Twenty-one years ago today, in his State of the Union address on 29 January 2002, President George W. Bush labelled the trio of Iran, Iraq and North Korea as an ‘axis of evil’, united in their fierce opposition to the ideals of freedom, democracy and peace and equally united in their obsessive pursuit of obtaining weapons of mass destruction. Their material support for terrorist entities and relentless illegal pursuits of weapons of mass destruction, not just nuclear but also biological and chemical weaponry, whilst concurrently oppressing and tormenting their own citizens, had singled out their malevolence from the international community.
It goes without saying that both individual sovereign states and the distribution of global power have shifted notably since January 2002. Whilst still wreaked by instability, Saddam Hussein’s defeat soon after Bush’s speech removed Iraq from the list.
Iraq has been replaced by an increasingly aggressive and destructive Russia, commensurate to the rising nationalistic confidence on the world stage its president Vladimir Putin began to employ, who has extended his claws beyond his backyard into both Syria and Ukraine in the last decade in varying forms. From airstrikes and deploying 48,000 military personnel to prop up Bashar al-Assad’s government to the ongoing full-scale invasion of Ukraine, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both sounded the alarm that Russia was committing war crimes in Syria and the same has been alleged about their conduct in Ukraine, from massacres at Bucha and elsewhere to the deliberate targeting of civilians and the torture and rape of women and children.
There is no question that the Kremlin has zero respect for the rule of international law or indeed the cherished values held by so much of the world, but far more appallingly no respect for the value of human life.
The justification President Bush had given for his ‘axis of evil’ rhetoric remains relevant today. On North Koreahe had denounced a totalitarian regime ‘arming with missiles and weapons of mass destruction, whilst starving its own citizens’. The entirety of that statement is still applicable.
A 1998 US congressional report found an estimated 300,000 to 800,000 North Koreans die annually from starvation or hunger-related illnesses, as the state jams funding into military technology at the literal expense of any serious standard of healthcare and other core humanitarian responsibilities. Whilst it is expected those numbers have fallen since 1998, their sheer scale is the focus. It nonetheless also finds sufficient funding to operate a horrific network of repression, torture and fear.
Kim Jong-Un’s regime spent a whopping 24% of its gross domestic product on defence each year between 2018 and 2021, personified by ongoing reckless and destabilising ballistic missile tests, including over Japanese territory. This is without even mentioning their continued persistence on developing nuclear weaponry despite international condemnation and sanctions. Their frequent overt threats to neighbouring countries are also incredibly concerning, including the threat of surprise heavy shelling of the densely populated South Korean capital Soeul, which sits a mere 31 miles from the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) that divides the peninsula, more than close enough for artillery within North Korean borders to strike the city.
Regarding Iran, Bush described a regime obsessed with developing weapons of mass destruction, a country that ‘aggressively pursues these weapons and exports terror, while an unelected few repress the Iranian people’s hope for freedom’. Once more, the picture remains unchanged.
We have seen very recent evidence of the Iranian government’s intolerance for dissent, with their inhumane crackdown on the popular protests that erupted following the alleged murder in police captivity of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman arrested for incorrectly wearing her hijab. Beyond the abject totalitarian and repressive structure of the regime, the ruthless government response to the brave protestors has been to arrest over 18,000 of them and at least 470 have been killed since September.
The intrepid Iranian protestors deserve nothing short of universal respect and solidarity, just as they should have the universal right to their own freedom and self-determination.
The Syrian regime under Bashar al-Assad, particularly during the unresolved civil war since March 2011, has employed the standard textbook tools of repression consistent with Syria’s international allies. Namely a culture of extreme fear disseminated by an active secret police and strict regulation of society, enforced by the threat of horrific punishments. But Assad went a step further and is responsible for using chemical weaponry on his own people, including bearing responsibility for the chemical weapon attack at Douma on 7 April 2018, which killed 40-50 people.
The ruling powers of these states are inherently evil, as their conduct indisputably and extensively demonstrates. Their utter inhumanity with regards to their own citizens and their disdain for international convention and law in their pursuit of potentially devastating weapons of mass destruction is almost certainly the most pressing geopolitical challenge, beaten perhaps only by the existential threat of climate change.
I would posit that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has revealed a new medium through which these states are highlighting their support for each other in their endeavours against the West and the ideals of the free liberal order.
Each has materially contributed to Russia’s stagnating war effort in Ukraine.
Syria has sent hundreds of fighters to Luhansk and Donetsk in Ukraine to shore up Russian defences, North Korea has armed the Russian paramilitary Wagner Group (responsible for war crimes) as well as happily selling millions of shells and arms to restock Putin’s depleted armoury, and Iran has supplied Russia with hundreds of deadly self-detonating drones which have been used to target Ukraine’s critical energy infrastructure to devastating effect, leaving millions of people without access to water, heating or electricity.
However, in the case of Iran, a relevant element in a 2015 UN Security Council Resolution expires in October 2023, when it will no longer be forbidden from exporting faster, more deadly drones and short-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs), suggesting the Iranian support for the war may only escalate to horrendous civilian consequence. Attacking civilian infrastructure is a war crime under international convention. Indeed these states’ steadfast assistance extends to the diplomatic and political spheres too; in March 2022 the UN General Assembly passed a resolution condemning Russia’s illegal invasion by a vote of 141-5 (with 35 abstentions). Among the five were North Korea, Russia and Syria. Iran abstained. Furthermore, Syria, Russia and North Korea are also the only states to recognise the independence and sovereignty of the four breakaway provinces in Eastern Ukraine (supposedly justified by sham referendums) before their illegal annexation.
However, as fundamentally contempible as the governments of these states are, it is nonetheless crucially important to recognise that the blame for their conduct rests at their feet, and not at the feet of the respective states’ populations, who arguably suffer just about as much as those murdered by the regimes. They fear the freedom of their own people.
The last few years have witnessed the emergence of a new ‘axis of evil’ in global geopolitics, characterised by a complete disregard for human life and peace, relentless pursuit (and use, in some cases) of devastating weapons and technologies. With a total disdain for the values of freedom, democracy and self-determination and for the framework of the liberal international order that has, for the most part, maintained great power peace since 1945. The first step towards a more stable world is recognising what these powers are, and that is a cluster of repressive, law-breaking and outright dangerous regimes in cahoots with each other in chasing these detestable common goals and interests, most recently in the invasion of Ukraine.