Unveiling the Global Threat: China, Iran, Russia and North Korea as the Axis of Upheaval

EVENT TRANSCRIPT: Unveiling the Global Threat: China, Iran, Russia and North Korea as the Axis of Upheaval

DATE: 1:00 pm – 2:00 pm 28/05/2024

VENUE: Online

SPEAKERS: Richard Fontaine, Dr Andrea Kendall-Taylor

EVENT CHAIR: Aliona Hlivco

 

[0:03] Aliona Hlivco

 

Ladies and gentlemen, good afternoon and good morning to those joining us from the United States of America. I am pleased to welcome our two guests today who have indeed made a huge effort of getting up very early and joining us for this timely discussion on the new axis of upheaval. I will introduce our guests in a moment, but few notes on housekeeping rules. This is a one-hour event. I will start the discussion with both of our speakers, and then we’ll open up the floor to questions so please post them in the Q&A section. And we will try to get through most of them. Once this event is over, the recording will be available online, so you’ll be able to access it on the Henry Jackson Society YouTube channel.

Now it is my greatest pleasure to introduce our two very interesting and most prominent speakers from the United States. Thank you again, Richard and Andrea, for joining us this early in the morning. I hope you won’t hold it against me for such an early start after a long weekend. It is my pleasure to introduce Richard Fontaine, the CEO Centre for New American Security. Richard has a very extensive and prominent career, but I’ll just mention that he served as the president of the Centre for New American Security from 2012 to 2019, and as a Senior Fellow from 2009 to 2012. Prior to that, he was foreign policy advisor to Senator John McCain and worked at the State Department, the National Security Council, and on the staff for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Dr Andrea Kendall-Taylor is a senior fellow and the director of the Transatlantic Security Programme at the Centre for New American Security. She works on national security challenges facing the United States in Europe, focusing specifically on Russia, authoritarianism, and threats to democracy- something highly pertinent for our days and the state of the Transatlantic Alliance. Prior to joining the Centre for New American Security, Kendall served for eight years as a senior intelligence officer at the National Intelligence Council in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence (DNI) Thank you both for joining again.

Now, we are talking a lot these days in the global community about, first of all, the end of the post-Second World War order, and the geopolitical vacuum that is currently there. That, of course, is getting filled by various actors, due to the lack of unity and clarity on the part of what used to be the Democratic Alliance of the West, and we’ll go into that later on. But both of you wrote a brilliant article for Foreign Affairs recently, that talks about the axis of upheaval: how America’s adversaries are uniting to overturn the global order. Now, Richard, if I may go to you first, do you actually think that this axis of upheaval has its specific goal of overturning the existing global order? Or is that just a side effect of their temporary issues and alliances? What is it and what is its main goal, if you can set us off with that?

[3:33] Richard Fontaine

 

Well, thanks for having us. I think this axis of upheaval, by which we mean the combination of Russia, China, Iran and North Korea, which is unambiguously working together more closely than ever before, and particularly since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has really accelerated their collaboration, they’re bound together by a few common principles: opposition to what they see as a Western and especially US-dominated global order that doesn’t accord them the weight and status that they believe they deserve; the spheres of influence that each of them would like to have in their respective geographic areas; and the economic order that allows for the imposition of sanctions and export controls and things like that that they would like to not be subjected to and circumvent. And they’re actively seeking to undermine many of those principles. And so, when we talk about this global order, there’s not sort of just one thing that they’re trying to undermine, but its key principles, for example, the territorial order and the rejection of spheres of influence which they clearly would like to overturn. Again, the US-dominated or the Western-dominated international economic order. They would like to circumvent the definition of democracy which we, in the global order often believe to be universal. They reject that feature of the way things are. So, I think upheaval is the right term to describe what their overall ambitions are. They seek a world that is ordered quite differently than the one we have today.

[5:13] Aliona Hlivco

 

And Andrea, if I may go to you on the history of this alliance? Richard just mentioned, and that’s something you write about, that after the second invasion of Ukraine, and the Russian effort to overthrow the existing order, at least in Europe, it is accelerated. We could see how very ad hoc they were trying to go to various partners to see who could support them, given their mishaps and some shortcomings in preparedness for war. Did that only come together after the invasion? Was it propelled by Russia? Or did you see some historic alliances forming even before that?

[5:52] Dr Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

Well, I think there was a historical basis for this axis of upheaval, and I think if you look at the pair, Russia and China are perhaps the best examples, the warming ties between Moscow and Beijing really go back to the waning days of the Cold War when they started rebuilding their relationship there. And then Russia’s first invasion of Ukraine in 2014 also was another key inflexion point that accelerated their ties as well. I think you could go back and look at Russia and Iran as well during the Syria war, the deepening cooperation between those two partners. I mean, I think the basis is, it is interesting when we’re thinking about what this axis is, oftentimes you’ll hear people say, ‘well, they all must trust each other’. And it is true when you look at most pairs, within the axis, there is some history of distrust: Russia-China, Russia-Iran, etc. But what we’re seeing through this accelerating cooperation, the deepening ties, the more they’re working together, the more they’re overcoming these historical constraints on their relationship. I mean, if you think about fundamentally what a relationship is, it’s these repeated interactions. And so, the longer that they’re cooperating, I think the more we would argue they will have a durable and lasting and relatively resilient foundation for their relationship.

And then the last point I would make is, you know, a lot of people will say that these partnerships aren’t resilient, or they’re unlikely to be durable. And, you know, the key thing is that they haven’t really been tested, they haven’t had to incur costs on behalf of one another. But when I look back at Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, I think that was a really critical test of the Russia-China relationship in particular, and we haven’t seen any significant waning of their partnership. And so again, they have been able to withstand, I think, some important inflection points in their relationship. And if anything, the trend is towards deepening cooperation over time.

