America must take the world’s new Axis of Evil much more seriously — or else

When war in Ukraine began, two years ago, I thought the best analogy might be with the Korean War. 

You have to frame what we’re going through as the Cold War II, and Ukraine was the first hot war of the Second Cold War.

And just the same way as in 1950, so in 2022, the outbreak of the hot war made many people understand better the world that they were in. 

It’s obvious that Russia would not have launched that offensive without Xi Jinping’s approval beforehand.

And without Chinese support Russia would not be able to sustain the war, for massive Chinese exports of microprocessors and other things are what keep the Russian war machine going. 

Will the Ukraine invasion end as the Korean War did?

You had a year of extraordinarily kinetic war, and then two years of stalemate that left a country divided with an extremely dangerous border, and it’s still there as we speak. 

I’ve always felt that was a plausible outcome for Ukraine. It’s not by any means the worst-case scenario.

After all, South Korea ended up being a very prosperous country, despite everything.

And Ukraine might manage that. 

But it’s going to be very hard for Ukraine to win this war now.

The United States has stopped supporting Ukraine financially, and Ukraine is almost running out of ammunition. 

Ukrainian anti-aircraft gunners of the 93rd Separate Mechanized Brigade Kholodny Yar amidst Russian invasion. AFP via Getty Images

Ukraine the 1st domino 

This is a war of attrition where President Volodymyr Zelensky needs men as well as shells, because the Russians have lots of them.

And that was always one of the asymmetries in this conflict.

So I expect the war to drag on through 2024. 

New York Post’s print cover for Feb. 24, 2024 features Niall Ferguson’s column.

I don’t know whether Putin will oblige us by dying at some point soon, which was what Stalin did in 1953, making a Korean armistice possible.

If he doesn’t, I think the war will drag on. 

Ukrainian servicemen are seen at a position near the village of Robotyne in Zaporizhzhia region. REUTERS

American politics is of course a factor.

We didn’t need Donald Trump to get re-elected for the aid to Ukraine to stop — it stopped already, and the election is 10 months away. 

I think it’s possible that the aid will restart, because congressional leadership does not want to leave Ukraine entirely relying on Europeans, which right now it is, so I think it’s not entirely over. 

Trump’s re-election, which I give at this point 55% probability, would be a terrible blow for Ukraine, but not necessarily fatal.

Europeans understand that they now have to face the possibility of being on their own.

Ukrainian servicemen walk to a position near the front-line village of Robotyne in Zaporizhzhia region. REUTERS

All that fine talk of “strategic autonomy” which we used to hear from France’s President Macron will have to become a reality very swiftly.

The alternative, they now realize, is too dire to contemplate. 

Because if Ukraine loses, after all the fine rhetoric of 2022, that puts Russia in an extremely threatening position for the whole of Europe. 

Next comes Taiwan 

If American aid to Ukraine does not resume, it wouldn’t be the first time that the United States said, “We’ll back you and your independence and your democracy for as long as it takes,” and then that turned out to be for as long as we felt like it — ask the South Vietnamese. 

The United States has not done terribly well since the late 1960s in honoring this kind of commitment.

Think of Afghanistan.

The Biden administration’s track record is much worse than you think if all you read is The New York Times, because it failed utterly to deter the Taliban from very quickly restoring their hideous barbaric regime in 2021. 

It failed to deter Putin from escalating his invasion of Ukraine in 2022. 

Ukrainian anti-aircraft gunners equip weapons from their positions in the direction of Bakhmut amid the Russian invasion. AFP via Getty Images

And it failed to deter Iran from unleashing its proxies against Israel in 2023. 

My question for 2024 is who will they fail to deter this year? 

Two years ago, all the experts on Russia said Putin was not going to launch a full-blown invasion of Ukraine.

I was one of the few people who said the war was coming.

I have a similar feeling today.

President Zelenskiy at the Potocki Palace in Lviv, Ukraine. via REUTERS

The experts say China is not ready to make a move on Taiwan until 2027.

