The autocratic world will split before the west does

The best thing about the Sino-Soviet split was that it helped the west win the cold war. The second best was the sublime quality of the comrade-on-comrade hostilities. There were scholarly feuds about the interpretation of Marxist-Leninist scripture. There was the perhaps apocryphal but please-let-it-be-true response of Zhou Enlai, the son of mandarins, to Nikita Khrushchev, the son of toil, when teased for being posh. “We are both traitors to our class.”

Autocrats tend to fall out. The chauvinism that turns them against the west doesn’t suddenly dissolve in their relations with each other. From Operation Barbarossa to the Iran-Iraq war, what saved the liberal cause in the 20th century, besides American power, was the elusiveness of a common front against it.

The west must ensure the same thing happens in the 21st century. This means cultivating rogue regimes at times. It means teasing out the tensions between them. Autocracies are no less prone to quarrel than they were 50 years ago, when Richard Nixon shook Zhou’s hand amid the Peking-Moscow rift. The question is whether the west still has the art and cynicism to exploit the fact.

This summer, Joe Biden bumped fists with the Saudi crown prince that he wasted 18 months shunning as a brute. The displeasure of US liberals was loud. But it will be as nothing next to the rage of the right if he makes a similar overture to Iran. Gingerly, the White House is testing domestic opinion in advance of a potential revival of the nuclear pact.

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There are sound enough arguments against either or both of these rapprochements. But they must be weighed against the fact that both Saudi Arabia and Iran have alternative suitors in China and Russia. Both also have the wherewithal to ease the west’s energy problem. Even if, adjusting for all that, it is still right to freeze them out, the US will have to form relations of convenience with other unpleasant regimes in future. Or maintain existing ones. It cannot do so if it commits to a “democracies versus autocracies” framing of the world.

Fears abound of western exhaustion with the Ukraine war. The historical record suggests the authoritarian world will fracture first: if not over this, then something else. While liberal countries tend to be liberal in much the same way, there are flavours of autocracy, and they pair badly. The ethnic chauvinist hates the universal Marxist. The cleric hates the colonel. Two theocracies of different denominations hate each other. “Axis” was a kind word for a group of second world war belligerents — Germany, Italy and Japan — that rarely viewed each other as racial or civilisational equals.

Even where the ideologies match, raw egoism is the spoiler. A Kremlin grievance with Washington is that Russia is not viewed there as a great power. Its answer: to throw in its lot with a China that has 10 times the population and no obvious delicacy towards junior partners. The Sino-Soviet split began within a decade of the start of the cold war. Who sees this Russian-Chinese tryst lasting much longer?

It is not enough for the US to wait things out, though. It must be an active stoker of divisions. But that will require domestic politics that doesn’t go into meltdown each time the president uses cynical means to secure a liberal end.

The oddest thing about US statecraft is the combination of brilliant tactical flexibility and a refusal to acknowledge it in retrospect. The idea has taken hold that America got where it is by “standing up for our values”. In fact, the “rules-based liberal order” is also the accretion of lots of moral compromises in the past.

With a nuclear monopoly and a vast share of world economic output, there is a case for Harry Truman in mid-1945 being the most powerful human being who has ever lived. And still he didn’t feel able to purge Germany of all its ancien regime. He kept the emperor of Japan on the Chrysanthemum Throne. The CIA that he invented wasn’t above a bought election or coup d’état. If the US made moral accommodations at the all-time peak of its powers, how much more expedient will it have to be now?

Too expedient to avoid domestic rancour, it seems. The cries from the left (“sellout”) and right (“appeasement”) are distinct, but amount to the same constraint on foreign policy. The US, Nixon included, squandered resources and intellectual effort in the early cold war on the mistaken notion of “monolithic communism”. It shouldn’t fall for monolithic autocracy. Eventual victory lies in sensing then exploiting the cracks within illiberalism. While ethical squeamishness is natural, the higher ethic is to win.

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