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Putin’s Saudi bromance is part of a bigger plan

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WASHINGTON – Sometimes a handshake can mean quite a lot. U.S. President 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 Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman at the Group of 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........

© The Japan Times