In 2002, President George W. Bush cited the now famous “axis of evil”—Iraq, Iran, and North Korea—as he tried to get the American people to look beyond those responsible for the 9/11 attacks and greenlight a global military campaign to “rid the world of the evil-doers.”
The result was the $8 trillion global war on terror that continues to this day.
Now, in the wake of the Hamas attacks in southern Israel one month ago, the same language is being employed to justify another massive increase in military spending. In a series of statements and interviews, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell defined a new axis of evil—Russia, China, and Iran—and argued the United States must simultaneously confront the threats posed by all of these regimes.
In his interview with Fox News, McConnell described the situation as he sees it:
If you go back to the fall of the Berlin Wall, it was widely said that we went into a holiday with history. We had a couple of conflicts related to terrorism in Afghanistan and in Iraq, but no big power competition. Fast forward to today, we still have the terrorist challenge, which the Israelis are trying to deal with. And we have big power competition, with China, Russia. So, in many ways the world is more in danger today than it has been in my lifetime.
On its face, this may seem like a good reason for taxpayers to tighten their belts and prepare for Washington to confiscate even more of their paychecks. But in reality McConnell is telling us to “fast forward” right over the important question of where these tensions came from.
A quick look at the history McConnell wants us to skip over reveals that he is presenting the situation exactly backwards. The geopolitical tensions with Russia, China, and Iran are the direct consequence of military spending gone awry.
At the beginning of McConnell’s “holiday with history,” the Communist regime in Moscow fell, and the Russian Federation took its place. The occasion marked not only the start of Washington’s unipolar moment but also the first opportunity for friendship between the governments of Russia and the United States in half a century.
Unfortunately, the decision was made early on not only to continue funding the anti-Soviet military alliance and its infrastructure in Western Europe, but to expand it toward Moscow. In his book Prisoners of Geography, Tim Marshall explains why Russian leaders are especially troubled by a potentially hostile foreign power’s presence in Eastern Europe.
Between Poland and Russia lies one big, flat plain. No mountains or oceans stand in the way to prevent an army from marching straight into Moscow. And so, since the days of Ivan III, Russia has used distance for defense. That defense has worked to repel several invasions in the last five hundred years, most famously those of Napoleon in 1812 and Hitler in 1941.
Even in the age of nuclear weapons, when long infantry supply chains are less relevant, the greater the distance a ballistic missile needs to travel to reach Russian cities, the more time the Russian regime has to detect, assess, and respond. Distance is still a factor in their defense strategy.
None of this is to say that the Russian government has a justified claim on the land of Eastern Europe, only that spending American tax dollars to move Western military infrastructure closer to Moscow was a surefire way to transform the Russians back into Washington’s enemy—something even the head of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) now acknowledges.
The current tensions with China can similarly be understood using geography. Since the death of Mao Zedong, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has been able to hold on to power thanks mainly to its partial rollback of communism, which resulted in the nation’s miraculous climb out of poverty.
According to Tim Marshall, the explosion of wealth has helped fund Beijing’s effort to quash resistance in the remote provinces of Tibet and Xinjiang, and it has pacified the 1.4 billion people living under the regime’s authoritarianism. But China is almost entirely reliant on its coast to keep its economy growing.
The same mountains and deserts that keep armies from marching into the Chinese heartland also make overland trade especially difficult. That hasn’t stopped the CCP from trying (the Belt and Road Initiative is all about building alternative trade routes to China’s west), but for now, the Chinese economy is still dependent on maritime trade.
On top of that, China’s waters are themselves surrounded by several island nations. And so, accessing the world’s oceans is not as simple as pushing off from shore. Chinese vessels need to navigate through and around waters claimed by other governments.
And so, the territorial disputes off China’s coast—especially in the South China Sea, which connects China to most of the world—are a source of tremendous anxiety for the Chinese regime. Any capable naval presence off China’s coast is a credible threat to the CCP’s source of power.
So, predictably, when Washington decided to maintain a heavy naval presence in the waters around China, in addition to the hundreds of heavily armed US bases in the region and the numerous weapons deals and defense agreements with nearby island nations, tensions between Washington and Beijing increased. As long as control of the South China Sea remains an American priority, we should expect the Chinese government to see the United States as an enemy.
Lastly, there is Iran. The roots of the current US-Iran tensions go back to 1953, when Washington secretly overthrew Iran’s democratically elected government to help protect British access to oil. The dictatorship that the US set up in its place lasted only twenty-six years before it fell in the 1979 revolution that brought the current authoritarian theocracy to power.
Then, in 2003, George W. Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq and overthrew Saddam Hussein, the Iranian regime’s chief rival. Realizing the US had mistakenly handed Iran way more power, the Bush and Obama administrations turned around and started attacking factions and regimes allied with Tehran—some of whom had been American allies in the fight with the Hussein regime. The result has, again unsurprisingly, been tensions between the US and a now more powerful Iran.
Just like the George W. Bush administration twenty years ago, Senator McConnell and his allies want us to see the governments of Russia, China, and Iran as a combined force of darkness that leaves Washington no choice but to spend untold sums of our cash to eradicate. But a look at history quickly illustrates how earlier military spending made today’s tensions inevitable. Politicians refuse to face their role in creating our dangerous international situation. Giving them even more money will only make things worse.