A dictators’ clique of China, Russia, Iran and North Korea threatens democracies everywhere. They are more dangerous than any past dictators because they have or are about to have nuclear weapons and the means to deliver them. The best way for peace-loving nations to oppose these dictators is through a global coalition centered on the United States and Europe. The U.S. and European democracies led coalitions that defeated dictators in the World War I, World War II and the Cold War. They can do it again.
The dictatorships in the clique are quite different from one another. Xi Jinping rules through his Communist Party over a partially free economy dominated by state-owned enterprises and is hostile to religion. Vladimir Putin and his nationalist party control their partially free economy through cronies and have established Orthodox Christianity as the de facto state religion. Ayatollah Ali Khamenei’s Islamic theocracy has a barely free economy rife with cronyism. Kim Jong-un and his Communist Party control a closed, government-owned economy and their state religion is the veneration of the Kim family.
But what unites them is more important than what divides them: A deep hostility toward democracy, the rule of law, free market capitalism and free media. They all have territorial claims against their neighbors and have provoked military confrontations with them. And they support terrorist regimes and organizations.
When faced with international opposition, they support each other overtly and covertly. North Korea and Iran develop nuclear weapons and missiles together in defiance of international sanctions. China is only slowly and reluctantly reducing its trade with North Korea while Russia continues such trade. Russia protects Iran from inspections at its military bases under the Iran nuclear deal and they are allies in propping up the murderous Assad regime. China and Russia have expanded their economic and military relations and have held joint naval exercises in the Sea of Japan and the Baltic Sea.
In opposing the dictator’s clique, the United States and Europe rely on a network of invaluable allies, including Japan, India, South Korea, Canada and Australia. But above all, they rely on their strong economies and militaries.
The economic might of the U.S. and Europe is formidable. Together they represent over half of the world’s gross domestic product and their bilateral trade is a third of the world’s total. They are also the premier investment destinations in the world and largest investor in each other’s economy. But they can do even better by concluding the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations started in 2013.
Tariffs are already low at 4 percent, so the emphasis is on reducing nontariff barriers. As much as 80 percent of TTIP’s potential gains come from cutting costs from duplicative bureaucracy and regulation, and from liberalizing trade in services and public procurement. The London-based Center for Economic Policy Research estimates that under the TTIP, U.S. exports will increase by 8 percent and GDP by $105 billion. The respective European gains are 6 percent and $131 billion.
There are caveats. The trade must be fair not just free, it should not be a vehicle for Brussels bureaucrats to regulate the U.S. economy, and it must permit U.S.-United Kingdom trade after Brexit.
The combined military capability of NATO’s U.S. and European membership is unmatched. But their contribution is unequal. The economies of the United States and Europe are about the same size, but U.S. defense spending is 70 percent of NATO’s total. After decades of complaints by American presidents about European “free riding,” to quote President Obama, President Trump seems to have finally moved the Europeans to increase their defense spending.
The U.S. should also encourage an Eastern European subregional alliance to add dynamism to NATO. Eastern Europe, closer to the Russian menace and just free from tyrannical communism, is more intense about defense than Western Europe.
The Three Seas Initiative fits the bill. It is outwardly an economic forum of countries between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black seas: Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia and Austria.
Its economic focus is reducing their overdependence on Russian energy imports and the related blackmail risk. During his July 2017 visit to Poland, Mr. Trump attended the initiative’s second summit and promised America’s help. The first U.S. shipment of liquefied natural gas just arrived at a Polish Baltic port and gas deliveries through Croatian Adriatic ports are in the works.
But the military dimension of the initiative is just under the surface: Several member countries host U.S. troops and have participated in joint military exercises, and all want to do more for the common defense. The U.S. should help strengthen their military capabilities.
The fall of communism inspired triumphalist talk of an end of history and universal acceptance of liberal democratic principles. Sadly, villains are still with us and as fanatical as ever. Worse yet, the villains in the dictators’ clique have nuclear weapons. In this troubled world, strengthening the indispensable partnership of U.S. and Europe as the cornerstone of a global coalition is one of our best hope for peace.
• J. William Middendorf II is a former secretary of the Navy and ambassador. Dan Negrea is a New York private equity investor.
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