[8:07] Aliona Hlivco

 

And we will go back to Russia’s leader’s recent visit to China in a second, but to dig deeper into the points of discontent between these partners, or blocked members as you call them in your recent article, how would you outline those, especially the ones who probably are the most important? And maybe something that the Western alliances need to look towards, to see how they’re overcoming it? For example, you mentioned Russia and China, they’ve kind of withstood the test of time. But what about potential allegations that China might be looking towards some of the eastern provinces of Russia? And if Russia ever collapses, they will be going after that? How about the relationship existing between Russia and India, especially the heavy reliance on energy exports from Russia to India and obvious disagreements between India and China? And what about the Middle East as well? That’s a very complex dynamic of relations there. Can you outline the main potential lines of discontent between the four partners that we’re talking about?

[9:36] Dr Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

Yeah, I think a lot of these are bilateral. And so, if you look just at the Russia-China relationship, I think you’re exactly right. You’ve hit on a couple of key friction points or tension- Central Asia is one I would add to that list, the Arctic. And so, the overall point is that there are certainly fissures and differences between them. Russia also is probably very attuned to the fact that it is becoming increasingly reliant on China and that it is becoming, you know, the quote-unquote ‘junior partner’ in that relationship. But the overall argument I think that we make in the article is that even though there may be these fissures or areas of tension in the relationship, their overarching objective, which is to undermine the global order, to weaken the United States, and do all of the things that Richard said, that motivation is a powerful glue and it helps them to compartmentalise a lot of these differences in opinion or differing goals and objectives that they might have on discrete issues or in different regions. So, I think when we make this argument about the axis of upheaval, we’re very clear-eyed about the fact that there are these differences in objectives and interests in different regions on different issues. But again, the overarching point is that their motivation to take on the United States and change the global order is going to help them overcome those differences.

[11:05] Richard Fontaine

 

Maybe I could just add one thing- I mean, over the last, you know, number of years, there’s been some, I guess, hope that the inevitable regional rivalry and distrust between Russia and China, for example, would overcome any collaborative spirit. And we’ve seen precisely the opposite, that Russia and China settled their last border dispute, for example, in 2004. So, that’s a good 20 years ago and ahead of the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Russia redeployed virtually all of its units from either the Far East or along the border with China over to the Ukrainian Front, where they’ve essentially remained, which I think shows a real confidence in Russia that it doesn’t have much to fear from China along, what you know, had traditionally been a contested border. And so, you know, to sort of hope that some of these inevitable rivalries drive wedges between these, I think, you know, it’s possible but unlikely, certainly for the medium turn here. And you could say the same for the other relationships that go on between Russia and Iran, or China and Iran and North Korea and so forth.

[12:16] Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

Another thing you also mentioned- that is China’s interest perhaps in territory in Russia’s Far East, which I think I’m a little bit sceptical or dubious of some of those claims. And not only for the reasons that Richard just outlined but when you also look in terms of what they’re doing to integrate their economies, the connectivity, building new railway lines, bridges, a lot of infrastructure. I mean, the thing that’s most remarkable, as we’ve initially said, is that the Russia-China relationship in particular is a top-down relationship. It’s based on a close personal partnership between Putin and Xi and that’s all very true. But the longer this cooperation goes, the more institutionalised these partnerships are becoming. So, we’re seeing all sorts of meetings between local governments, between different agencies within government, and so again, they are really building the scaffolding, I think, of a relationship that is likely to endure much longer than I think some people would give credence to.

[13:21] Aliona Hlivco

 

And I think that’s most troubling, especially given the recent visit of Putin to Beijing. And some of the Russian observers from abroad have already said that it seems like Putin has brought most of his establishment with him, that Moscow was left unattended, and it was a perfect opportunity for a coup within. Those were the jokes going around. But Richard, looking at this visit and the reinvigoration of ties, even though many things came out of it, not necessarily on military integration and cooperation (there were mentions about exports of artichokes and beets), and yet I’m sure that something that hasn’t made it to media was far more detrimental, I think, to international security. How would you characterise that visit? And do you think they’ve strengthened their relationship even further? Or are they trying to do exactly what Andrea just said: put some scaffolding in and make sure that that’s institutionalised and solidified?

[14:23] Richard Fontaine

 

Yeah, I think that’s it. And, you know, it’s worth noting that this is far from their first meeting. I think this is around their 40th meeting, and there’s probably no international leader, other than maybe Lukashenko in Belarus, with whom Putin is now closer than with Xi Jinping, and maybe vice versa. So, this relationship goes back years. You know, famously right before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Beijing and Moscow announced this ‘no limits partnership’ and issued a manifesto that was kind of rejectionist about some of the key features of the way the world is ordered now and resolved to do something about it by working together. Turned out, there are some limits to that partnership but, nevertheless, we’ve seen it grow over time, institutionalise as Andrea said, in specific ways. So, you know, Saudi Arabia was once the greatest supplier of oil to China. Now, the greatest supplier of oil to China is Russia. You know, as export controls have taken hold to cut off Western supplies that could go into Russian technology and particularly military technology, China has stepped up in a major way to supply everything from semiconductors to, you know, software and other things like that. And so, in very specific ways, the two countries are working together more closely in the areas of priority to them. And I think that this last visit wasn’t sort of a bolt from the blue, it was just one more rung in the ladder of collaboration that we’ve seen them climbing for a while now.

