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20 years later, the ‘Axis of Evil’ is bigger, bolder — and more evil

AP Photo/Ng Han Guan
A security guard stands near a sculpture of the Chinese Communist Party flag at the Museum of the Communist Party of China on May 26, 2022, in Beijing.

In his 2002 State of the Union address, just five months after the al Qaeda-linked terrorist attack on 9/11, President George W. Bush cited three countries that he designated the “Axis of Evil”: Iraq, Iran and North Korea. 

He said: “States like these, and their terrorist allies, constitute an axis of evil, arming to threaten the peace of the world. By seeking weapons of mass destruction, these regimes pose a grave and growing danger. They could provide these arms to terrorists, giving them the means to match their hatred. They could attack our allies or attempt to blackmail the United States.”

Much has changed in the past 20 years, including the Axis. It is no longer relatively small, failed states. The Axis includes more countries with larger economies, bigger militaries and, worst of all, expansionist visions.

One thing that hasn’t changed: All the Axis powers, and many of their aligned countries, are run by strong-man authoritarians who are largely insulated from being ousted by the public for their actions.

More countries. Which countries make up the current Axis of Evil? My list includes China, Russia, Iran and North Korea as the primary belligerents. With Saddam Hussein gone, Iraq isn’t quite the problem it was when Bush identified his Axis.

In addition, a number of dictator-controlled countries are closely aligned with the Axis, though one could reasonably argue that one or more of them are actually part of it. Those include, at a minimum, Venezuela, Cuba, Syria, Nicaragua and Belarus.

But there are also countries that, while perhaps not aligned with the Axis, refuse to condemn Russia’s and China’s expansionist efforts and human rights violations and continue a relatively unscathed relationship. The most troubling of these countries are India and Turkey.

Bigger economies. While all three of Bush’s Axis countries were economic basket cases, and still are, that’s not the case for the new Axis. As the world’s second-largest economy, China brings a lot of financial and industrial resources to the network. And both China and Russia have huge natural resources.

The new Axis has vastly increased the amount of land and people under its control. Taken together with some of the aligned and friendly countries, they control most of Asia. And their close proximity allows them to expand trade between themselves and move banned or sanctioned products (e.g., weapons, oil and gas, drugs, etc.) across borders. For example, while the West may be trying to wean itself from Russian oil and gas, China and India are picking up some of the slack.

In other words, the size, finances and natural resources of the new Axis and its friends may allow it to become a semi-insulated trade and economic block, minimizing the impact of Western efforts to isolate and sanction any bad actors.

Expansionist efforts. Perhaps the biggest change in the last 20 years is the new Axis’s expansionist efforts.

Neither Russia nor China is content with its current borders. Both are expanding, or at least trying to. Russia’s recent unprovoked invasion of Ukraine follows other aggressions, such as its takeover of Crimea in 2014. And nearby countries, such as Estonia and Moldova, fear they may be the next course on the Russian menu.

China is engaging in a somewhat different kind of expansion. It has already absorbed Hong Kong, years before an agreement with Great Britain permitted. And it’s eyeing Taiwan as its next victim. But there is no reason to think China would be satisfied if it takes Taiwan. Expansionists gonna expand.

It’s built islands in the South China Sea and turned them into military bases. And it’s entering into financial and infrastructure agreements with a number of small countries – known as the Belt and Road Initiative – that could eventually provide China with logistic and military benefits.

And while Russian President Vladimir Putin’s expansionist dreams are now apparent to everyone, China still denies any such intent. However, China’s military buildup tells a different story.

China has by far the largest army in the world, 2 million personnel, roughly 50 percent more than the United States. China also has the largest navy in the world, 777 vessels (as of 2020). Russia has 603 and the United States 490.

To be sure, the largest navy doesn’t mean the most powerful. The World Population Review points out that the U.S. Department of Defense counts the relevant vessels differently and claims China has 355 ships and the United States 293. But the United States still has more high-value ships, such as aircraft carriers, than China.

Even so, one wonders why China needs the largest army and navy in the world if its intentions are peaceful.

And while Iran isn’t a major military power, we recently learned it is manufacturing and selling arms, especially “kamikaze drones,” to Russia.

In the 20 years since Bush identified his version of the Axis of Evil, the number of countries and the threat level have grown. And it’s becoming all too reminiscent of the 1930s.

Merrill Matthews is a resident scholar with the Institute for Policy Innovation in Dallas, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillMatthews.

Tags authorization for use of military force axis of evil China Chinese military George W. Bush Iran Iraq North Korea Russia Syria

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