Bill Burns, the director of Central Intelligence, said this a couple of times last year. 

I just wonder about that, because Xi says — most recently in this New Year address — that unification of Taiwan with the mainland is still his priority. 

I think the mistake many experts make is assuming that action means full-blown invasion.

That’s a really difficult thing to do across the Taiwan Strait, and I don’t think the People’s Liberation Army is remotely ready to do it. 

Chinese President Xi Jinping attends Spring Festival celebrations with men in suits at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. AP

But they don’t need to.

They just need to blockade Taiwan, and it wouldn’t be a total surprise to me if some time this year China imposed some kind of economic blockade.

If I were advising Xi Jinping, I would say, “Do it, you will never have a better opportunity.” 

There is another Cold War analogy that I find useful. 

Cuba was an island just off the United States, which the Soviets tried to turn into a missile base.

John F. Kennedy imposed a blockade — he called it a quarantine, but it was a blockade — and the Soviets sent their naval force, and it was the closest we came to the World War III in the whole of the Cold War. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin talks to Defence Minister Shoigu beside his limousine during a wreath laying ceremony at Unknown Soldier Tomb, Moscow. Getty Images

Cuban Missile redux 

If there was a Taiwan crisis, it would be like the Cuban Missile Crisis, but with the roles reversed.

The Chinese would be the ones doing the blockading.

And we’d be Khrushchev, sending the naval force and risking World War III. 

I hope I’m wrong about this. 

I hope Bill Burns is right, and we don’t have to worry about this until 2027.

Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin attend a car plant presentation. REUTERS

But let’s put it this way: Our intelligence experts have been wrong in the past, and so I wouldn’t be entirely surprised if a Taiwan crisis happened this year. 

In the Middle East, according to the sources I have, the Israeli Defense Forces are destroying Hamas.

Israel is not being given as much time as it would like. 

The noises that come out of Washington are that it needs to get this done and then it needs to stop.

But I don’t think these noises are being accompanied by anything that really would prevent Israel from finishing this war. 

An Israeli armored personnel carrier (APC) and a D9 bulldozer on a dirt road near the Israel-Gaza border amid ongoing conflict. REUTERS

The problem is that there is another theater that can explode into life at any point, and that’s the Lebanese border with Israel, where Hezbollah has a vast arsenal of missiles and rockets at its disposal. 

The IDF would certainly like to act preemptively against Hezbollah, but it’s not able to for political reasons, because that’s something Washington wouldn’t condone.

I think the critical question is not what happens in Gaza.

It’s what happens with Hezbollah and Lebanon that is crucial. 

Right now, the US is extraordinarily reluctant to get into any kind of war with Iran.

Another administration might have taken Oct. 7 as the opportunity to impose major costs at Iran, and I think that would have been the correct thing to do. 

Palestinians walk past destroyed houses in Jabalia refugee camp amid conflict between Israel and Hamas. REUTERS

Appeasing Tehran 

This administration has been from the offset inexplicably wedded to the idea that it could resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal.

So they have never really exerted serious pressure on Iran. 

I worry a lot that this reluctance to confront the source of the trouble, which is Tehran, means that Iran’s proxies have a sense of impunity.

It’s not only Hamas and Hezbollah, there are other proxies — such as the Houthis — who are feeling, “This is our moment,” because there is no significant pressure on Iran itself. 

A consequence of the Biden administration’s weak deterrence is that a real Axis of Evil, or at least an Axis of Ill Will, has formed. 

Demonstrators gather to protest Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reported decision to recall Israeli representatives from cease-fire negotiations, in Jerusalem. AP

No two world leaders have met more frequently in the last decade than Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin.

And I assure you they’re not discussing the respective merits of Russian and Chinese cuisine. 

They met immediately prior to the offensive against Ukraine, and at that meeting they declared that they had a “no-limits” partnership.

The fact that Iran is a major source of drones for the Russian air assault on Ukraine is further evidence. 

