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Does the United States face a new Tripartite Pact?

Dictators gonna dictate.

A still image, taken from video footage and released by Russia’s Defense Ministry Aug. 18, 2016, shows a Russian Su-34 fighter-bomber based at Iran’s Hamadan air base, dropping off bombs in the Syrian province of Deir al-Zour. Russian Defense Ministry/Handout via REUTERS TV

Throughout the Obama era, foreign policy critics have been arguing that America’s enemies are forming some version of the Evil League of Evil to thwart the ambitions of the United States. These musings tend to peak near an election. Last cycle there were musings about an “axis of authoritarians.” This cycle, the Wall Street Journal’s Bret Stephens writes about a new Dictators’ Club. Here’s how Stephens starts:

In the fall of 1940 the governments of Japan, Italy and Germany — bitter enemies in World War I — signed the Tripartite Pact, pledging mutual support to “establish and maintain a new order of things” in Europe and Asia. Within five years, 70 million people would be killed in the effort to build, and then destroy, that new order.
The Pact was the culminating act in a series of nonaggression, friendship and neutrality treaties signed by the dictatorships of the day, sometimes to deceive anxious democracies but more often to divvy up the anticipated spoils of conquest. So it’s worth noting our new era of cooperation between dictatorships — and to think about where it could lead.

Stephens goes on to describe the warming relations between Russia, Iran, Turkey and China as an emergent threat to the United States.

The data point that would bolster Stephens’s argument the most in the past week or so was the announcement that Russia was using an Iranian air base to bomb Syria:

Russia’s use of an Iranian air base to bomb rebel targets across Syria for the first time this week has allowed Moscow to show off sophisticated weaponry as it seeks to cement ties with Tehran and expand its influence in the Middle East.
While the tactical effect was unclear, Russian President Vladimir Putin got the public relations bang he presumably sought when Moscow-issued photos of a sleek Tu-22 bomber dropping a string of bombs appeared on news sites around the globe.

Of course, that was last week. This week — well, it looks like the Russian-Iranian party is over:

An Iranian official said Monday that Russia would no longer use the Islamic republic’s air bases to strike targets in Syria — an apparent rebuke of Moscow for announcing the deployment in the media last week.
At a news conference in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi said that Russia’s use of Iran’s Hamadan Air Base was “temporary, based on a Russian request,” and that it is “finished for now.” Russia “has no base in Iran,” Ghasemi added, according to an Associated Press translation of his remarks….
Iran’s sudden reversal Monday showed that allies with a common cause, fighting against Assad’s enemies, maintain diverse goals in the region. While Russian politicians indicated a long-term deployment, saying that warplanes stationed in Iran would conserve fuel instead of flying a longer route from the Russian Caucasus, Iranian officials made clear that they were unhappy about the publicity and being seen as a Russian client in the region.
Iranian Defense Minister Hossein Dehghan on Monday attacked publications of the Russian military press that reported the use of Iran’s air base. “There has been a kind of showing-off and inconsiderate attitude behind the announcement of this news,” he told an Iranian television channel.

Now some people are saying that this is an example about how all this hyperventilating over authoritarian cooperation is a bit much. Reading through some of the post-mortems, however, it seems as though it’s more a case of the Russians overhyping what happened last week and the Iranians trying to downplay it this week because of domestic electoral concerns. So there are genuine reasons to be concerned about whether America’s rivals are moving closer together.

Let me suggest a two-step way of thinking about whether America’s adversaries and frenemies are ganging up. The first is to focus on the Middle East and feel secure in the knowledge that everyone’s interests here are too distinct for there to be a real coalition or alliance.

The second is to step back and ask whether any global coalition can really pose a serious challenge to the U.S.-created liberal international order. What’s clear is that any answer would have to include China. And as Andrew Browne notes in the Wall Street Journal, China has a lot more important things to worry about than challenging the United States:

Call it the repression index. One of the best indicators of the country’s economic direction is now a political one….
Can an economic transformation be successful without a loosening of the reins? Censorship is at odds with a knowledge economy. Ideological dogma suppresses free inquiry essential to creativity.
The political signals are unsettling the private sector, which creates almost all the new jobs and drives innovation in products and services. Private investment is collapsing, despite the government’s instruction to local officials to “chant bright songs” about the economy.
The reluctance to invest can only partially be explained by factors such as falling returns amid global economic weakness, on top of worries about currency depreciation. It also reflects what analysts at the Chinese investment bank CICC call an “uncertainty trap” — doubts about the “timetable, road map and implementation” of reform.

I see why folks like Stephens are concerned. It’s easy to point to signs that the U.S.-created global order is fraying at the edges. But these concerns are concentrated in the most screwed-up region in the world, which suggests it won’t amount to much. And the one actor that really matters at the global level is very much preoccupied with internal issues.

So no, I don’t think we need to worry about a new Tripartite Pact.