[16:03] Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

The one thing I would add that was really notable is obviously Putin has just replaced his defence minister Shoigu with Belousov, and it was really, I think, remarkable to see pictures from the meeting of Putin flanked by the two men, one on each side. And so, like we said, these personal connections are important between Putin and Xi, but I do think that Putin believes it’s important to have these close personal relationships. So, it was also a way for Putin, I think, to signal to Xi, that nothing is happening here, it’s business as usual, because there was obviously a lot of speculation about why he was making the changes, what does it mean with Shoigu. And so, it was a really important signal for him to bring the two defence ministers to demonstrate that all is well within the Kremlin. You know, the most important dimension of that relationship, in my mind, is really the military relationship and so, to have those two men sitting with Putin, really again, solidifies those relationships as well. So, I think that was also part of what unfolded during that meeting.

[17:10] Aliona Hlivco

 

And so it was a way of Putin going to China and saying ‘look, my war is in hand, everything is going as planned, so please provide more weapons because we are getting there together’. That is quite troubling, especially considering that Richard, just like you and I discussed prior to going live, is that for many years in the United States, those were the conversations I was having with some DC officials and elected representatives. That the US pivot to China kind of undermined the rest of global security. And when the second invasion of Ukraine happened, many American congressmen and women were saying to me that, look, Europe needs to deal with its own problems, because we’ve got China to focus on that’s a way greater threat. They’re more powerful economically and now probably geopolitically. But we can see that Russia has fuelled this Chinese opposition with the West even further, and you wrote a brilliant book that’s just behind you, Lost Decade, specifically focusing on the US pivot to China. Do you think that was a mistake in American foreign policy?

[18:25] Richard Fontaine

 

No, I don’t. I think it was the right call and I think now is the time to even invigorate the pivot to Asia. But to do so in a way that doesn’t ignore America’s interests and commitments in Europe and the Middle East, but rather sees the connections between outcomes in Asia and outcomes in those parts of the world. So, for example, it’s not the case that because the greatest long-term challenge to the United States is China, Ukraine is merely a distraction. That we should, you know, save our resources currently being expended in Europe and redeploy all that to Asia. But rather, what is happening in Europe is going to be intimately connected to how countries, including China, perceive what’s possible in Asia. And so, you know, if Russia were to succeed at a seemingly acceptable cost, in its war of conquest and seizing Ukrainian territory, that would be a terrible lesson for the next would-be aggressor- China or anyone else- to learn in Asia. And so, these things are connected, and while the United States needs to have Asia as its priority region, it needs to see that in the broad scope, the fact is that the United States remains a global power with interest in multiple regions and needs to act accordingly.

[19:49] Aliona Hlivco

 

We’ll touch on some of the American isolationism that worried Europe for the last couple of months. And especially going to NATO Summit in DC, that will be probably the main forum for discussions of future strategies of international security alliances. But if we were to zoom out of China and look at some other members of this axis of upheaval, North Korea specifically and Iran, I think my first question would be, are you seeing any significant leader that’s coming out of this court? Is anyone specifically driving the anti-Western sentiment and perhaps one party is contributing more than another? Or is it all still pretty vague and fluid?

[20:37] Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

I think the way that we conceptualised it is really that Russia has been the key catalyst of this axis of upheaval. You know, there’s been a lot that Russia has needed from its partners, its backers. So I think the top of Russia’s priority list, or top of mind for Russia, in deepening many of these relationships, has been out of necessity that it has needed China to continue to buy large amounts of oil to put dollars into its war coffers, it’s needed the component parts and other things that Russia can no longer access from the west. It certainly needs the 2.5 million rounds of ammunition and ballistic missiles that it’s getting from North Korea and all of the attack drones that it gets from Iran. So there has been an element of necessity from Russia.

But I think it would be a mistake, just to view this as entirely pragmatic, because I do think that Russia looks at these countries as fellow travellers in its larger confrontation with the West and Russia, just like the other partners understand that they are less isolated, and they are less vulnerable to US and Western pressure when they’re working together. So Russia has been on the tape from any of these partnerships, but the thing that we highlight is yes, Russia may be enhanced militarily on the battlefield in Ukraine because of this, but just as important is what Russia is having to give away in return. And we are seeing all of the evidence of the increasingly sophisticated weapons systems and know-how and other things that it is having to give to a country like North Korea or Iran, which is then, in the process, enhancing the military capabilities of US and European adversaries. So I do think it has been Russia that’s been the key catalyst.

But again, all of these countries do generally understand and calculate that when they work together, they can better and more effectively evade sanctions. Iran now is being brought into the BRICS grouping and the SCO, so its international reputation is being normalised. And again, Russia is helping North Korea do some of the sanctions evasion. Russia just released large amounts of North Korean assets that had sat frozen in a bank account, compliant with the UN sanctions, but now, again, Russia, because it is already a rogue actor, has been willing to help North Korea in that way. So, I think, they all share the general sentiment. I think China, for its part, very much values the fact that Russia can be the pointy end of the sphere. Russia is clearly more willing to accept and take risks in a way that Beijing just isn’t. But all of the things that Russia is doing, I think, fundamentally advance Beijing’s objectives and also undermine and weaken the United States. So there is very much a symbiotic relationship between all of them. But Russia has been the catalyst, especially for this most recent kind of anti-US push.

[23:53] Aliona Hlivco

 

Richard, you wanted to add something to that?

