It is no coincidence that Putin and Xi have consolidated their control over precious goals, as the clock ends with Trump’s first and possibly only term in office.
Last week, in a referendum on constitutional revisions so predictable that copies were for sale before the vote, Putin was effectively named president for life, as Xi moved just as ruthlessly, taking control of Hong Kong through a new national security law, calling on the allies of the United States, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom to stay out of China’s internal affairs.
Both appear to be of the opinion that the United States has neither the will nor the consistency to resist. In fact, the Trump White House gave evidence of exactly this week, seeking a consistent response to allegations that Russia paid the Taliban to kill US forces in Afghanistan. The Russian embassy in Washington and the Taliban have denied the claims.
As David Ignatius wrote in The Washington Post this week, Putin “is in the business of retribution. He believes the United States destroyed his former country, the Soviet Union. He likes the United States to feel pain.” You now have many years for more recovery.
According to White House Under Secretary of the Press Sarah Matthews: “President Trump is a world-class negotiator who has consistently promoted the interests of the United States on the world stage.”
Former top U.S. officials gave CNN contributor Carl Bernstein a very different opinion. They thought Trump was “raving” about his ability to tilt other leaders onto his agenda, believing that he could “charm, deceive, or intimidate almost any foreign leader into capitulating to his will.”
Whether it is Putin’s recovery or Xi’s decision to violate and destroy the Hong Kong agreement signed with the United Kingdom in 1984, both leaders seem to see opportunities.
Come back three years. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov entered the Oval Office the day after Trump fired James Comey as director of the FBI. Comey was overseeing the investigation of allegations of meddling in the Russian election. An official Russian photographer captured the bonhomie as Trump told his visitors, “I just fired the FBI chief. He was crazy, a real crazy job.”
Two months later, Trump met Putin, alone, on the sidelines of the G20 summit. The White House announced the meeting as a success, highlighting a new ceasefire agreement in Syria. The Russians cynically used the deal to freeze the conflict, allowing the Russian-backed Assad regime to pick up rebel-controlled areas one by one.
Trump could have protested, ripped the deal, forged a new American policy on Syria that would have reduced Russia’s growing influence in the Middle East. Instead, he bought the lie.
It would be a recurring theme. Former Trump national security adviser John Bolton recalls in his new book “The Room Where It Happened” Trump’s 2018 meeting with Putin in Helsinki, Finland.
“Putin had to laugh out loud at what he had gotten away with,” Bolton writes, after Trump accepted Putin’s assurances that there was no Russian interference in the 2016 US campaign.
As fast forward for this year as Putin, in power for 20 years, he needed a constitutional solution to last longer. He seems to reckon that despite stringent U.S. sanctions for his invasion of Ukraine and the poisoning of exiled ex-agent Sergei Skripal in the UK, Trump will not reject what he does at home.
He was correct. He is now effectively president for life, hoping to emulate Soviet leaders by giving up his grave alone.
Xi’s experience with Trump has been different. Engaged in a trade war, he has had to calculate Trump’s true intention: on money, human rights issues, like the Uighurs or Hong Kong, and simply stop the emergence of the world’s next superpower.
At a large and raucous business dinner in Beijing two years ago, I sat next to a former Chinese ambassador. The trade war was just beginning to escalate, but tariffs on solar panels, washing machines, steel, soybeans and aluminum were already affecting China’s results.
The diplomat, who had spent many years in Europe, told me in very precise terms that Trump was intentionally preventing China from taking its rightful place in the world as an advanced high-tech economy.
I can be sure of what I would say now as the Trump administration tries to persuade allies not to allow Huawei 5G technology to enter their digital bloodstream.
But those allies are less willing to say no, in part because of China’s trade power, but also because its relations with the United States have weakened.
This week alone, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who according to Bernstein sources was criticized by Trump in phone calls, seemed to reject Trump’s tactics in China, saying that “only together can 27 EU member countries have enough weight to achieve ambitious agreements with China. “
While Trump has been applauded for confronting China over his trade policies, trade espionage, and intellectual property theft, his tactics face strong criticism.
All of this will have been in Xi’s calculations of Trump, whether it is an existential threat to China’s rise to be the world superpower or a prelude to a smarter adversary with the same goal.
Xi appears to have confined himself to the latter, choosing to act now against Hong Kong’s determined pro-democracy movement, and pushing the narrative that the West is behind him, before he became a real thorn in his side.
The new Hong Kong National Security Law, promulgated in Beijing this week and immediately applied on the streets of the territory, changes the rules of the game. According to the United Kingdom, it breaks the 1984 Sino-British joint declaration of one country and two systems.
The question that historians may well debate in the future is not whether the Trump presidency affected Putin’s and Xi’s decisions, but how much their delusions changed the world in their favor.