How to Deconstruct the New Iron Curtain

Posted April 27, 2024

Categories: Articles, China, Featured, Russia and Eastern Europe, US Foreign Policy


The head of the U.S. Strategic Command told Congress last week that a powerful set of countries is ganging up against the United States and World War III is on the horizon.

General Anthony Cotton’s testimony didn’t receive much attention from the U.S. press, other than some breathless coverage from conservative outlets eager to emphasize the weakness of the Biden administration and the necessity of boosting the U.S. military budget.

Though under-reported, the general’s comments are a useful window onto the Pentagon’s worldview. They reveal the increasingly Cold War thinking that is developing in Washington, which mirrors the hardening of attitudes in Moscow.

Such talk of “us versus them” is but the latest sign that the world has been thrown back to 1946. It was 78 years ago this week that former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill delivered his infamous “Iron Curtain” speech in Fulton, Missouri. At that time, an international community that had recently been conjured into existence with the formation of the United Nations was threatening to cleave into two spheres, Communist and non-Communist. Churchill, among others, pushed hard to reinforce this division.

Today, a similar chasm has opened up between what Vladimir Putin calls the “collective West” and his preferred axis of allies including China, Iran, North Korea, and Syria. But how united are these two respective spheres? Is war inevitable between them?

In 1946, irrevocable conflict between Moscow and Washington was not a foregone conclusion. Strategic diplomacy could have averted the Cold War, or at least, softened the confrontation. Perhaps lessons from the origins of that great twentieth-century divide can help the world avoid embarking on another decades-long global ideological slugfest.

What Cotton Said

In February, the chair of the House Intelligence Committee Mike Turner (R-OH) made a mysterious statement about a “serious national security threat” that generated a lot of media attention. It turned out to be information about a new Russian capability to attack U.S. satellites with nuclear weapons. Turner insists that he dropped his bombshell to wake up the Biden administration to a new threat, though it seems more likely that he was simply trying to prod his fellow House Republicans to support the most recent bill to provide military assistance to Ukraine.

General Cotton’s subsequent testimony came in part because Congress wants reassurance that Russia has not opened up a technological advantage over the United States. And indeed, Cotton went into great detail on what the United States is doing to maintain an edge. But not all of his words were reassuring:

Today, the United States, its Allies, and partners continue to be confronted by two major nuclear powers as strategic competitors and potential adversaries: the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the Russian Federation. We are also faced with the growing nuclear threat posed by the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) and Islamic Republic of Iran’s continued expansion of its nuclear program. What’s more, our potential adversaries are increasing their level of coordination and cooperation with one another. This threat environment raises the possibility of near-simultaneous conflicts with multiple nuclear-armed, opportunistic adversaries.

Cotton went on to discuss military cooperation between Russia and China, the modernization of their nuclear arsenals, and the supply of ammunition from North Korea and Iran to Russia for its war in Ukraine. He expressed concerns over North Korea’s nuclear arsenal and the continued expansion of Iran’s nuclear program. He then sought to reassure Congress that the administration is undertaking its own modernization of the U.S. nuclear triad and upgrading capacities in such high-tech arenas as electromagnetic spectrum operations and hypersonic weapons.

But after getting the attention of members of Congress by raising the specter of the United States fighting wars simultaneously again multiple adversaries, Cotton didn’t give many examples of this increased “coordination and cooperation” among China, Russia, North Korea, and Iran. He cites a couple of joint military exercises and some arms deliveries.

That’s not exactly comparable to the Soviet moves to create an international, Communist alliance in the late 1940s and 1950s. So, is this new axis of illiberalism arrayed against the “collective West” just a fever dream of Vladimir Putin and/or a useful way of getting Congress to cough up more military dollars?

Russia and the Sovereignistas

The Russian economy is not doing so bad considering all the sanctions slapped on it. In 2023, it grew by 3.6 percent, largely as a result of government stimulus programs, like massive military expenditures. Many countries continue to buy Russian oil, natural gas, and coal. China has been the top customer, followed by India and Turkey. But European countries have also continued to buy Russian fossil fuel to the tune of $18 billion in 2023. So, obviously, consumers of Russian fossil fuels don’t necessarily share the Kremlin’s ideological agenda.

Putin’s far-right positions on religion, anti-LGBTQ “family values,” and illiberal political structures such as an unconstrained executive have some appeal outside of Russia. Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, cozies up to Putin on the basis of an ideological affinity. So do a number of other far-right actors in Europe and the United States. But Putin’s emphasis on Christianity doesn’t serve as the basis for a powerful bond with China, North Korea, or Iran.

It’s Putin’s emphasis on Russia’s sovereignty—the country’s right to do what it wants within its own borders regardless of the dictates of international law and international organizations—that appeals to other countries led by autocrats who are also defying global norms and institutions. That includes countries in the Global South as well: Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi in Egypt, the military junta in Myanmar.