[23:58] Richard Fontaine

 

Well, just really what Andre was saying in terms of the catalysts that Putin and Russia have represented in all of this and the catalytic effect of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which has clearly had ripple effects all over the world. We’re talking mostly about the axis of upheaval, but you can look at the allies of the United States and their increases in defence spending and the way they’re reinterpreting their own threat picture and so forth. So while there’s no sort of, you know, president-elect of the axis of upheaval, a lot of what we see today has at a minimum been accelerated by Russian activity and has been a response to it. And it’s made things that were previously possible now impossible from, you know, the Western perspective. So as Andrea was saying, for example, you know, it wasn’t that long ago that Russia and China were party to the P-5 plus one talks with Iran that sought a common picture and posture with respect to Iran’s nuclear programme. It’s almost unthinkable you would ever get back to that, right. It wasn’t that long ago that the UN Security Council was imposing sanctions on North Korea and freezing monies in North Korean funds in foreign banks. It’s virtually impossible to imagine getting back to that. So you know, when it comes to those kinds of questions, it’s just, they’ve moved on.

[25:27] Aliona Hlivco

 

And Russia definitely relied heavily on some weapons supplies and equipment and technology from all of these three actors, because we’ve seen their insufficiency on the battlefield, at least during the first year of invasion, not so much anymore. We then have seen how they engaged with Hamas, just before the attack on Israel, and shortly after that, and there are believed some ties to go on even now. How reliant do you think is Iran on Russia’s support in the Middle East? Iran is not a direct party to this war but we have seen the proxies operating both in the south and in the north, and there is still a risk and a threat of the war expanding broader into the Middle East. What do you think the role of actors like Russia (and potentially China) will be in the Middle East war?

[26:28] Richard Fontaine

 

There’s a couple of things. I mean, if you first look at the provision of Iranian drones and weapons to Russia, Russia has really been reliant on first Iranian drones from Iran, and now, an Iranian drone factory inside Russia that’s churning out essentially Iranian drones that are then being used to attack Ukrainians. Well, those things don’t come free. And so the question has been, what does Iran get in return, and at least, is now, I think, publicly aware that there’s a few things that Iran is getting in return including technology, military technology, and otherwise specific weapons systems that have been provided to Tehran, bringing Iran out from what had previously been a fairly diplomatically isolated position into one that is much warmer embraced by Russia and by China. And you know, that’s a new era. And it makes Iran more dangerous to others in the neighbourhood and makes its proxies more dangerous, just as it makes Russia more dangerous to Ukrainians because they’re armed with Iranian weapons.

And then you have the narrative issue here, which is that I believe the Russians, and the Chinese to a lesser degree but still, would like to frame what’s happening in Hamas and Israel, as you know, some kind of, you know, Neo colonial, impure Neo imperialist war by Israel that is backed by the West, that can be sold in what you know, sometimes called the Global South, as, you know, being resisted by Russia and China and other things. And because, we haven’t talked about this yet, but there’s a number of countries that are sort of contested, that are multi-aligned across the global South, and that there’s a competition for. And the Russians and the Chinese, again, to some degree, would like to use what’s happening in the Middle East and Iran’s role and Israel’s role and Hamas’ role as a way to sort of batter the United States here and thereby build up support for their own positions, or at least what they would perceive as their positions.

[28:46] Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

I think the only thing I would add, I mean, just if we zoom out a little bit, there’s all of the material assistance in terms of sanctions evasions, weapons provisions, but there also is a piece to this where these leaders are increasingly emboldened, knowing that they have deepening partnerships and relationships with one another. So although we can’t necessarily draw a direct line between Russia’s relationship with Iran and the Hamas attack on Israel, I think it’s fair to say that Russia or Iran was probably feeling emboldened by what had already been a deepening military relationship with Russia. That was something that was ongoing. The US government was out warning vocally about how they’ve entered a new era of defence ties. We’ve also seen that on the North Korean peninsula. So as the deepening military relationship has unfolded between Moscow and North Korea, we’ve also seen Kim Jong Un jettison this long-standing agreement about peaceful reunification with the South. We’ve seen him testing new weapons and firing weapons off. So there is something where again, recognising that they’re less vulnerable, less isolated, I do think it’s emboldening these leaders to take increasingly risky and provocative moves, knowing that they’ve got each other in their corners. The shoe to drop that I keep waiting for is increasing provocations on the North Korean peninsula. I think that’s something that Putin would very much like to see because it would be a distraction from what’s happening in Ukraine as well. Another dynamic is, as they are deepening their defence ties, their political ties, their economic ties, will they be more willing to accept greater risk and initiate more provocations to spread the US thin?

[30:39] Aliona Hlivco

 

And what do you think is the answer to that question?

[30:42] Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

I think we’re already seeing it. And so what I mean, when I look, think back on it, I feel like Putin’s invasion of Ukraine was like the first move that then has made the collective action problem amongst all of them far easier. They were the first mover and now that they’ve done it, and they’ve broken this taboo and the United States and Europe are so focused, it’s created a more permissive environment for other actors to do things. And it’s not just Iran and North Korea, but Richard and I highlight in our piece, just all of the things that have happened in the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. You saw Azerbaijan take by force Nagorno Karabakh There was a big increase in tensions between Serbia and Kosovo. You’ve had Venezuela threatening to take by force parts of Guyana We’ve seen a huge uptick in the number of coups in Africa. So I think that a lot of these types of actors who are willing to break rules and norms and have interests that they want to pursue that might be at odds with global norms and standards, they’re now more willing to do these things because I think there’s a calculus that it’s more difficult for the United States and Europe to isolate them and impose significant costs on them because they’re basically diluting our leverage and diluting the tools of coercion that we often use to oppose those types of actions.

[32:10] Richard Fontaine

 

Just one other thing on this. I mean, it creates a series of alternatives that previously were not available or not available to the degree they are now, right. So, you know, it had been the case before that if you are a country in Africa, and you overthrow your government by force and the military steps in, there were going to be significant costs of pay, first and foremost, from the United States, which was likely to cut off assistance, perhaps impose sanctions, diplomatic isolation, things like that. Well, now, even if your country has a relationship with the United States, and you overthrow your government, Wagner is waiting in the wings to step right in. And Russia would like to be a sort of a full-service security partner on top of it, you know, China is willing to come in and have an economic relationship with these countries, and they’re not going to sniff at whether, you know, there’s a democratically elected government or the lack thereof, and so forth. And so, you know, the access for these members that are trying to court, you know, like third countries, gives actors in those third countries alternatives that they wouldn’t otherwise have and, therefore, they can pursue scenarios that previously would have been far more unlikely.

