Putin’s Saudi bro­mance is part of a much big­ger plan

Pawtucket Times - - OPINION - By HAL BRANDS

Bloomberg Opin­ion

Some­times a hand­shake can mean quite a lot. Richard Nixon’s out­stretched hand to Zhou En­lai in 1972 marked the end of a quar­ter-cen­tury of Chi­nese-Amer­i­can es­trange­ment. The de­cid­edly bro-ey hand­shake be­tween Rus­sia’s Vladimir Putin and Saudi Ara­bia’s Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man at the G-20 sum­mit last week was also laden with sym­bol­ism.

That hand­shake was, no doubt, a pointed re­minder to Wash­ing­ton that the Saudis are will­ing to ex­plore other geopo­lit­i­cal op­tions if the U.S. gets tough in re­sponse to the as­sas­si­na­tion of the jour­nal­ist Ja­mal Khashoggi. Yet it was also in­dica­tive of a broader trend that is re­shap­ing global pol­i­tics.

Day by day, it be­comes in­creas­ingly clear that a cen­tral fault line – per­haps the cen­tral fault line – in world af­fairs is the strug­gle be­tween lib­eral and il­lib­eral forms of gov­ern­ment. And as this hap­pens, geopo­lit­i­cal align­ments are shift­ing in sub­tle but mo­men­tous ways. In par­tic­u­lar, the bonds be­tween the U.S. and many of its au­thor­i­tar­ian al­lies are weak­en­ing, as those coun­tries find that they have less in com­mon ide­o­log­i­cally with Amer­ica than with its re­vi­sion­ist ri­vals.

For decades, ad­mit­tedly, the U.S. has worked closely with friendly dic­ta­tors out of geopo­lit­i­cal ne­ces­sity. Dur­ing the Cold War, one could not eas­ily con­tain the Soviet Union ab­sent the co­op­er­a­tion of strate­gi­cally placed au­to­crats in Turkey, Saudi Ara­bia, South Korea, the Philip­pines and many other coun­tries. Yet the geopo­lit­i­cal glue in these re­la­tion­ships was al­ways strength­ened by a layer of ide­o­log­i­cal ad­he­sive.

What­ever their dif­fer­ences in how they man­aged their do­mes­tic pol­i­tics, Wash­ing­ton and its au­thor­i­tar­ian al­lies shared a ba­sic ide­o­log­i­cal affin­ity rooted in in­tense anti-com­mu­nism. The vast gulf be­tween Soviet com­mu­nism and right-wing au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism, more­over, meant that there was usu­ally very lit­tle chance of a friendly dic­ta­tor switch­ing sides in the Cold War. Ar­gentina’s dic­ta­tor­ship may have flirted with the Soviet Union in the late 1970s, at a time when the Jimmy Carter ad­min­is­tra­tion was shin­ing light on that junta’s hu­man rights vi­o­la­tions. But there was never any real like­li­hood that one of the most vir­u­lently anti-com­mu­nist gov­ern­ments in the world was go­ing to jump fully into bed with the leader of global com­mu­nism.

To­day, the sit­u­a­tion is not so sim­ple. Anti-com­mu­nism lost its va­lence when the Cold War ended, the Soviet Union col­lapsed and China went from be­ing a com­mu­nist au­toc­racy to a cap­i­tal­ist au­toc­racy. As a re­sult, the ide­o­log­i­cal dif­fer­ences be­tween Amer­ica’s au­thor­i­tar­ian al­lies and some of its chief ri­vals is no longer so stark.

What Mo­ham­mad bin Sal­man, Egypt’s Ab­del-Fat­teh El-Sisi, Hun­gary’s Vik­tor Or­ban, Turkey’s Re­cep Tayyip Er­do­gan and Ro­drigo Duterte of the Philip­pines have in com­mon – other than be­ing al­lies of the U.S. – is that they run po­lit­i­cal sys­tems based on cor­rup­tion, co­er­cion and/or other au­to­cratic ap­proaches. They be­lieve that open dis­sent and de­bate, pro­tec­tion of mi­nor­ity rights and re­straints on gov­ern­ment au­thor­ity would weaken the il­lib­eral poli­ties they seek to con­struct and threaten their own per­sonal power. In these re­spects, these “good” au­thor­i­tar­i­ans are not so very dif­fer­ent than “bad” au­thor­i­tar­i­ans such as Putin and Xi Jin­ping. At a min­i­mum, they all fall on the same side of the de­bate over whether mod­ern so­ci­eties should be free and open or closed and con­trolled from the top.

Given that there are few more im­por­tant for­eign pol­icy is­sues than cre­at­ing an en­vi­ron­ment in which one’s do­mes­tic sys­tem can flour­ish, and given that birds of a feather do of­ten flock to­gether, it is nat­u­ral that this ide­o­log­i­cal con­ver­gence is hav­ing real geopo­lit­i­cal ef­fects.

In the Mid­dle East, Rus­sia is not sim­ply build­ing its part­ner­ship with Amer­ica’s sworn en­emy, Iran. It is also mak­ing in­roads with U.S. part­ners Saudi Ara­bia, Egypt and even Jor­dan, based on those coun­tries’ per­cep­tion that Putin’s au­thor­i­tar­ian regime can act de­ci­sively in sup­port of its friends while avoid­ing Amer­i­can-style med­dling in their do­mes­tic pol­i­tics. Or­ban leads a coun­try that be­longs to NATO, but he has a chummy re­la­tion­ship with Putin and his gov­ern­ment is gen­er­ally per­ceived to be thor­oughly com­pro­mised on mat­ters con­cern­ing Rus­sia.

