C2SI’s “Paragraph 1,” Part II: The Rise of the Axis of Authoritarianism

In the previous post in this series, we gave an overview of how the liberal international order emerged. Now we’ll look at the threat: the “Axis of Authoritarianism.” 

Enemy forces

During the 1990s and the GWOT era, the main threats to rules-based international order were perceived to come from state failure and non-state actors, such as the jihadist networks the US has spent over 20 years pursuing around the globe since 9/11. Conflict and terror have often converged with other transnational illicit networks, like drug traffickers and other criminals, and remain persistent threats; nonetheless, while dangerous, such threats on their own are not existential challenges to the global order.

However, over the last decade or so, vastly more powerful foes have risen. A loose, largely (but not entirely) informal coalition of state and non-state powers fundamentally opposed to the liberal global order, the Status Quo Coalition (SQC), and democracy itself has emerged. We call this coalition the Axis of Authoritarianism.

We’re not the first to use the term: numerous articles and think pieces in recent years have used some variant of the term, and all are talking about roughly the same thing: a geopolitical bloc centered on Russia and China, with a number of pariah states – chief among them Syria, North Korea, Belarus, Iran, and Venezuela – in their orbit. A much broader swathe of authoritarian states – in Central Asia, Latin America, sub-Saharan Africa, much of the Middle East, and even Europe – are increasingly friendly with some or all of the core authoritarian powers.

Unlike the “Axis of Evil” of twenty years ago, the “Axis of Authoritarianism” of 2023 is a real thing. Many of these countries vote and act together in the UN Security Council and General Assembly, and they enjoy defense partnerships (such as Iran and Russia’s aid to the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad over the last decade, or Iran and North Korea’s support to Russia in its war on Ukraine), and they have increasingly integrated political relationships with one another. 

Unlike the 20th-century threats to liberal democracy like fascism and communism, the Axis of Authoritarianism is not ideologically driven. Rather, it has emerged as an alliance of convenience driven by the cynical material interests of the autocratic rulers and corrupt elites that rule its component states. Its emergence is driven by three factors.

Fear of the law

First, while authoritarian rulers are often divided by bitter conflicts with one another, the current rules-based global order, the SQC, and democracy itself present a common threat to all of them. This is because authoritarian rulers are basically glorified gangsters whose power is uniformly underpinned by criminal violence and corruption, and their regimes routinely engage in violations of fundamental tenets of the liberal global order such as sovereignty and human rights, putting them afoul of international law. Their violations can result in sanctions, cutting them off from the international financial system; criminal prosecution before the International Criminal Court (ICC); and in some cases, armed interventions. In some cases, authoritarians have lost power – and even their lives – from such interventions, Saddam Hussein and Muammar Gaddafi being chief examples. Indeed, 2011 and the Arab Spring can be seen as the starting point for the emergence of the current Axis of Authoritarianism, as authoritarian powers around the world witnessed SQC support to movements seeking to overthrow dictators such as Gaddafi and al-Assad, and began to worry that they might be next.

Smelling blood

Second, despite the threat the liberal international order and the SQC pose to authoritarians, developments over the last two decades have likely increased the perception among them that this order has weakened and global democracy become vulnerable, providing them the opportunity to attack and undermine it so as to degrade its enforcement ability and thus increase their own freedom of action. This perception arises from a variety of causes.

Real or perceived U.S. violations of the norms of its own order – such as “enhanced interrogation,” drone strikes causing civilian casualties, cooperation with repugnant regimes on counterterror issues, and most of all the invasion of Iraq – during the GWOT caused substantial damage to its legitimacy, and provided an excuse for authoritarians to do the same. Additionally, U.S. experiences of costly, divisive large-footprint counterinsurgency and stabilization operations destroyed any domestic political will for the commitment of significant ground forces abroad, and its military and political failures – especially the withdrawal from Afghanistan – were seen as evidence of weakness and fickleness in foreign capitals. 

This was compounded by SQC’s failure to respond decisively to a number of instances of authoritarian aggression, such as the Russian invasions of Georgia (2008) and Ukraine (2014), and the Azerbaijani attack on Nagorno-Karabakh (2020); to breakdowns of the responsibility to protect (R2P) such as the civil war in Ethiopia (2021); or to authoritarian coups (Egypt, 2013; Myanmar, 2021). These failures, and most of all, the failure of the “international community” to enforce R2P in Syria signaled to authoritarians that they could do what they pleased without fear of consequence; despite al-Assad’s destruction of a pro-democracy movement, systematic slaughter of civilians, gross violations of human rights, and use of chemical weapons a stone’s throw from the core SQC territory of Europe, the U.S. and its allies were unwilling to intervene militarily. Not only did this enable the rise of the Islamic State, it created space for Russia and Iran to intervene, secure victory for al-Assad, and draw the region politically closer to the Axis of Authoritarianism. 

Seeing the free world as weak and unwilling to enforce its norms, authoritarian powers have thus acted with increasing aggression toward their neighbors and even the countries of the SQC, spreading corruption and disinformation, meddling in elections, engaging in massive industrial espionage, propping up repugnant allies, crushing democratic movements, assassinating dissidents outside their borders, and waging wars with impunity – culminating in the Russian invasion of Ukraine – all without decisive response from the free world. 

Primus inter pares

Finally, a key factor in the rise of the Axis of Authoritarianism is the rise of China under Xi Jinping, and its escalating rivalry with the U.S. While China is more institutionalized, more moderate in its behavior and UN voting record, and less cartoonishly bloodthirsty than Russia and its closest gangster-state allies like Syria and Iran, it is nonetheless radically authoritarian within its borders and increasingly assertive abroad. Whereas Russia is a highly unstable second-rate power whose only strategic assets are nuclear weapons, energy, and weaponized corruption, China’s size and genuine economic clout position it as a long-term competitor to the U.S. and its allies. As such, China is seen by other authoritarians as a potential champion of their interests – chiefly, a source of economic resources and political support that can undermine the ability of the SQC to isolate them and enforce the norms of the current order when they violate them. 

Additionally, China has become increasingly relevant to inter-authoritarian politics. For instance, it has begun to become more involved in the Middle East, alongside Russia, and brokered the resumption of Saudi-Iranian diplomatic relations earlier this year. While hardly a partnership, much less an alliance, the fact that these two formerly bitter rivals are now on speaking terms – and that China facilitated this – indicates just how much global authoritarianism is becoming a significant geopolitical force, as does ongoing regional normalization with the al-Assad regime in Syria among Arab states, all of which are authoritarian regimes. 

In part 3 of this series, we’ll conclude by summarizing the threat – and the response.


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