[33:29] Aliona Hlivco

 

And I think right now in Europe, it goes as far as to speculate on weather. And that goes beyond speculation because several national intelligence departments have already said across Europe that as soon as, or if, Ukraine falls, then Russia will be fully rearmed by 2027. And I presume with this alliance, it may be even sooner and be ready to attack NATO, and that’s going to create a whole new test for the Western alliance and transatlantic security. But Richard, do you think following all the wars and conflicts that Andrea has just lined out (in Nagorno Karabakh, the Balkans, Venezuela, potentially something evolving in the Arctic for the control of resources, I think Georgia is again on the brink of a very dangerous situation because you know, we’ve been there in Ukraine before when after the revolution and the pronunciation of our actual independence, Russia just invades any country that goes against that so I would watch Georgia quite closely), do you think that the scenario that I would say the US is most worried about- Chinese invasion of Taiwan- do you think that’s possible?

[34:47] Richard Fontaine

 

A Chinese invasion of Taiwan is possible. You know, Xi Jinping has instructed the People’s Liberation Army to be ready for a cross-strait invasion by 2027. At least militarily capable. That doesn’t mean he’s going to do it, but that’s the aim, to be capable of doing it. And, you know, there are other scenarios that I think are likelier than if China were to use force against Taiwan, than a cross-straits invasion that would be militarily quite difficult for China to carry off. I mean, D-Day required crossing 13 miles of water and an invasion of Taiwan would be 100 miles of water. And you’d have the, you know, the US Air Force and Navy in the neighbourhood as well, in addition to Taiwanese forces. But there are other scenarios that include, you know, a blockade, some sort of, you know, an air missile attack on Taiwan, or just sort of the creeping attempts to kind of constrict Taiwan’s options through a series of coercive actions- both military, political, cyber, and all these other kinds of things. So, you know, there’s a lot that is possible over the years to come with respect to China’s desire to reunify Taiwan.

[36:07] Aliona Hlivco

 

And something you mentioned before about the Alliance with the so-called Global South countries and the potential expansion of this axis of upheaval. Andrea, you mentioned that Iran is moving closer to BRICS, which itself has expanded last year with Saudi Arabians and other countries quite powerful. Argentina has luckily said they’re not interested so that’s great. Which are the main states that you’re looking at? I know that in your piece for Foreign Affairs, you write about six, so-called middle powers or swing states that are looking at joining this alliance. Could you briefly take us through those? And what’s the probability that they will actually join? What’s the win for them in joining that, rather than sticking with the West, and how effective will that be? Because I also hear many experts are talking about, well, we don’t care about winning over the global South. The West is still the alliance of most powerful, prosperous nations, and we can still uphold the international rules-based order and other countries need to be respectful of that. Or do we still care about getting those hearts and minds on board?

[37:20] Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

Yeah, so we do highlight the six swing states. And Richard can talk more about this, because he’s got another forthcoming book looking at these swing states in particular. But we highlight the importance of Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, and India. And I think the way that we’ve laid it out is, I mean, what you hear very much from these Global South states is that they don’t want to have to pick a side, right? And so when we framed it as democracy versus authoritarianism or other things, there’s really no palpable appetite to pick a side. And so what we talk about then is rather than kind of having this all-or-nothing kind of relationship, are you in or are you out, are you with us or are you against us, we should instead kind of pursue pragmatic issues. What we need to be doing is fine-tuning our engagement with these countries to ensure that they’re pursuing policies that are consistent and help the United States and its allies uphold the global rules and norms. So there are certain things you would want to prevent, like Russian and Chinese basing in their countries or other things like that, but what the US really needs to do is kind of go down the list of issues and think about what is it that we would need from these countries that would most effectively enable us to enforce global rules, to ensure that these countries are making choices that are consistent with the global order. So I think it’s, again, not the all-or-nothing, with us or against us, but to pursuing on a kind of bilateral country by country because what each of these countries is looking for varies from one country to the next. Having that more tailored outreach to each of them.

And in that way, I mean, I think we highlight that the United States and its allies certainly have quite a lot to offer. We have a lot of tools at our disposal that we can use to incentivize those choices to make attractive offers. And if we’re willing to kind of step in and allocate the resources that are necessary, if we’re talking about a competition between two viable alternative orders, the United States and its allies have quite a lot at their disposal, and should be a far more attractive offer. It’s just about kind of ensuring that we’ve got that kind of unity, that we’re prioritising the right kind of issues. And again, rather than competing everywhere, focusing in on these six swing states because they’re the most likely to shape the kind of balance of power between these two increasingly competing alternative orders. But Richard is going to have a lot smarter things to say.

