforts to reassert their own interests and influence, these countries have cooperatedin a number of diplomatic, military, and economic areas. China lent tacit diplomatic support to Russia in the UN Security Council after Moscow’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, even though Beijing has traditionally been hesitant to support “separatist” movements like those in Crimea and the Donbass for fear of empowering such forces in Taiwan or Tibet. Russia and China have made common cause in blocking UN support for intervention against Bashar al-Assad’s government in Syria, and in opposing additional U.S. military deployments on and around the Korean peninsula. The two countries have also developed tighter bilateral links regarding energy deals, sales of advanced weaponry, and development of military technology. More visibly, China and Russia have carried out combined naval exercises in key waterways such as the South China Sea and the Baltic—two places in which tensions with Washington are severe. All in all, Sino-Russian cooperation may not be the “best in history,” but it is better and more significant than at any time since the breakup of the bilateral alliance in the 1960s.

U.S. Antagonists Opportunistic Cooperation

Other U.S. antagonists are also working together. Russia and Iran have often seen each other as rivals or even enemies in the past, but currently they are cooperating to weaken U.S. influence in the Middle East. In Syria, Russia and Iran have effectively worked as military allies in order to preserve the Assad government and thereby bolster their own position in the region. Particularly since 2015, Moscow has provided airpower for the Syrian regime and the Iranians have used their own special-forces units and proxy militias as ground troops to retake territory and shore up beleaguered regime forces. As this has happened, Russian-Iranian coordination has increased—not just on the front lines in Syria, but also at the top levels of government in Moscow and Tehran. “Our cooperation can isolate America,” Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei reportedly toldVladimir Putin in late 2017. “The positions of Iran and Russia on many regional issues are very close, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, has said. In March 2018, in fact, Bloomberg reportedthat SA-20c air defense systems purchased by Tehran from Russia were now operational, giving Iran a significant upgrade in its anti-aircraft capabilities.

What makes this coordination between U.S. rivals all the more interesting is that these countries have not traditionally seen themselves as partners. Russia and China are competitors in a number of respects. They continue to compete for influence in Central Asia, Vietnam, and elsewhere, and rising Chinese power may ultimately prove more threatening to Russia—with which it shares a long territorial border—than it does to anyone else. There are also some subtle tensions between Iran, which is working to become the premier power in the Middle East, and Russia, an extra-regional power that is seeking to make its own influence felt in that region. The cooperation between U.S. competitors has thus often been described as more opportunistic than heartfelt or systematic. What is nonetheless remarkable, though, is that Russia, China, and Iran are still finding it in their interests to undertake such cooperation with increasing frequency.

Geopolitics and Ideology

There are two causes of this. The first reason is essentially geopolitical. The trait that Russia, China, and Iran all share is that they are seeking to erode, in their own way and for their own motives, an international order that is built on the dominance of America, its allies, and its partners. They are all seeking to carve out expanded spheres of regional influence in areas where American power looms large. Because taking on the world’s primary power and its numerous allies is inherently dangerous, they are unavoidably prone to seeking partners who possess a similar hostility to the U.S.-led system. Over the long-term, Russia may indeed have more to fear from an aggressive, expanding China than it does from a democratic—and in many ways declining—Europe. It may even have more to fear from China than it does from the United States. For the foreseeable future, however, the revisionist powers all share a common strategic adversary: the United States.

The second reason has more to do with ideology. There are myriad differences between the ruling regimes in Beijing, Moscow, and Iran. Yet these countries nonetheless share a commitment to authoritarian rule in a period in which the democracies have been dominant. This is not necessarily a replay of the Cold War, when U.S.-Soviet ideological conflict was intense, Manichean, and global. Russia and China no longer have a common commitment to Marxist-Leninist ideology at the core of their relationship. Yet Russia and China—and no less, Iran—are all dictatorial regimes that see their influence and even survival endangered by the fact that the world’s leading power and its allies are largely liberal democracies. There is a degree of ideological commonality that helps solidify these relationships: Russia and China have cooperated, for instance, to oppose political instability and potential “color revolutions” in the authoritarian states of Central Asia.

What is to be Done?

So what does all this mean for the United States and its allies in Europe and elsewhere? The implications are largely troubling. Russian-Iranian collaboration in Syria has reversed the course of a war that seemed to be tilting against Assad, and dealt a significant defeat to the United States, European countries, and Sunni-led Middle Eastern governments who had argued that “Assad must go.” Observers from Libya to the Gulf have certainly noted that Moscow and Tehran have checkmated Washington in the defining conflict in today’s Middle East. The impact of Russian and Iranian-backed military operations, moreover, has been to increase the refugee flows that are posing a significant and continuing challenge to European social and political stability. In the same vein, if Sino-Russian cooperation continues to increase in future years, the challenges of countering the revisionist ambitions of either power will become more significant, whether in Eastern Europe or the Western Pacific. More broadly, and for America in particular, it is never a good situation to have worse relations with the world’s two other principal military powers than they have with each other.

The trouble, moreover, is that this challenge does not yield any simple solutions. One might think that the United States should simply divide and conquer—that it should try to replay the efforts of Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger to play Beijing and Moscow off each other in the 1970s. Along these lines, the Trump administration has reportedlyconsidered ways of splitting Iran and Russia in the Middle East, and international relations scholars such as John Mearsheimer have suggestedthat Washington reconcile with Moscow to better compete with China. Yet these countries are currently more hostile to the United States than they are to each other, and so the practical opportunities for such triangular diplomacy are minimal.

In theory, America might try to strike some “grand bargain” with Moscow, one that might involve accepting Russian dominance of Ukraine, rolling back NATO defenses in the Baltic and Eastern Europe, tolerating a Russian sphere of influence in the former Soviet Union and parts of the former Warsaw Pact, and treating Moscow as a geopolitical co-equal in the Middle East—all in hopes of getting the Kremlim to reduce its hostility to the West and focus on the longer-range threat from China. Yet the price of such a deal would be so high, the gains so uncertain, and the disruption of U.S.-NATO and U.S.-European relations so severe, that as a practical matter it is probably a non-starter. Certainly, the vast majority—if not all—of Washington’s allies and partners in Europe would not welcome such a deal.

Perhaps, as time passes, there will eventually arise greater opportunities to play U.S. rivals off each other. But for now, the United States and its allies in Europe and elsewhere face the difficult task of protecting a global order that is being tested in multiple regions at once, and by authoritarian countries that are increasingly cooperating in their attacks on that system.