Let’s call this axis of defiant countries the Soveriegnistas. They may not agree with each other on everything, but they know what they don’t like: globalists telling them what to do. These globalists range from international human rights lawyers and officials from the International Monetary Fund to Eurocrats from Brussels and representatives from environmental NGOs.

In other words, not much really connects Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. It’s an updated version of George W. Bush’s “axis of evil,” a bunch of countries thrown together that Washington policymakers generally find distasteful at the moment. They are an axis in the eye of the American beholder.

Take Russia and China. Despite increasing economic ties, Beijing is wary of Moscow, and always has been. Putin is an unpredictable actor who, from the Chinese point of view, has put the global economy at unnecessary risk because of his invasion of Ukraine. Of course, China prefers Putin to the alternative, which they fear is chaos or collapse. But his decision to continue fighting—for at least five years, no less—despite suffering a range of battlefield setbacks speaks not only to his stubbornness but his reluctance to take Chinese priorities into consideration.

China and North Korea, meanwhile, are said to be “as close as lips and teeth.” But Pyongyang has long chafed at Beijing’s superior attitude and efforts to push a particular agenda on its “younger brother:” don’t build nuclear weapons, pursue a more market-oriented economic reform, and so on. Iran supplies Russia with drones, but Russia recently angered Tehran by again siding with the UAE over three disputed islands. In response, Iranian commentators brought up all the past examples of Russia ignoring Iranian interests, such as its support for Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War.

And the “collective West”? It has come together, fitfully, to apply sanctions against Russia and supply Ukraine with weapons. But there is division here, too, with a number of EU leaders—Viktor Orban of Hungary, Robert Fico of Slovakia, Geert Wilders of The Netherlands—diverging from the European consensus. Even the United States is not really a reliable member of the “collective West,” with MAGA Republicans and Donald Trump himself taking Ukraine-skeptical positions.

Learning from 1946

The Cold War was not inevitable. After 1945, Stalin was not eager, at least initially, to confront the capitalist world directly. He certainly continued to be ruthless at home, but he eventually withdrew Soviet troops from Iran in 1946 as a result of Western pressure and from Austria in 1955 after assurances that the country would remain neutral. He was initially reluctant to back Kim Il Sung’s plan to invade South Korea in 1950.

But the United States in particular was convinced that there could be no lasting agreements with Stalin or, later, with Mao. Today, the Cold War seems like it was foreordained. But an alternative history might have been constructed out of provisional agreements with Stalin and then with Khrushchev during the Thaw. The extreme polarization of the Cold War era could have been avoided, or at least moderated.

It’s hard to imagine making deals with Putin today, though he seems as reluctant as Stalin was in 1946 to confront the “collective West” directly. Putin has threatened to use nuclear weapons if NATO directly enters the war in Ukraine, which speaks to his strong preference to avoid such a direct confrontation, and he has gone out of his way not to do anything like interdicting NATO weapons shipments for fear of such a confrontation.

But the most important lesson of 1946 is that the United States should do what it can to avoid pushing Russia and its allies closer together. They do not form a natural axis of ideological affinity, although anti-Western sentiment could supply the necessary glue to hold the axis together.

To avoid providing such glue, the United States should first and foremost stop the economic decoupling from China. The Chinese leadership needs to demonstrate that it can deliver economic growth, and the United States can still help ensure that outcome and prevent China from tipping fully into the anti-West camp.

Second, the United States must rescue the Iran nuclear deal from hospice and breathe new life into it. Iran is not a monolith. It has a strong middle class and a heterogeneous reformist bloc. Donald Trump’s cancellation of the Obama-era nuclear agreement all but guaranteed the victory of the current conservative leadership in Tehran by confirming their skepticism of engagement with the United States. The United States needs to mend fences as quickly as possible with Iran in the hopes that the reformists will return to power.

North Korea is the toughest nut to crack. But here, too, the United States can accomplish much by simply opening up negotiations and showing a little flexibility. It’s bad enough alienating a near-totalitarian state. It’s considerably worse pissing off one with nuclear weapons.

It took a long time before the United States figured out, during the Cold War, that it could drive a wedge between Beijing and Moscow, that it could cultivate relations with an increasingly independent Yugoslavia, that it could even form informal alliances with anti-Western mujahidin in Afghanistan (which turned out to be a lousy idea).

The lesson for today: the United States should moderate uncompromising attitudes that are ultimately self-defeating. Putin thinks that he is leading a powerful, united alliance against the “collective West.” Only the United States, in its misguided efforts to push those adversarial countries together, seems to take Putin seriously.

Let’s not wait a couple decades before realizing what smart diplomacy can achieve. Let’s learn the lessons of history now when they really count.

March 6, 2024, FPIF

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