[40:00] Richard Fontaine

 

No, I think that’s exactly right. And we, you know, identified these six countries: Brazil, India, Indonesia, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Turkey, and it’s not that they’re thinking about joining the axis of upheaval or thinking about joining some sort of integrated Western bloc, that is NATO or something, the point is that they’re all multi aligned. I mean, it’s not the case that India is going to team up with China anytime soon, for example, but there are quite a large number of interactions between India and Russia, you know. And you can look at each of these countries, Turkey being a good example of one that has a series of differentiated relationships with each of the countries in this axis, each of the four countries. And so there’s the positive case that Andrea just, you know, kind of articulated, which is that together, they have enough collective geopolitical weight that their policy preferences can sway the direction of international order. Some of these rules and institutions and principles, whether they stick or whether they erode, the collective actions of these countries is going to have a lot to say about that. But then there’s the sort of things that we would not like to see. So Andrea mentioned, we don’t want to see Russian and Chinese basing in any of these countries and we all also would not like to see, you know, those countries, you know, provide military equipment and technology infrastructure to these countries. And so there’s both the positive side and the negative side and of course, in any of these relationships, it’s going to be what kind of relationship with the United States is best attuned to drive those outcomes because these countries have their own interests, and will make their own decisions. And I think that is a big overarching question before the United States and the West and its foreign policy right now.

[42:05] Aliona Hlivco

 

And do you think the US is ready to at least start contemplating that, or at least to recognise that the threat is there? Because one of the things you also mentioned in your article is there was this reluctance in the West to even recognise the alliance as a united global threat. Are you seeing, at least in Washington DC, that this threat is being recognised and is more on the agenda as something that needs to be addressed?

[42:32] Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

I think it has changed really significantly. So it wasn’t but a couple of years ago that there were a lot of people who were awfully sceptical about the depth and durability of the Russia-China relationship, for example, lots of people who would dismiss it out of hand as a marriage of convenience, or whatever kind of label people wanted to put on it. It was a way of dismissing, I think, and downplaying the significance of the relationship. I think now we’re in a fundamentally different place. And you look at, you know, reports from the US intelligence community, global threats and other things, where they’re really explicit about the risks that are emerging from deepening relations between Russia and China in particular. But Richard and I have also now had lots of conversations with people in the government who are very attuned to and concerned and thinking through well, what do we do about the growing cooperation between all of these countries. So I would say, in the last four years or so, the attitudes of policymakers and thinkers in Washington DC about how important and how significant of a challenge this is, has shifted really significantly.

And I would say the same thing about Europeans also, who were also very dismissive in a lot of conversations that I would have with colleagues on the other side of the Atlantic. People had gotten very dismissive about it. But now, especially given all of the evidence of what China has been willing to do for Russia, in terms of providing dual-use goods that are allowing Russia to sustain the war effort, people are taking this seriously in a much different way than even just a couple of years ago. I do think people now recognise this is among the top national security challenges that we’re going to have to deal with in the coming years.

[44:20] Aliona Hlivco

 

At least that’s reassuring. And certainly, in Europe, I think the awareness is definitely there, especially the awareness of hybrid threats that come from both Russia and China. Perhaps not so much from Iran, but definitely the awareness is growing, that both adversaries are to be taken seriously. But Richard, more on the US strategy and the isolationism, I promised this one to you. First of all, how should we in Europe see the United States diversifying their national security interests and their strategy? Because there are many talks about, obviously the elections are ongoing so a lot of it can be attributed to pre-electoral slogans, but realistically, when you talk to the experts and the advisors, how prepared is the United States? And how are they planning to work to mitigate all these threats, especially from the alliance that is forming, while the Western alliance, one could argue, is almost going through an existential crisis? Where does the US stand? How ready is it?

[45:29] Richard Fontaine

 

Yeah, I think, as Andrea said, the diagnosis of the problem is garnering an increasing consensus. There’s less so on the prescription about what to do about all of this, and you have some people saying, well, the United States can’t take on four countries at the same time, or even take on China and Russia simultaneously soo for some brief amount of time, you had people saying, well, you know, we need to do a reverse Kissinger and, you know, use Russia to, you know, balance China, and then Russia invaded Ukraine, and people said, well, we now we should do a Kissinger-Kissinger and use China to balance Russia. And no one seemed to ask the Russians or the Chinese if they’re willing to sign up to that, nor asked what the price of that would be in our own policy. So, you know, those kinds of ideas had a fairly brief half-life there. And now we’re into the realm of how does the United States work together? How does it become active enough itself, and then work together with its allies and partners in order to be able to contest efforts to undermine the world we want to live in by countries that are fundamentally revisionist? And we have everything we need. I mean, look at the United States in particular, our economy is the biggest in the world. Our military is the biggest, most well-funded in the world. We have, you know, an advantageous geography, we have advantageous demographics, we have an innovative economy. And we could go on and on. I think we have the values that could appeal in a contest of the kind we’re talking about. And, of course, we have the allies. I mean, if NATO weren’t there today, we sure as hell would wish it was and, you know, our allies themselves are getting stronger. They’re getting more numerous with the addition of, you know, two countries in NATO. Japan is doubling its defence spending over five years and will have the world’s third-biggest defence budget. Australia’s you know, getting stronger, all of this. It’s how we put these things together. It’s not whether we have the capacity, or even the capability to be able to contest this. It’s how we put it together and how active we are. And, frankly, whether we have the political unity and a political will to be able to do this effectively. That honestly, I think, is a broader question, because you know, who knows what will happen after the election in the United States or some of the elections in Europe. But nevertheless, we’ve got it within ourselves to win in this competition. We just have to do it the correct way.

[48:14] Aliona Hlivco

 

And speaking of NATO, the Alliance that is going to be celebrating its 75th anniversary and many are saying that it has been the most successful security and international alliance overall in the history of humanity, which one could argue is true on one hand, but on the other hand, there is a plethora of these new challenges that we have just discussed. Do you think NATO is ready to take on the new threat? Are you aware of any provisions that are being taken in place when it comes to drawing up the strategy for the next 75? And how solid will the US leadership be in that process?

