Who won the election? Putin and Xi, experts say

November 4, 2020, 9:52 PM UTC

An election that confirmed America’s deep societal fissures and which may yet wind up the subject of legal challenges is likely to delight the U.S.’s geopolitical rivals, China and Russia, according to foreign policy experts and market commentators.

“Two Presidents have emerged as clear winners of the U.S. election. Unfortunately, they’re sitting in Beijing and Moscow,” Richard Berry, a financial markets commentator at Goodmoneyguide.com, said Wednesday.

Berry predicted a period of “intense volatility” in U.S. and global equity markets that could last days or weeks. “We should expect a torrid time on the markets as millions of Americans awake to a nightmare all too reminiscent of the Bush-Gore paralysis of two decades ago,” he said.

Although the current uncertainty—and the potential legal wrangling between the campaigns of President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden—may paint American democracy in a poor light, it is actually the stark political polarization that may hobble the ability of the U.S. to be a “beacon of democracy” in the long term, providing space for China and Russia to disparage U.S. leadership.

Dana Allin, a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies (IISS), told Fortune that to the extent China and Russia view foreign policy as a zero-sum game, they may be happy to see U.S. democracy “brought down to size” through a contested election.

Peter Kammerer, a columnist for the South China Morning Post, recently wrote that both Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping “have held on to power by convincing their citizens that their systems of government are superior to the democracies of the West…The shouting matches at debates, the horrific mismanagement of the COVID-19 outbreak during which mask wearing and social distancing have been ridiculed, the collapse of the American economy and the extraordinary jobless figures have made it easy for the Chinese and Russian leaders to contend that democracy is broken, corrupt, and damaging.”

Not only do China and Russia benefit from U.S. political divisions, but both nations have an interest in exacerbating domestic conflict in the U.S. with the goal of making it more difficult for America to operate internationally, argues Janusz Bugajski, a senior fellow at the Center for European Policy Analysis in Washington, D.C.

“Kremlin disinformation offensives, increasingly mimicked by Beijing, have two strategic goals: to paralyze American democracy and incapacitate national decisions that challenge its global aspirations,” Bugajski wrote in The Hill earlier this year.

But both Allin and Bugajski note important differences between Russia’s and China’s aims.

“For Moscow, in an ideal world, Trump would be reelected with a freer hand to disregard his national security team by forging a partnership with Putin, lifting economic sanctions, sacrificing Europe’s East to Russia’s influence, and withdrawing American forces from Europe,” Bugajski wrote.

U.S. intelligence agencies have concluded Russia tried to interfere in both the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections, specifically to boost Trump’s electoral prospects.

Allin said the point of Russia’s disinformation campaigns was most likely less about getting Trump elected than about sowing division and casting doubt on the U.S. democratic process.

“In terms of propaganda, a delegitimized and deeply divided America has less standing to criticize Russia. And Russia probably likes that,” Allin said.

China “may be less supportive of a Trump presidency if the upshot is an intensified trade war and a U.S. campaign to discredit Beijing,” according to Bugajski. “But this will not signify support for presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden, who is likely to focus on China’s dismal human rights record. Instead, Beijing’s objective will be to deepen public distrust in the election process and denigrate American leadership.”

Allin concurred, noting that, while China initially viewed the Trump presidency hopefully, on the correct assumption that Trump would de-emphasize human rights, Beijing was stung by Trump’s willingness to engage in a bruising trade war with China and his efforts to hobble technology companies with ties to the Chinese government.

“They came to see the downsides of an unpredictable and erratic American foreign policy,” Allin said of Beijing.

That said, he noted, to the extent China is increasingly asserting its power both in Asia and around the world—and interested in forging a new relationship with the U.S. in this context—then “it is easier to cooperate with the U.S. if it is cut down to size a little bit.”

As for the suggestion, broached by some security analysts, that China might try to take advantage of any uncertainty over the U.S. election results or possible constitutional crisis to do something radical, such as launching an invasion of Taiwan or trying to grab other disputed territory in Asia, Allin said this would be a “a very dangerous move,” especially given Trump’s unpredictability. He thought it was unlikely that Beijing would take such a risk.