There is coordination 

So is the fact that the attacks on Israel were preceded by meetings in Tehran between Iranian government officials and the leaders of Hamas and Hezbollah, not to mention Palestinian Islamic Jihad, but also by Chinese diplomatic intervention to bring about some kind of truce between the Saudis and the Iranians. 

All of this I think is part of the jigsaw that you can put together without knowing the classified information.

On the basis of the open-source intelligence it’s very clear that there is coordination, even although there is no ideological homogeneity between these regimes. 

President Joe Biden delivers remarks during the National Governors Association Winter Meeting in the East Room of the White House. Shutterstock

China is still nominally a Marxist-Leninist communist regime, Russia is some kind of imperial-nostalgia tribute to Peter the Great, and Iran is an Islamist Shia-theocracy, but they all want American predominance to end. 

The Pax Americana, which has many defects, hasn’t been such bad international order that one would wish it to be replaced by a Chinese-Russian Greater Eurasian Co-prosperity Zone. 

Yet the Pax Americana, which was about American economic might plus alliances, is more vulnerable today than at any time since the end of World War II. 

One thing that’s interesting about Cold War II is that it seems to be going faster than Cold War I.

Our Korean War seemed to kick off before there was even consensus that we were in another cold war. 

Donald Trump speaking at a “Get Out the Vote” rally in Rock Hill, South Carolina. AFP via Getty Images

Our Cuban Missile Crisis over Taiwan might be just around the corner, instead of nine years after the end of the Korean War. 

And when it comes to the young people’s attitudes, we have somehow gone to 1968 already, because if you go back to 1968 there was an enormous revulsion against American power from within. 

The ones chanting support for Ho Chi Minh on Harvard campus and now chanting in support of Hamas. 

Useful idiots you will always find in abundance on that campus. 

Consequence of losing 

I do think it’s easier for Russia, Iran and China to mobilize anti-American sentiment or anti-Israeli sentiment through social media than was ever possible in the first Cold War. 

That means I think that our task is harder. 

Cold War II has a lot in common with Cold War I but economically the other side is much stronger that in was in Cold War I.

A Ukrainian flag, flowers, and candles placed for Alexei Navalny as people demonstrate against war and for Russian military withdrawal in front of the Russian embassy. REUTERS

Secondly, I think we are more divided and more capable of being divided and in that sense I think that there’s a decent chance we’ll lose Cold War II. 

And that’s what people find really hard to visualize.

The reason people don’t worry is that they think, “We’re always going to win. It’s going to be fine. Don’t worry.” 

And my response to that is, No, you have to contemplate the possibility of losing.

The United States did not inevitably win Cold War I.

It looked like it was losing for most of the 1970s.

By 1979, it really looked like it was in trouble. 

And I think we just don’t get across to people what losing might be like and why it might be bad. 

Ukrainians understand what losing is like because they saw the bodies in the streets of Bucha.

Israelis know what losing is like because they know that Oct. 7 was a dress rehearsal for Holocaust II.

But we don’t really know what losing would mean. 

And young Americans absolutely have no concept.

In fact, young Americans are so complacent about freedom that they’re basically against it now, which is a bizarre turn of events. 

We need a bit more of what it would actually be like if we lost.

Let’s just imagine that there is a Taiwan Crisis and they send two aircraft carrier groups, and the Chinese just sink both the carriers, and the US finds it has to sue for peace, and Taiwan is taken over, and Xi Jinping does the ticker-tape parade through Taipei. 

What then?

What does that mean? 

I think a lot of people haven’t really got anywhere close to thinking that through.

They don’t realize that ceasing to be number one, losing the Pax Americana, has massive costs. 

These are the things people don’t spend enough time thinking about because they just complacently assume that all of this stuff is going on over there in Ukraine and Israel and Taiwan, but somehow we’ll be fine. 

But the reality is we would not be fine, any more than we would have been fine if the Soviets had won the First Cold War. 

Niall Ferguson is the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, and a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard. He is the author of sixteen books, including “Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe.”

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