Turkey is also a mem­ber of NATO, but Er­do­gan has in­creas­ingly cul­ti­vated Rus­sia as a part­ner and coun­ter­weight to the U.S., par­tially in re­sponse to ex­ag­ger­ated fears that Amer­ica is al­ly­ing it­self with his regime’s do­mes­tic en­e­mies. The Turk­ish gov­ern­ment has even pur­chased ad­vanced Rus­sian S-400 anti-air­craft sys­tems – and boasted about their abil­ity to down Amer­i­can jets.

In the Philip­pines, Duterte has sought to move his coun­try closer to both China and Rus­sia, not sim­ply for geopo­lit­i­cal pur­poses but be­cause of his sym­pa­thy for his fel­low strong­men. As he put it in 2016, his goal was to po­si­tion Manila in Bei­jing’s “ide­o­log­i­cal flow.” Fi­nally, Saudi Ara­bia and other au­thor­i­tar­ian U.S. al­lies have co­op­er­ated with Rus­sian and Chi­nese ef­forts to wa­ter down in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights norms in the United Na­tions and other fo­rums. In more and more cases, au­thor­i­tar­ian col­lab­o­ra­tion is cross­ing tra­di­tional geopo­lit­i­cal lines.

It is im­por­tant not to ex­ag­ger­ate this phe­nom­e­non; Amer­ica’s part­ner­ships with these coun­tries are not about to col­lapse. Turkey will not cast its lot en­tirely with Rus­sia, be­cause it still needs the U.S. as a coun­ter­bal­ance to Moscow’s ex­pan­sion­ism in the Black Sea. Saudi Ara­bia still de­pends heav­ily on the U.S. as a coun­tert­er­ror­ism part- ner and check on Ira­nian in­flu­ence.

There are also some ob­vi­ous ex­cep­tions to this trend. Viet­nam thor­oughly re­presses dis­sent but is draw­ing closer to the U.S. out of fear of China. Poland is a back­slid­ing democ­racy but a solid part­ner in East­ern Europe. Yet, gen­er­ally speak­ing, as the ide­o­log­i­cal dis­tance be­tween Amer­ica and its au­thor­i­tar­ian al­lies grows, and that be­tween those al­lies and the re­vi­sion­ist pow­ers nar­rows, there will be strate­gic con­se­quences.

Putin fully un­der­stands this: It is one of the rea­sons he funds il­lib­eral politi­cians and part­ners through­out Europe. It is also one of the rea­sons Rus­sia and China alike are work­ing to strengthen au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism and weaken democ­racy in coun­tries around the world.

So how should the U.S. re­spond? One strat­egy would be to purge con­sid­er­a­tions of ide­ol­ogy from U.S. for­eign pol­icy. Wash­ing­ton could stop speak­ing out about hu­man rights abuses by friendly dic­ta­tors; it could de­fine its re­la­tion­ships ac­cord­ingly solely to bal­ance-of-power logic. This ap­pears to be Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump’s ba­sic ap­proach to geopol­i­tics. Yet although this ap­proach would likely ease on­go­ing ten­sions with Saudi Ara­bia, Turkey and their ilk, it would also com­pound the global pres­sures on democ­racy and un­der­cut the idea that U.S. pol­icy stands for more than sim­ple re­alpoli­tik.

A sec­ond ap­proach would be to em­brace the ide­o­log­i­cal chal­lenge. The U.S. could dou­ble down on its re­la­tion­ships with lib­eral democ­ra­cies, re­pair­ing core al­liances that Trump has dam­aged and cul­ti­vat­ing closer ties with demo­cratic pow­ers from Colom­bia to In­dia to In­done­sia. It might re­dou­ble in­vest­ments in pro­tect­ing democ­racy where it is en­dan­gered and pro­mot­ing it – in coun­tries such as Malaysia – where pro­cesses of lib­er­al­iza­tion are un­der­way. It might push its au­thor­i­tar­ian al­lies to be mod­estly more re­spect­ful of hu­man rights and po­lit­i­cal lib­er­ties, us­ing levers such as re­strict­ing arms sales or dis­con­tin­u­ing mil­i­tary ex­er­cises. At the very least, it would make clear that its re­la­tion­ships with those al­lies are more trans­ac­tional and less spe­cial than those with its fel­low democ­ra­cies.

In the near-term, this lat­ter ap­proach might fur­ther roil trou­bled wa­ters in Amer­ica’s deal­ings with some of its au­to­cratic friends. But it would have the con­sid­er­able ben­e­fit of rec­og­niz­ing that, in an age when lib­er­al­ism and il­lib­er­al­ism are in­creas­ingly in con­flict, the U.S. will be hard-pressed to de­fend its in­ter­ests with­out also de­fend­ing its ideals.

Brands is a Bloomberg Opin­ion colum­nist, the Henry Kissinger Dis­tin­guished Pro­fes­sor at Johns Hop­kins Univer­sity’s School of Ad­vanced In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, and se­nior fel­low at the Cen­ter for Strate­gic and Bud­getary As­sess­ments. Most re­cently, he is the co-au­thor of “The Les­sons of Tragedy: State­craft and World Or­der.”

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