Putin’s Saudi Bromance Is Part of a Bigger Plan
Hal Brands,Bloomberg Opinion columnist/Bloomberg
Russia and China are making moves on America’s illiberal allies.
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.