Robert Kagan has a very interesting column in the Washington Post this morning that touches directly on a discussion I’m having with a commenter. Kagan outlines the reasons that Russia and China support the Iranians:
Until now the liberal West’s strategy has been to try to integrate these two powers into the international liberal order, to tame them and make them safe for liberalism. But that strategy rested on an expectation of their gradual, steady transformation into liberal societies. If, instead, China and Russia are going to be sturdy pillars of autocracy over the coming decades, enduring and perhaps even prospering, then they cannot be expected to embrace the West’s vision of humanity’s inexorable evolution toward democracy and the end of autocratic rule. Rather, they can be expected to do what autocracies have always done: resist the encroachments of liberalism in the interest of their own long-term survival.
In small but revealing ways this is what Russia and China are doing, in places such as Sudan and Iran, where they are making common cause to block the liberal West’s efforts to impose sanctions, and in Belarus, Uzbekistan, Zimbabwe and Burma, where they have embraced various dictators in defiance of the global liberal consensus. All these actions can be explained away as simply serving narrow material interests. China needs Sudanese and Iranian oil; Russia wants the hundreds of millions of dollars that come from the sale of weapons and nuclear reactors. But there is more than narrow self-interest involved in their decisions. Defending these governments against the pressures of the liberal West reflects their fundamental interests as autocracies.
The world is a complicated place and is not about to divide into a simple Manichean struggle between liberalism and autocracy. Russia and China are not natural allies. Both need access to the markets of the liberal West. And both share interests with the Western liberal powers. But as autocracies they do have important interests in common, both with each other and with other autocracies. All are under siege in an era when liberalism does seem to be expanding. No one should be surprised if, in response, an informal league of dictators has emerged, sustained and protected by Moscow and Beijing as best they can. The question will be what the United States and Europe decide to do in response. Unfortunately, al-Qaeda may not be the only challenge liberalism faces today, or even the greatest.
If true, in my view it’s a very short-sighted and probably self-destructive policy on the part of both Russia and China. Look at a map. Iran is in the same neighborhood as both Russia and China. Both Russia and China are actually materially threated by Islamism within their borders. That Islamist terrorism is mostly Saudi-supported at this point. The Saudis and Iranians are in competition for dominance in the Muslim world. Perhaps Iran will be content with letting the Islamist terrorists threatening Russia and the Islamist terrorists threatening China be beaten down by the Russians and Chinese, respectively. I doubt it. I think it’s more likely that they’ll fund their own groups of terrorists. Remember as far as the Iranians are concerned Russia and China are sideshows, the Muslim world is the circus.
The real best interests of both China, Russia, and the U. S. (not to mention Iran) lie in a decent, stable, peaceful, non-expansionist regime taking over in Tehran. Everybody (except the mullahs) are winners that way. That ain’t the one that’s there now. We can’t achieve that goal by supporting the mullahocracy.
Liberal democracies have permanent interests in common, namely, advancing human freedom. Autocracies have none.