[48:53] Richard Fontaine

 

Well, I mean, when you’re talking about NATO members, which are the only countries to whom the collective defence provision applies, then I think there’s been a lot of progress to extend the thinking, both in terms of deterrence and defence, in new ways on cybersecurity space and things like that. You’re probably getting at, you know, threats that come to non-NATO countries and what NATO itself is going to do about it. You know on Ukraine, certainly the United States, as a member of NATO, did what it typically does with the assistance of Ukraine, which is try everything else and it finally do the right thing six months after it should have but nevertheless, you know, a large package of aid to Ukraine. You know, in the NATO strategic concept for the first time, China is mentioned and sort of outlined there. I think the idea that NATO members are sort of going to leave the Asia Pacific region and the China challenge to the Americans while focusing on Europe is not really in the cards, there may be some division of labour. But nevertheless, they’re seeing these things as increasingly integrated. So you have to make a big distinction between members who enjoy the mutual defence agreement and a defence commitment and the rest of the world, including Ukraine and countries in Asia and so forth. But nevertheless, I think NATO is headed in the right direction on those things.

[50:27] Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

Yeah, the one thing I’ll add, I mean, I think that there’s a recognition now like you said that the United States can’t necessarily take on all of these adversaries at the same time. So there is a recognition that we want to strengthen the European pillar, we want stronger, more capable European allies and partners. That’s been a difficult conversation in the past where the United States would say yes, we want a more capable Europe but don’t do that, or don’t do it that way. But I think that attitude is also changing in the United States as it’s recognising the kind of scope of the global challenge. What the United States really needs is a Europe that can do more in Europe so that the United States does have capabilities if it needs to do things in the Indo-Pacific. And I think NATO has been a key driver of building a more capable and stronger European pillar within NATO. Obviously, at the Vilnius Summit, there was the announcement about regional plans, which is a major step forward and a major accomplishment to strengthen security and defence in Europe. There’s a lot of discussion now and there likely will be. At this summit in Vilnius, they decided the 2% of GDP on spending on defence was the floor, not the ceiling. And there’s likely to be a bigger push to get allies to continue to spend more on defence. And there are discussions underway about transferring some of the US’ role in supporting Ukraine to NATO. So the United States right now is kind of the key driver, the key catalyst, the key organiser through the Ramstein format of coordinating how we send security assistance to Ukraine. There’s some discussion that that needs to move over to Europe. Some people have talked about it, unfortunately, as a quote-unquote, ‘Trump proofing the Alliance’, but there’s a lot of good that comes out of having a Europe that can take on more of the burden in security and defence so that the United States does have greater capacity to be focusing in other regions. So I think there’s a lot that is positive, and there’ll probably be more positive announcements in this regard at the summit this July as well.

[52:43] Aliona Hlivco

 

I will now switch to questions from our viewers. We have the first one from Dean Baxendale, who is saying that we have tracked the illicit transnational organised crime networks tie to all four of these nations (meaning Iran, North Korea, China and Russia). How do you see this economy being used in the hybrid war against the West?

[53:06] Richard Fontaine

 

It’s being used as an asymmetric advantage against the West when these countries would not like to engage in certainly conventional military activity. So, for example, there have been reports just over the past week about widescale disinformation, Russian disinformation, even sabotage operations in Europe. You know, North Korea has become quite practised at illicit financial transfers, narcotics, the use of Bitcoins, cyber extortion, all kinds of things like that. You know, Iran, over the years has done things like try to team up with, you know, Mexican cartels and hire hitmen to try to knock off people even inside the United States. So, you see, and I think you’re going to see more of that kind of thing, simply because it’s difficult to control. And it provides kind of an asymmetric advantage to countries willing to use them.

[54:11] Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

The one thing I would add too is, I mean, just the kind of dedollarization and other things that all four of these countries are doing. So you’re seeing more and more transactions between them that are taking place in non-dollar-denominated currencies. And so the more that that happens, the more difficult it is for the United States and European allies to effectively implement sanctions, to take anti-corruption measures, to do anti-money laundering (AML). So when they’re doing transactions in non-dollars, that essentially puts these things out of the reach of US economic tools of coercion. So, again, that’s going to create, I think, an environment that’s more conducive to all of that kind of illicit activity. It makes it harder for us to be able to sanction, to control, to disrupt those types of transactions.

And then a broader point on the hybrid- I mean, Richard is absolutely right, there’s really been a significant uptick, in particular, Russian hybrid threats and attacks against European countries. But what I would expect is that there’s going to be a) this like passive learning. So one of the things that we’re also watching very carefully is the way that they’re learning best practices from one another. So that’s a really important element. And I’m watching very carefully the growing coordination in hybrid tactics. So there was, I guess, I don’t know, six, nine months ago, the underwater sea cables up in the Baltic Sea where there was a Chinese ship (the Newnew Polar Bear) that was present and responsible for it, with a Russian ship that was in very close proximity. So we don’t know for sure from the outside exactly what transpired through that, but to me, it suggests a greater possibility that Russia and China in particular, could increasingly cooperate using these hybrid tactics, particularly when attribution will be hard. And when you look in the cyber domain, for example, Russia and Iran learning from one another how to execute cyber attacks and other things. So that whole space I think, is one of a major growth area, that’s going to become an increasing threat and problem for the US and Europe moving forward.

[56:35] Aliona Hlivco

 

And speaking of the seabed and hybrid threats there, I’ve just come back from a trip to Brussels. And that’s one of the issues that was discussed as part of the future strategy for NATO is actually realising all of these new threats and putting some policies in place to at least be able to address it because they do see the North Sea, and generally going towards Arctic, as the new area of contestation that’s only going to grow, unfortunately. We have a question from our colleague in the Centre for European Reform, who asks the old Russian question: what is to be done? Does the West just have to accept this axis? Or can it find ways to undermine it? And I think that will be the perfect last question from our viewers.

