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Inflection Points Today June 6, 2024

On D-Day, beware the ‘new axis’

By Frederick Kempe

There is a time for everything. Today, it was important to reflect on the Allied victory on this, the eightieth anniversary of D-Day. Those who died that day, in the words of US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, “gave us a chance, and they bought time for us, so that we can do better than we have before.”

Now, however, the United States and its allies must turn to the clear and present dangers posed by an even more potent and more coordinated group of “new axis” powers that has emerged. It isn’t enough that leaders of Allied nations now supporting Ukraine were there on the beaches in remembrance, standing alongside Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. Symbolically absent were Russia and its president, Vladimir Putin, now at the heart of this new, fast-evolving, adversarial axis.

It’s time to recognize collectively, as the historian and diplomat Philip Zelikow writes in a new, must-read essay in Texas National Security Review, that the United States and its allies confront “a purposeful set of powerful adversaries” in China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea. They have increased their common cause after Putin’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 in a manner that Zelikow reckons poses “a serious possibility of worldwide warfare.” 

He puts that likelihood “only in the 20-30 percent range. But that assessment is not reassuring.”

This column focuses on “inflection points,” and Zelikow puts our current one in compelling, historical context.

“This is the third time the United States has been confronted with such a situation,” Zelikow writes in a piece first brought to my attention, given its significance, by Atlantic Council board member Kostas Pantazopoulos.

“The first was between 1937 and 1941 and was resolved by American entry into World War II,” writes Zelikow. “The second was between 1948 and 1962, implicating the Soviet Union and the People’s Republic of China. Thankfully, world war was avoided and in November 1962 the Soviet Union relaxed its stance in the central confrontation in Europe,” but not before the Cuban Missile Crisis brought us to the brink.

How the current period lands will depend on how deftly the United States navigates with its partners the unfolding areas of tension—wars in Europe and the Middle East and tensions around China. However, it will also rest on how this adversarial axis interprets the events around it—and the opportunities those events provide—to displace US global leadership and remake the global order.

“In the past, these changes occurred for reasons that outsiders often did not understand or expect,” Zelikow writes. “Enemy leaders changed course, sometimes sharply, as they saw successes or reverses in other parts of the world. This suggests that the outcome of the war in Ukraine might strongly affect the wider course of world history.”

That last sentence is worth lingering upon. We ignore it at our collective peril.

What’s perhaps least well understood—and most concerning—is that Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea are already acting more collaboratively than Germany, Italy, and Japan ever did in the run-up to World War II.

“The old Axis was slow to come together tightly,” writes Zelikow. “By contrast, today in 2024, key countries in the anti-American partnership have been working quite closely together in defense-industrial cooperation—extending across Russia, China, Iran, and North Korea. They have now been cooperating for a longer time, and in more ways, than was the case among any of the future Axis countries of the 1930s.”

There’s cause for medium- and long-term optimism about history’s trajectory, given the fundamental political, economic, societal, and technological strengths of the United States and its global partners. Zelikow sees the period of maximum danger as being in the next one to three years, as members of the new axis—correctly or incorrectly—may perceive a moment of historic opportunity in the West’s lack of military preparedness and political will.

Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter: @FredKempe.

This edition is part of Frederick Kempe’s Inflection Points Today newsletter, a column of quick-hit insights on a world in transition. To receive this newsletter throughout the week, sign up here.

Further reading

Image: US reinforcements land on Omaha beach during the Normandy D-Day landings near Vierville sur Mer, France, on June 6, 1944 in this handout photo provided by the US National Archives.