Dr. William Martel

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Dr. William Martel

The Diplomat‘s Harry Kazianis sat down with noted author and professor Dr. William Martel from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University, to discuss his recent work concerning the "Authoritarian Axis".

You have written several pieces in The Diplomat concerning what you call an ‘Authoritarian Axis’. For our readers, could you detail the concept and why it is important:

The central argument is that we see increasing coordination, perhaps alignment, on foreign policy matters by the members of what we can call the “authoritarian axis.” Today, the members of this group include China, Russia, Iran, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, and sometimes Cuba.

It takes time before societies and policymakers realize that a major realignment is in effect in world politics, but that is precisely what is happening. In recent months, we see the emergence of a new constellation of powers.

The policies of these authoritarian governments are animated by two common fears. One is their apparent fear of democracy, freedom, and liberty, which each of these societies works aggressively to limit,  and if possible destroy.

Second, these authoritarian regimes fear the power and influence of the United States and the West. As the single most powerful state in political, economic, military, and technological terms, the United States exemplifies the success that free societies in the West enjoy – and that authoritarian societies most deeply oppose. Put another way, the democratic values – particularly transparency in government and society, freedom, and human rights — that define the West put at risk the survival of these authoritarian, repressive governments.

The question is why has this axis emerged? First, it signals growing anxiety on the part of its members that they are “behind the curve” of history. Simply put, these states are on the wrong side of history, politics and economics – and they know it.

Second, its members share repressive characteristics that should force us to ask how, precisely, did these societies and their people miss the curve on building democratic states and free markets? These societies have authoritarian governments that are highly repressive, while their economies (with the exception of China) are weak, often relying on sales of oil and gas and military technologies to keep them afloat.

Third, and most worrisome of all, we see increasing evidence that states in the axis actively coordinate their foreign policies. For those who are skeptical whether there is an axis, much less whether they coordinate their policies, senior government officials in Iran have no such doubts. Last week, Saeed Jalili, the head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council said, “Iran will not tolerate, in any form, the breaking of the axis of resistance, of which Syria is an intrinsic part.”

With the success of free societies, the axis represents a purely defensive move against the power of those nations. When we consider the economic and technological power of the United States, Europe (Germany, U.K. and France), Japan, and an emerging India and Brazil, among others – even when weakened by recession – the members of the axis (with the exception of China, current trends not withstanding) are not even remotely serious players in the world economy. Their weakness drives like-minded states and similarly authoritarian governments closer together.

Consider Russia: it exports oil and gas to keep its economy afloat, has thousands of nuclear weapons, which are not a real measure of power, and a “president for life.” Can anyone imagine a more dramatic reversal from the heady days of democracy in the 1990s when the Soviet Union collapsed? Is this the model of success for the authoritarian axis states to emulate? Keep in mind that the other states are not far removed from the case of Russia.

For the West, this axis is the defining issue in foreign policy because it signals the rise of authoritarian governments whose central policy objective is to undermine democracy, freedom, and human rights. By the “West,” I mean the vast majority of societies that are united by their commitment to democracy and free markets. If it is successful, and we rightly should be highly skeptical, the axis seeks to fundamentally realign world politics toward repression.

Who do you feel is the leading nation of the Axis? Is there one main figure you would consider the main personality behind such a grouping of nations?

The reasonable answer for now is that the nominal head of the authoritarian axis is President Putin of Russia. It was Putin, for example, who energized the Axis with his verbal attacks against the U.S. and the West – at a time that coincided precisely with his campaign to return to the presidency. History, I believe, will write that it was Putin’s strident and hostile language that mobilized latent opposition into the functional authoritarian axis.

The reason I say “nominal” is that Putin led the charge by criticizing the U.S .and later the West – which, in effect, redefined the axis. The critical moment occurred in July in a meeting in Moscow of Russian ambassadors, when Putin pronounced in highly charged and provocative language the West’s decline. Warning that, “domestic socio-economic problems… are weakening the dominant role of the so-called historical West,” Putin’s strident words shifted the criticism from the United States to a condemnation of the West.

The problem, however, is that Russia simply does not have the economic power to be the leading nation of the Axis. Not to be too harsh, but Russia simply does not have the economic power to lead much of anything. Its economy, which is weak in comparison with the other members of the G-8 or G-20 states, survives principally by oil and gas exports. As a petro-state, it lacks the advanced technological and industrial power to lead the axis. However, it has the ability to generate attention and provoke fear among its neighbors, which is another way of saying that Russia is a significant geopolitical foe.

