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Axis of Autocracy

putin_chavez.jpg Joshua Kurlantzick has a powerful piece coming out in the next issue of the New Republic that ties together Russia, Iran, China, and the rise of an increasingly cozy alliance of dictatorships and petro-states. The War on Terror has consumed an enormous amount of foreign policy resources for the United States, and in this vacuum, many of the autocracies of the world have had the opportunity “to feel each other out,” creating a coherent axis of resource nationalist states. The policy response from the West: far from sufficient. Of particular interest is Kurlantzick’s observation that these relationships between Iran, Venezuela, and Russia are not bound to ideology, which gives them a frightening advantage of flexibility and adaptability. He writes:

Unlike the Soviet Union, however, this axis does not offer a comprehensive ideological alternative to the United States comparable to communism; indeed, many of its member countries have embraced elements of capitalism, while using very different political models. Instead, the world has returned to an earlier system, one reminiscent of the early twentieth century, when ideology was not paramount but new powers like Germany and Japan developed flexible alliances to win resources and to weaken Great Britain, the world’s strongest country at the time. Welcome to a new era of resource nationalism.

Kurlantzick also seems to understand the link between the theft of Yukos and the latest thuggish bullying of Shell in the Sakhalins:

Putin’s plans to develop oil as a state weapon have long been clear. As director of the Federal Security Service (successor to the KGB) in St. Petersburg in the ’90s, he authored an article arguing that the state should use natural resources to wield power. Since then, Putin has surrounded himself with former colleagues from St. Petersburg who share his views. In 2004, Putin and friends dismantled oil giant Yukos, a private company, and sold many of its assets to Rosneft, a state company. They boosted the power of state gas firm Gazprom; as Putin bluntly announced, “Gazprom is a powerful political and economic lever of influence over the rest of the world.” This week–in a move widely interpreted as an attempt to assert more control over its resources–Russia revoked an environmental permit for a Royal Dutch Shell oil and gas project off the country’s Pacific coast. Russians likely approved: A recent poll revealed strong Russian popular support for energy nationalization.

putin_iran250.jpg On the SCO:

Moving beyond initial trade and diplomatic ties, the autocrats have built military relationships, too. Russia and China held their largest joint military exercises last year, showing how two armed forces that once detested each other have put aside past mistrust. Russia has become China’s biggest arms supplier, and Moscow also has made winning back its military influence in Central Asia a priority, regaining basing rights in countries like Tajikistan. For his part, Chávez has reportedly offered to sell Tehran F-16 fighters, while Russia has provided the mullahs with civilian nuclear technology. In addition, China, Russia, and other Central Asian nations are considering turning the SCO into a full-fledged alliance, which would make it one of Asia’s premier security groups. SCO is the “most dangerous organization that Americans have never heard of,” argues Christopher Brown, a Central Asia expert. Or, as David Wall of Cambridge’s East Asia Institute told The Washington Times, if the Shanghai group added Iran, “it would essentially be an opec with bombs.”

And lastly, Kurlantzick gives an ominous warning that without an urgent policy reorientation, the problem of energy imperialism could tilt the world toward conflict:

Sound familiar? In the 1930s and early ’40s, the last age of resource nationalism, Japan had turned its back on previous liberal reforms and moved toward fascism. Its powerful economy was short on oil, gas, rubber, and other commodities. Insecure about British and U.S. alliances in Asia, Tokyo justified its invasions of the Dutch East Indies and other parts of Asia by claiming the West was preventing it from accessing supposedly free markets for resources. Japan also inked a loose alliance with Germany–which itself invaded Russia partly to gain Soviet oil–that ultimately became much more substantial. By August 1941, the United States had declared an oil embargo on Japan, heightening the tension over resources. In October 1941, Japan’s leaders decided on total war if the embargo was not removed within a month. You know the rest.