Is the United States Creating a “Legion of Doom”?
This leaves the three countries under varying degrees of US-led sanctions regimes – and, unsurprisingly, they are beginning to work more closely together. Iran is set to become a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a security forum led by China and Russia. China helped broker an agreement between Iran and Saudi Arabia. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg is “increasingly concerned” that China may be supplying weapons to Russia to help Ukraine. The relationship between Iran and Russia grew during the war in Ukraine, with NSC spokesman John Kirby calling it a “full-scale defense partnership”.
The United States has valid reasons to oppose all three countries. China is an even competitor that has behaved increasingly autocratically and belligerently under Xi Jinping’s rule. The Iranian regime remains wildly illiberal, pursuing policies that have threatened US allies in the Middle East. Russia’s actions in Ukraine speak for themselves. Yet when you toss around allegations like North Korea selling weapons to Russia, it sometimes seems like the US inspired its own less comedic Legion of Doom.
This nascent alliance fuels an American predilection for putting all American adversaries in the same basket. At the height of the Cold War, many American policymakers assumed that the communist bloc was monolithic. During this century, parts of the foreign policy community have often postulated that the United States faces an axis of something. In January 2002, George W. Bush called out Iran, Iraq, and North Korea in his State of the Union address, warning that “states like these and their terrorist allies constitute an axis evil, arming themselves to threaten the peace of the world. “If none of these countries was a model of virtue, neither were they cooperating with each other or with al-Qaeda. A decade later, in the 2012 presidential election, Mitt Romney’s foreign policy warned of an emerging axis of authoritarianism. Romney’s warning was dismissed at the time, but over the past year observers across the political spectrum have wholeheartedly embraced the idea. The vague unease felt by American observers that most countries in the South do not agree with the Russian sanction is fueling this fear that much of the world is uniting against the United States.
Right now, it’s hard to deny that Russia, China, Iran, North Korea, et al take actions contrary to U.S. interests. However, it is not clear that the cooperation between these countries is anything other than tactical in nature. For Iran and North Korea, any opportunity to change the hand of the United States and break out of its current economic isolation is a welcome move. Likewise, Russia desperately needs help from anywhere to combat the toll sanctions and war are taking on the Russian economy. All of the historical grievances and anxieties that Russia, China and Iran have to deal with each other have not magically disappeared, they have simply been sublimated by their collective resistance to American pressure.
The United States can respond to this emerging coalition in two ways, both unappetizing. One approach is to adopt the Manichaean worldview and continue to adopt policies that oppose this group of countries for the foreseeable future. When looking at each country in this fledgling Legion of Doom, the United States has valid grounds for sanctions and other forms of containment. Iran pursues a nuclear weapons program and a ballistic missile program, and has spent considerable funds to destabilize American allies in the Middle East. Russia has repeatedly invaded its neighbors and bears the responsibility for the outbreak of the biggest ground war in Europe since World War II. Beyond this glaring fact, Vladimir Putin has been quite willing to do mischief in NATO countries, ranging from disinformation campaigns to assassination attempts on dissidents. China’s wolf-warrior diplomacy abroad and increased repression at home do not match being a responsible actor. North Korea is…well, it’s North Korea.
While grouping America’s adversaries together might sound conceptually appealing, it also creates complications. First, it makes it all the more difficult to build containment coalitions. India might be fine with containing China, for example, but historical ties will make it harder to oppose Russia. The United States will have little choice but to rely on ad hoc coalitions that are not fully synchronized.
The bigger problem is that the Manichaean worldview overlooks the myriad ways that American foreign policy has thrived when it has divided rather than united opposing coalitions. A key element of George Kennan’s doctrine of containment was the exploitation of fissures in the communist bloc. This led to warming ties with Tito’s Yugoslavia in the 1950s and Mao’s China in the 1970s. Neither country looked like anything close to a liberal democracy, but the United States has found common cause with them to focus on the biggest threat – the Soviet Union. (In a strange way, this point is the source of GOP opposition to backing Ukraine against Russia. For some members of the MAGA crowd, China is the biggest threat and therefore any opposition from the Russia is either a wasted effort or pushing the two greatest land powers in Asia closer.)
The paradox for American policymakers is that of all the countries that oppose the United States, China is both the greatest threat and also the country that would be most ripe for more positive outreach. By any measure, China is the only country that comes close to a comparable competitor to the United States. Opposing China is one of the few foreign policies that inspires truly bipartisan support. At the same time, compared to countries like Russia or North Korea, China is the Legion of Doom member with the biggest shares in the current international system. The main reason China’s support for Russia has been limited so far is that Beijing benefits much more from its trade with the rest of the world than with Russia. This week’s summit between Putin and Xi should offer some clues to the strength of their partnership.
For US policymakers, the question going forward will be choosing from a set of unsavory options. They can continue to implement a foreign policy that gives birth to an anti-American coalition. They can prioritize containing China and soften their approach to countries that pose a closer threat to the United States and its allies and partners. Or they can decide that China is the devil they know best and try to foster a new balance in the China-US relationship.
Given the unstable state of the world, repairing the China-US relationship is the most promising option. Given the volatile state of American politics, however, it is unfortunately the option that President Joe Biden and his Republican opponents are perhaps the least likely to adopt.