However, China, Iran, Syria, and North Korea on occasion all share a leadership role in the axis. China, for example, takes the lead in protecting North Korea, while China, Russia, and Iran take the lead in defending Syria. Russia and China defend Iran from the West’s efforts to impose sanctions for Tehran’s nuclear program.

From a military standpoint, give us your assessment of the Axis. Is there one particular weapons system, military doctrine, or idea that guides their strategic goals?

I would say that what guides these states is one fundamental idea, which unifies their political, economic, and military policies. The central idea that unifies the policies and actions of the Axis is philosophical opposition to democracy and free markets. With the exception of China, the axis states do not have the technological and economic power that allow them to be serious competitors of the United States and its allies in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

We can translate this idea into military terms. It is clear that the Axis states likely cannot as a practical matter defeat the United States in a military sense – and I believe that these states fully understand this reality. Unless the U.S. self-disarms, it has developed and will continue to maintain military technologies that dramatically exceed the capabilities of axis states.

China is an exception, since it continues to make significant strides in many areas of military technologies. Not to be overly critical, but Russia’s military capabilities, which are a mere shadow of what they were in Cold War, are not remotely in the league with that of the United States or China. Putin recently announced that Russia plans to modernize its air force with 600 new fighter aircraft. However, Russia’s “new” aircraft are refurbished versions of designs from the Soviet era. The only exception involves nuclear weapons, but these are an essentially unusable form of military power for decades that is politically irrelevant today.

In what ways is this Axis different from the Axis Powers of World War II and the famous “Axis of Evil”?

The Axis Powers of World War II – Germany, Japan, and Italy – were committed to the destruction of governments and societies that resisted their strategic ambitions to rule the world. Toward that end, those states marshaled overwhelming military power – until the United States and the Soviet Union, guided by the spirit, heroism, and determination of Winston Churchill, organized the Allied Powers into a coalition that crushed those states.

The authoritarian axis, however, has neither the economic nor military power to pose any significant threat to the West. Furthermore, nuclear weapons deter the kinds of adventurism that characterized the policies of the Axis Powers of World War II. With the exception of China, today’s axis powers have relatively insignificant economic power. Lastly, it is not apparent that today’s axis states have the expansionist ideology that drives them to conquer the world. One senses that today’s axis powers are fighting a holding action as they attempt to hold back the democracy and free markets that are on the ascent in the world. Why, precisely, they are following this strategy remains largely a mystery.

The axis of evil that emerged from President George W. Bush’s 2002 State of the Union Address when he called attention to a specific category of states. This referred to states – specifically North Korea, Iran, and Iraq — that might possess weapons of mass destruction and sponsor terrorist or extremist groups. The axis of evil described authoritarian states that could threaten the West by giving such weapons to extremists.

The Authoritarian Axis, however, refers to states that oppose the West’s commitment to democracy and freedom. In many ways, the authoritarian axis describes a broader category of states, which poses a longer-term and subtler threat to the West.

Do the states in the authoritarian axis have a coordinated approach to foreign policy, and what are the principles that define their foreign policy actions?

Several principles govern the foreign policies of the axis states. The first is reflexive opposition to the United States. No principle seems more important than to resist and restrain American power and influence whenever the opportunity arises.

Members of the Axis work systematically in a highly coordinated fashion to restrain, resist, and paralyze the United Nations. Using their vetoes, China and Russia prevented the U.N. Security Council from passing resolutions to stop the Syrian government from killing its own people. Beijing and Moscow consistently oppose expanded sanctions against Iran for its nuclear program.

Another principle is apparent fealty to rules. Whether it’s the United Nations or other institutions, members of the axis claim to support international rules, but then actively oppose efforts to follow them. Opposing UN actions to restrain the civil war and civilian slaughter in Syria is a case in point.

Finally, these states practice the simple, yet effective, policy of supporting and protecting each other – no matter what. Russia protects Iran and Syria to bolster its own power, defend its allies in the Middle East, and weaken or distract the United States. Similarly, Russia and China defend Syria against U.N. resolutions, while defending Iran against U.N. sanctions.

These states oppose democracy and free markets in their own societies.They often threaten, and on occasion invade, their neighbors. North Korea routinely uses reckless language about South Korea, and escalates tensions recklesslyChina’s claim of the Scarborough Shoal, off the coast of the Philippines in the South China Sea, seems most troubling, and threatens to spark a regional crisis. Iran’s call for an “Islamic Awakening” to destroy Israel compels Israel to ponder preemptive attacks to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.