By Ian Bremmer
In the West, elites are under attack. As many of the world’s most influential political and business leaders gather in Davos, Switzerland, from Jan. 17 to Jan. 20, they will surely discuss, in public and private, how much things have changed since their gathering last year. Beyond Brexit and Trump, they’ll marvel at how Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan, last year’s enemies, have become today’s fast friends. And they’ll debate what this tells us about the year ahead.
When night fell on the Soviet Union on Dec. 25, 1991, many expected that the new Russia was poised to take first steps down the long and winding road toward partnership with the West. New values, new attitudes, new energy and a fresh start–a Davos idea if there ever was one. Only at the end of the wild and destructive 1990s was it clear that Russian leaders would choose a different path. The opening of the Putin era and the rise of oil prices brought a more assertive and decidedly less friendly Russia striding onto the world stage.
Turkey has followed a similar path in recent years. Europe invited Ankara to apply for accession to the European Union in 1999, assuming that negotiations toward membership in the world’s most desirable club would smooth away any uncivilized edges. But just as Putin chafed at Western condescension and imagined a Russian revival, so Erdogan fell back to dreams of Ottoman restoration and his authorship of it. Neither would “join the West.” Both would force the West to accept them as they are, and with respect.
For years, U.S. and European heads of state have pushed back at these ambitions as deviations from the inevitable march of history. But Donald Trump is different. He understands Erdogan’s and Putin’s dismissals of elite presumption and Western critics, and their appetite for independence and authoritarian control. With Trump’s Inauguration, Putin and Erdogan have a U.S. President who accepts them on their terms. Trump will expect cooperation on what he cares about, but he won’t tell anyone how to run their own enterprises.