A geopolitical earthquake has shaken US leadership in the world — Russia and China stand to benefit

Key Points
  • The geopolitical landscape is shifting in a way that threatens the political and economic world the U.S. did so much to create.
  • In the face of a polarized and distracted Washington, countries like China and Russia see new opportunities to accelerate their gains.
  • It's time to recognize the fact that a geopolitical earthquake is under way, Frederick Kempe writes. 
President Donald Trump talks to reporters about Turkey's agreement to a ceasefire in Syria as he arrives at Naval Air Station Joint Reserve Base Fort Worth in Fort Worth, Texas, October 17, 2019.
Jonathan Ernst | Reuters

You could feel the unmistakable rumble of a geopolitical earthquake this week.

Though the tremors have long been evident, it's growing clearer with each day that we're experiencing a seismic shift that is threatening the political and economic world the United States did so much to create.

What's also clear is that those countries challenging American leadership most – China most profoundly and Russia with increasing intensity – see new opportunities to accelerate their gains in the face of a polarized and distracted Washington through November 2020 elections – and beyond.

From Syria to Ukraine, and from Afghanistan to Africa, the tectonic plates are shifting in a manner that threatens not only the credibility and durability of US global leadership but also the democratic values, the Western institutions and the alliance structures that it has inspired for the past seventy years and since World War II.

You could feel the tremors in President Trump's decision to advance troop withdrawal from Syria and his abandonment of Kurdish allies in Syria. That was followed by Russian, Turkish, Iranian and Syrian actions to translate US decisions into their gains. Moscow emerged as the fastest rising Mideast power broker.

You could feel the quake in Russian President Vladimir Putin's six-hour meeting with Turkish President Erdogan at Putin's own version of Mar-a-Lago, his summer home in Sochi. It was there that he and this NATO ally, who recently bought the S-400 air defense system from Moscow in defiance of the West, talked about how they and other regional players would carve up control of Northeastern Syria to serve their interests.

And one could feel the aftershocks as far away as Paris, where French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with increased frustration about President Trump and NATO.

"I consider what happened in the last few days (in northern Syria) to be a serious mistake by the West and NATO in the region," Macron said after a European Council summit in Brussels. "It weakens our credibility in finding partners on the ground who will be by our side and who think they will be protected in the long term. So that raises questions about how NATO functions."

The geopolitical shift also was evident this week in President Putin's hosting also in Sochi of Russia's first-ever Africa summit, another maneuver to profit from a distracted America. He welcomed more than 40 African leaders with a focus on building defense relationships, providing fellow authoritarian leaders with the tools to maintain power and seeking trade deals particularly focused on energy and mining.

A week earlier, the earthquake's location was the Gulf, where President Putin visited Saudi Arabia for the first time in a dozen years. The recent attack on Saudi oil fields, which prompted little response from Washington, and the increased ostracization by Congress and others of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman – following the October 2018 murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi – has left Riyadh even more open to Putin's entreaties.

From 2014, Moscow and Riyadh have grown closer through a bilateral effort both at the top leadership level and through their ministers to work on what is known as the OPEC+ deal on reducing oil output to stabilize prices. Putin's most recent trip produced a number of new agreements, importantly including a charter on long-term cooperation between OPEC countries and producers that are not part of the cartel that was signed by Putin and Saudi Arabia's King Salman.

"Putin must be looking out at the world and savoring the fact that things are going his way," said Angela Stent of Georgetown University, one of America's leading experts on Russian affairs.

Three weeks ago, Stent attended the 15th annual gathering of the Valdai Discussion Club in Sochi, where Putin sets the agenda each year before an international audience. "The message we received," said Stent, "was that the West is on the decline, Pax Americana is over, and at the dawn of this new era, Russia, China and India will lead a new 'democratic' multipolar order."

Putin praised President Trump in his address to the group for his "brave actions" in reaching out to North Korea to avoid war, which he called a product of Trump's "non-standard thinking." When Stent asked Putin how Russia would deal with an increasingly unpredictable U.S. during the 2020 election campaign and impeachment proceedings, Putin shrugged: "Life goes on, and we will work with the United States."

Though it has been Russia that has been at the forefront of events in the past week, it is clearly China that has made the greatest and potentially most lasting global inroads. It has done so most prominently through its Belt and Road Initiative, which among other things is the most ambitious infrastructure development initiative in history.

Less noticed have been unprecedented efforts at diplomatic outreach, the newest of these reaching directly into an ongoing U.S. initiative. This week, for example, Afghan officials said China is organizing talks among Afghanistan's rival factions after negotiations broke down between the Taliban and the United States.

One shouldn't exaggerate the lasting impact of any the above events – and many more could be included – on U.S. global leadership. It's also true that the United States continues to enjoy unique advantages that have served it well in the past and would do so again in the future – resilient institutions, a dynamic and job-creating economy and overwhelming military capabilities.

It's also true that authoritarian systems like those of China and Russia have built in disadvantages that could undermine them over time. China faces aging demographics, slowing growth, Hong Kong protests, and authoritarian structures that may prove brittle in the face of new challenges. Russia's structural problems are far deeper, and no one can predict the shape of a post-Putin world.

That said, it's time to recognize the fact that a geopolitical earthquake is under way. Its consequences will grow only greater the longer we are distracted by our own domestic political ferment and fail to respond with a seriousness and strategy that is equal to the challenge.

Frederick Kempe is a best-selling author, prize-winning journalist and president & CEO of the Atlantic Council, one of the United States' most influential think tanks on global affairs. He worked at The Wall Street Journal for more than 25 years as a foreign correspondent, assistant managing editor and as the longest-serving editor of the paper's European edition. His latest book – "Berlin 1961: Kennedy, Khrushchev, and the Most Dangerous Place on Earth" – was a New York Times best-seller and has been published in more than a dozen languages. Follow him on Twitter @FredKempe and subscribe here to Inflection Points, his look each Saturday at the past week's top stories and trends.