Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin are both 70 years old, which offers a ray of hope for those worried about their aggressive efforts to remake the world order. The next decade or two will likely bring leadership changes in China and Russia that could play a role in resetting their relationships with the West.
But for the foreseeable future the United States and its allies will face a dire threat: An axis of aging and nuclear-armed leaders who are running out of time to achieve their grandiose ambitions. As Mr. Putin’s misadventure in Ukraine has made clear, autocratic leaders don’t always peacefully fade away.
Aging dictators have less time to reshape the world — and more memories of being obeyed at home and dissed abroad for their conduct. They become increasingly repressive and aggressive as power goes to their heads. Surrounded by sycophants, they make disastrous decisions again and again. They start pondering their legacies and wondering why they haven’t received the global respect they think they deserve or achieved the glory that would etch their names among history’s greats. They may decide that they don’t want to go down as a merely transitional figure. It’s a combustible combination: An autocrat who is overconfident, aggrieved and in a hurry.
In his first few years in power in China, Mao Zedong envisioned that his plans to overtake the capitalist powers could take 50 to 75 years. But as he entered his mid-60s, Mao progressively shortened that timetable, and in 1958 launched the Great Leap Forward, a misguided scheme to quickly transform China into an industrial giant. At least 45 million people died of starvation or other causes as agriculture was neglected in the frenzy to meet Mao’s targets. Partly to rally the nation behind the campaign, Mao instigated an international crisis by shelling islands held by the Chinese Nationalist government on Taiwan. From 1966 to 1976, the aging Mao’s last-ditch effort to safeguard his rule and legacy resulted in the chaos of the Cultural Revolution.
Kim Il-sung of North Korea was another leader who acted aggressively in his later years. Emboldened by the U.S. quagmire in Vietnam and its subsequent military drawdown from Asia, he spent his third and fourth decades in power going from provocation to provocation. Between 1968 and 1988, his regime seized a U.S. intelligence ship and its crew; shot down a U.S. reconnaissance aircraft, killing all 31 aboard; tried to assassinate a South Korean president on multiple occasions and killed dozens of South Korean officials, including the first lady; bombed a South Korean airliner, killing all 115 aboard; and dug tunnels sufficient to transport 30,000 troops per hour into South Korea.
Elderly dictators rarely mellow out even when they are firmly in charge. Joseph Stalin emerged from World War II victorious in his mid-60s. Yet instead of working with his wartime allies he sought to dominate Eurasia and sent a new wave of prisoners to the gulag. Leonid Brezhnev initially pursued détente with the West. But in his second decade in power, the ailing Soviet leader took a more hostile stance, promoting Communist revolutions around the world, invading Afghanistan in 1979 and deploying advanced nuclear-tipped missiles aimed at Western Europe while awarding himself a chest full of medals.
Aging autocrats generally don’t change tack unless compelled to. Mao sought rapprochement with the United States only after the 1969 Sino-Soviet border conflict made it clear that China needed U.S. help to counter Moscow. Colonel Muammar el-Qaddafi gave up his weapons of mass destruction in 2003 due to various factors, including pressure from the United States. The Chinese Nationalist generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek and the South Korean strongman Syngman Rhee grudgingly suppressed their yearnings to conquer China and the Korean Peninsula, respectively, in part because they feared the United States would abandon them.
Which brings us back to Mr. Xi and Mr. Putin.
Rather than easing toward retirement, both men have aggressively asserted vast territorial claims, implemented mass military mobilizations, strengthened ties with illiberal regimes like North Korea and Iran and built up their cults of personality. After invading Ukraine, Mr. Putin explicitly compared himself to Peter the Great, the modernizing conqueror who founded the Russian empire, while Chinese Communist propaganda describes Mr. Xi as the culmination of a glorious trinity: Under Mao, China stood up; under Deng Xiaoping, China grew rich; and under Xi, China will become mighty.
Both have made plain their ambitions to redraw the map of Eurasia. Mr. Putin says Ukraine doesn’t exist as an independent country and has implied that Moscow should reunite the “Russian world” — an area that roughly maps the old Soviet borders. China’s claims include Taiwan, most of the South China Sea and East China Sea, and chunks of territory also claimed by India. “We cannot lose even one inch of the territory left behind by our ancestors,” Mr. Xi said in 2018.
Diplomacy did not dissuade Mr. Putin from invading Ukraine, and it is unlikely to alter Mr. Xi’s fixation on absorbing Taiwan, which he has framed as essential for realizing “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Revanchist dictators typically don’t respond to nice words. They must be blocked by alliances of powerful militaries and resilient economies.
Toward that end, the United States and its allies should accelerate arms transfers to frontline nations like Ukraine and Taiwan and forge an economic and security bloc to stockpile munitions and critical resources and protect international waters and allied territory. The West must band together to deprive Beijing and Moscow of any hope of easy wars of conquest.
During the Cold War, “containment” was designed to thwart Soviet expansion until internal decay forced Moscow to curtail its ambitions. That should be the same goal today, and it may not take half-a-century to get there. Russia is already in decline, China’s rise has stalled and both countries have made their neighbors wary. The United States and its allies do not need to contain Russia and China forever, just until current trends play out. Eventually, their leaders’ dreams of dominance will start to appear fanciful and their successors might decide to rectify their nations’ economic and strategic predicaments through geopolitical moderation and internal reform.
Until then, containing two aging dictators won’t be easy, but it provides the best hope of limiting the disruption they cause until they fade into the history books.
Michael Beckley is a political scientist at Tufts University, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and director of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute.
Source photographs by Hemera Technologies and Maciej Frolow, via Getty Images.
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