Do Other Great Powers Have a Rooting Interest in the 2024 U.S. Presidential Election?

Some revealing stories about what China and Russia think about Biden vs. Trump

By Daniel Drezner, Professor of International Politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy

Yesterday the Daily Beast’s Allison Quinn wrote up a quick story about Vladimir Putin making fun of Donald Trump’s insecurities vis-à-vis Joe Biden. That is not terribly surprising — Putin likes to do that with everyone, as Tucker Carlson found out rather painfully last month. What did surprise me were these paragraphs at the end of Quinn’s story:

Putin went on to say he was then surprised to see Trump being criticized for having the support of the Kremlin, claiming it was “complete nonsense.”

It was not immediately clear where and when Trump allegedly brought up “Sleepy Joe” with the Russian leader, or why Trump would have been discussing the Kremlin’s desires for the 2020 U.S. election. Last month, Putin raised eyebrows by explicitly speaking out in favor of Biden for the 2024 election, telling a reporter, “He is a more experienced, predictable person, an old-school politician.”

My eyebrows also went up, because I confess I missed that particular comment from Putin. Quinn’s account is accurate, however, as this February 2024 Reuters storyconfirms: 

Russian President Vladimir Putin said in an interview broadcast on Wednesday that he preferred Joe Biden to Donald Trump but was willing to work with any U.S. president.

Putin was asked by interviewer Pavel Zarubin who was “better for us” out of Biden, a Democrat, and Trump, a Republican.

Putin replied without hesitation: “Biden. He is a more experienced, predictable person, a politician of the old school.”

The hard-working staff here at Drezner’s World would like everyone to pause for a second for some epic eye-rolling. The guy who can’t go a hot minute without telling some reporter about Russia’s willingness to use nuclear weapons declares that what he craves above all else is predictability?1 Whatever, dude.

As it turns out, however, in late January the Associated Press’ Didi Tang and Ken Moritsugu wrote a similar take — not about Putin, but about how China’s leadership views the 2024 election: 

Neither candidate is particularly appealing to Beijing. While Biden has looked for areas of cooperation with China, Beijing is concerned about his efforts to unite allies in the Indo-Pacific in a coalition against China. It’s also nervous about his approach to Taiwan after he has repeatedly said he would have U.S. troops defend it in a conflict with China.

Trump, with his isolationist approach to foreign policy, might be more hesitant to defend Taiwan. But nothing can be ruled out given his unpredictability and his tough rhetoric on China, which he blames for the COVID-19 outbreak that dogged the end of his term. He also could deepen a trade war that hasn’t eased since his presidency.

“For China, no matter who won the U.S. presidential election, they would be two ‘bowls of poison’,” said Zhao Minghao, a professor of international relations at Fudan University in Shanghai….

Zhao’s views are echoed by a number of analysts in both countries, who suggest Beijing may find Biden the lesser of two evils for his steadiness over Trump’s unpredictability but also point out that the Chinese government agonizes over Biden’s success in building partnerships to counter China.

In China’s social media, many commentators appear to be favoring Trump, whom they see not only as a businessman up for a deal but also a disruptive force that undermines American democracy and U.S. global leadership to the benefit of Beijing. Trump’s policies and remarks as president earned him the nickname of Chuan Jianguo, or “Trump, the (Chinese) nation builder,” an implication that he was helping Beijing.

Trump’s recent accusation that Taiwan took the chip-making industry from the U.S. has been seen as a sign that Trump, a businessman at heart, may not be willing to defend the self-governed island that Beijing considers to be Chinese territory.

This is pretty interesting! It also suggests a different risk appetite from Beijing and Moscow than I might have otherwise predicted. 

The clear inference from these reports is that both Russian and Chinese policymakers would prefer Trump if all they cared about was maximizing their own short-term interests. Putin is no doubt keenly aware what Trump would like to do to NATO. Calling Trump the “Chinese nation builder” speaks volumes about what Chinese officials think about about him.

But both stories also make it clear that the variance on Trump’s behavior is so wide that it introduces considerable unpredictability into the international system. At this point, Trump supporters will no doubt proclaim, “that’s the point!” Indeed, Trump’s modus operandi in foreign policy is to be tactically unpredictable as a means to through everyone else off-balance. Trump is a big fan of the “madman theory” of foreign policy, in which he can extract greater concessions if his bargaining counterparts believes he really will do crazy things. 

As I warned back in 2016, however, this approach is unlikely to yield much in the way of concessions: “If allies — or enemies — stop believing what they hear from the White House, Trump is likely to blunder into conflicts that are not of his own choosing.” Indeed, any survey of Trump’s coercive bargaining strategy from his first term will find that he only secured meaningful concessions from states that are asymmetrically vulnerable to U.S. pressure. And neither Russia nor China are asymmetrically vunerable. 

As for the madman theory, let’s just say the evidence for it yielding much in the way of bargaining concessions is meager. This is particularly true for Trump, whose articulation of the madman theory is so transparent that it gives the game away. 

What these reports suggest is that even Russia and China have some degree of risk aversion when it comes to who is president of the United States. Biden is obviously worse for them in the short run, because he is better at fostering U.S. alliances that would counter Russian and Chinese threats. But while Trump 2.0 might help them in the short run, his blunderings on the world stage represent a level of uncertainty that neither country likes. 1

There is something about Putin that brings out the eye-rolling from world leaders.

(This post is republished from Drezner’s World.)

Leave a Reply