Russia’s Vladimir Putin is backing Donald Trump. So too are a procession of autocrats and despots across the globe. The US president may have few friends among America's usual allies, but he sweeps the board in the contest with Democratic contender Joe Biden for the authoritarian vote.
It says something deeply depressing about the damage Mr Trump has inflicted on liberal democracy that the world's self-styled strongmen are almost at one in backing the re-election of the supposed leader of the free world. How do you make the case for an international order built on the rule of law when the US president once told Chinese premier Xi Jinping he was relaxed about locking up Uighurs.
The idea of the west as the guardian of liberty and law took a bad knock in the Iraq war. The 2008 financial crash put a similar dent in the let-the-markets-rip ideology of the Washington consensus. Mr Trump's contribution to global affairs has been to strip away what remained of America's moral authority.
The US built the postwar order around a system of rules. Mr Trump says everyone should be a selfish nationalist. He boasts of a close rapport with revisionist leaders such as Mr Putin and Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and does nothing to conceal his disdain for those such as Germany’s Angela Merkel who want to uphold those rules.
Mr Putin's enthusiasm for Mr Trump needs little explanation. According to John Bolton, the former US national security adviser, the Russian leader must have been “laughing uproariously at what he had gotten away with” after the 2018 summit in Helsinki at which Mr Trump took Moscow's side over that of the US intelligence agencies which had uncovered Russian interference in the 2016 election. “I think Mr Putin thinks he can play him like a fiddle,” Mr Bolton has said.
The Kremlin has claimed two big strategic prizes: US permission for Russian revanchism in Ukraine and for its push into the Middle East, and uncertainty about the US security guarantee to Europe through Nato. Mr Trump would have offered more had it not been for pushback in Congress.
Turkey and a clutch of Middle Eastern countries have been given similar impunity. After a difficult start, Mr Trump tacitly blessed Mr Erdogan's expulsion of Kurdish forces from northern Syria and dispatch of military forces to Libya. Turkey is aggressively expanding its regional power base in the eastern Mediterranean. A member of Nato, it now buys sophisticated Russian military equipment without facing any sanction from Washington.
In the Gulf, Mr Trump's only concern is to maintain his hardline stance against Iran. He has overlooked Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's alleged role in the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, while Riyadh has been given a free hand to pursue its bloody war against Iranian-backed insurgents in Yemen. Likewise, the United Arab Emirates has been unconstrained in intervening in the Libyan civil war.
The common denominator is Mr Trump's view of foreign policy as about personal relationships and deals. His transactional approach leaves no place for grand strategies, let alone values. The same mindset explains his warm relationships with fellow hardline nationalists such as India's Nahendra Modi, lauded by the US president as a “great leader and loyal friend”. For his part, Israel's self-styled strongman Benjamin Netanyahu has won backing for dismantling what remains of the framework for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
That leaves Mr Xi’s regime in Beijing. It may be the exception. The Chinese leader is no enthusiast for Mr Biden, and the Democrats would take as tough a line as Republicans over trade and technology, but western intelligence agencies think Beijing's view may now be anyone but Trump.
Mr Xi was once hailed by Mr Trump as a man he could business with — until he decided there were votes to be won in bashing Beijing. The president has since put himself at the head of the China hawks in Washington. Escalating trade sanctions and efforts to cripple Chinese technology companies are now accompanied by presidential invective about “the China virus”.
As a rule of thumb, Chinese leaders have preferred dealing with Republicans over Democrats mainly because the former have tended not to mix up bilateral negotiations with broader questions of human rights.
China, though, needs economic stability to meet its great power ambitions. Mr Xi could have decided a tough relationship with Mr Biden is preferable to Mr Trump's combustibility. That seems to be the view of William Evanina, director of the US National Counterintelligence and Security Center: “China prefers that President Trump — whom Beijing sees as unpredictable — does not win re-election.” By contrast, “we assess that Russia is using a range of measures to primarily denigrate former vice-president Biden".
Whatever such fine calculations — and we are still waiting to hear from North Korea's Kim Jong Un — it is clear the outcome of the election will have a profound effect on the wider contest between democracy and authoritarianism. Democracy has been fighting with its hands tied behind its back. A US president ready to hold his interlocutors to some minimum standards of behaviour would at least cut the bonds.
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