[57:23] Richard Fontaine

 

It always gets uneasy when (inaudible) quotes Lenin but, nevertheless, it is the right question here, which is, you know, what do you do about all this? And we talked a little bit about this already, in terms of engagement with the global swing states, you know, the six countries that are multi-aligned and whose preferences collectively will shape the global order in general, but also the degree to which countries like Russia and China have base access and technology access and access to weapons and, you know, the ability to bypass the dollar and things like that. And so, one of the answers, what do you do about all this is to engage with these countries so that their preferences to the greatest possible degree reflect the kind of world that we would like to see evolve, rather than the kind of world that the axis members would like to see as well. I mean, it also takes, you know, constraining to the greatest degree and deterring malign activities by members of this axis. For example, you have frontline states here. Ukraine is a frontline state in this contest given what Russia is doing, I would put Israel and Taiwan in categories as frontline states as well, you know, worthy of US assistance given the pressures that they’re under from members of this axis. And then it’s going to require, you know, bolstering our own strength and capabilities. I mean, we’re going to need more national security resources, particularly defence spending, to be commensurate with the challenges that exist in the world we’re in now. And then, you know, ultimately, and to some degree, this may be the hardest part of all, it’s going to take the political will to engage in this contest, to believe that the world that we’d like to see ordered according to our own principles and our own values is better for everybody than the one that the axis would like to see, and to be active in the defence of those interests and principles and values. And that gets at our own domestic politics, our ability to work with, you know, like-minded countries around the world, to reject isolationism, and to take on the leadership role that I think the United States uniquely has.

[59:53] Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

I’ll add two quick things and it’s something we talked about earlier in our conversation- the importance of Ukraine. We already talked about how enabling Ukraine to defeat Russia is probably the most immediate and impactful thing that the United States could do to weaken this axis because it would deter China and it would isolate Iran. So I think that’s probably first and foremost at the top of the list. And then the other thing, Aliona, you mentioned earlier the risk of Russia attacking NATO, and I think the conditions under which that would be most likely to happen would be if the United States were engaged in the Indo-Pacific, this kind of opportunistic aggression kind of scenario, that Putin would look and say, the United States lacks the political will, and perhaps the capacity to fight in Europe and that would be the moment at which he would seek to test NATO.

So as we’re thinking about the connections in defeating this axis, it’s also critically important that Europe prepares for that scenario of opportunistic aggression. So thinking about investing in the capabilities that the United States would have to redeploy from Europe to the Indo-Pacific- like the logistics and Air to Air refuelling and integrated air and missile defence and there’s a whole host of things that we would need- if Europe, as it’s increasing its defence spending, can be using that to invest in those capabilities, I think that would also help deter Putin in that moment that would be most tempting. So there’s lots as Richard said, but those are the two that I would add.

[1:01:28] Aliona Hlivco

 

That’s great, thank you. And just one final, very quick question from me, just to leave our audience on somewhat a positive note- there is this huge threat of potentially a third world war if we’re not already in it, as some people have already said. The Western alliance has also seen some reinvigoration. We have seen that NATO is ramping up Europe as slowly as they can, but of course, they are talking about increasing defence spending. There is a discussion here in the UK and other EU members about reintroducing conscription, national service, and any kind of activity that could enhance social resilience and effectively prepare us for war. Everyone is talking about an industrial base and gearing up production, not just for Ukraine but for themselves- more air defence, and fifth-generation fighter jets. And on the geopolitical side, we’re seeing that NATO is back on the agenda. Orcus is looking to maybe expand with Japan, there is strong cooperation in the Indo-Pacific, South Korea and Japan as well. Is there hope that we can actually prevent the full-scale Third World War from breaking out? And we can be back to the international world order anytime soon? Just final notes from you?

[1:02:56] Richard Fontaine

 

Well, first of all, I would say we’re certainly not in World War Three. So if anyone says that it’s already started, I hope they have a gun under their bed. You know, we are certainly not at war with Russia, and we’re not at war with China. And if we are we know it. But we also have a supreme interest in trying to prevent those kinds of wars, which would be destructive on a level we certainly haven’t seen in many, many decades. And so is there hope? Yeah, absolutely. There’s hope. You know, the things that you mentioned are all steps in the right direction. The countries that are like-minded and/or allied in this effort, are trying to increase deterrence so that war becomes ever more unthinkable. And countries that would seek war as a remedy to their problems believe that they would be unsuccessful in the attempt. That is all to the good and that’s going to be how we both deter war and do so without capitulation, which is not what we want either. As I mentioned before, the United States and its allies and partners have everything we could possibly want to be successful in all of this. In deterring war, preserving the key pillars and principles of the international order, we’ve got all of the resources, all of the population, all of the economy, all of the military, all of the capabilities. It’s just how we put them together and how we bolster our own strength and work together more effectively and wisely. So yes, I think there’s much more hope than pessimism to be had.

[1:04:33] Andrea Kendall-Taylor

 

And I’m going to let Richard take us out on a positive note because the former intelligence officer in me will just take this in a darker direction.

[1:04:47] Aliona Hlivco

 

Well, I do remember your previous point that the importance of Ukraine cannot be exaggerated and as a Ukrainian, it warms my heart that that is being understood in the intelligence circles in the United States. I would like to thank you both, Richard and Andrea, for making this very early morning meeting with us. Thank you to all the viewers in the UK, US and across Europe who have joined us. You can also see this event later on our YouTube channel. Apologies to everyone whose questions I’ve missed. We tried to get through as many topics as possible, but I’m sure you can get in touch with Richard and Andrea in due course if you have any more questions. And do check out Richard’s book Last Decade. Thank you again both, really appreciated.

HJS



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