Butterfly Effect: Why Putin, Xi and AMLO Are Mum on Biden - OZY | A Modern Media Company


Russia, China, Mexico and others are worried about what Trump might do over the next 10 weeks.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Vladimir Putin. Xi Jinping. Jair Bolsonaro. Andres Manuel López Obrador. The presidents of Russia, China, Brazil and Mexico share an authoritarian mindset and a disregard for institutional checks and balances against their power.

They’re also the only major global leaders who so far have not congratulated Joe Biden on winning the presidential election, instead suggesting they’ll do so once legal challenges planned by President Donald Trump have been exhausted.

It’s easy to misread this as tacit support for Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud, or to see it as these nations forewarning America of coming tensions with a Biden administration.

But the truth, which is rooted in the vulnerabilities of these countries’ leaders, is more complex. Trump will still be in power for another 10 weeks. Simply put, just like America is on tenterhooks over how Trump might behave until Jan. 20, 2021, so are these nations. They either have much to lose from angering Trump in the next two months, or need time for a reset before they can convincingly embrace Biden.

Putin wouldn’t mind if the political chaos and instability in the U.S. stemming from Trump’s refusal to concede were to continue a little longer. Anything that helps undermine the credibility of American democracy in the eyes of U.S. and global citizens is good for Moscow. Xi and China won’t mind either.

But China’s economy is finally recovering after COVID-19, and Beijing doesn’t want an angry Trump to lash out with more sanctions and trade barriers in this period. Already, the Trump administration has indicated it has plans for additional sanctions over Beijing’s crackdowns in Hong Kong using a controversial national security law. Likewise, Trump has the economic and strategic weapons as U.S. president to tighten the screws on Moscow over the next two months. Putin and Xi know that any steps Trump takes now against Russia and China won’t be easy for Biden to reverse: The president-elect has no soft corner for either of America’s principal rivals and is under pressure from Republicans to demonstrate he’ll be particularly tough with Beijing.

Closer to home, Mexico and its president — who is popularly known as AMLO — have for some time treated Trump like a raging bull that needs to be kept under control. Even though AMLO and Biden have met previously, the Mexican leader refused to meet the former U.S. vice president when he visited Washington in July, ostensibly so he wouldn’t appear even tangentially to be endorsing either candidate in the presidential race. But AMLO did dine with Trump that same month.

Trump launched his campaign five years ago with a racist rant against Mexico and since then has made tight border restrictions a central element of his administration’s relationship with its southern neighbor. What if a frustrated Trump unleashes a final anti-migrant policy that hurts Mexico and Central America in a bid to cement his legacy before he leaves office? Even if any such move is reversed by Biden, it could cause significant distress to Mexico in the short run. AMLO won’t want to do anything to provoke Trump while he’s still in the White House.

Further south in Brazil, Bolsonaro has publicly said he would have preferred Trump to win the election, and he criticized Biden during the U.S. campaign when the former vice president proposed the creation of a global fund to help battle the Amazon fires. He’ll come around — the two largest economies in the Americas need to work with each other; they don’t have an option. But it won’t happen overnight.

Make no mistake: The delayed acknowledgment of Biden as president-elect by these world leaders is recognition of the significant tools Trump still has at his disposal on foreign policy for another two months. There’s plenty Trump can still do to complicate the world map that Biden will inherit. These countries don’t want to get caught in that crossfire.

But they’ve quietly started reaching out to Biden. Even Putin, under whom Russia has interfered in successive U.S. presidential elections to assist Trump, has made overtures to the former vice president. As Trump’s refusal to accept the inevitable weakens and Jan. 20 nears, expect outreach from these leaders to Biden to turn increasingly public. They know that the levers of power that are currently in Trump’s hands will soon lie with Biden. Without them, Trump’s unpredictable behavior is not so scary.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

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