Their conduct suggests that they see less cost in challenging the United States and fewer rewards for acting as a partner. These calculations stem from two dangerous perceptions.

First, they see American decline and decadence. In their view, the United States is on the wrong side of history, holding on to ties with Europe and parts of Asia, while losing economic leverage and moral authority in the rest of the world. American disengagement from Iraq and Afghanistan without victory contributes to a related impression that America’s unquestioned military superiority isn’t worth much in terms of achieving policy objectives on the ground.

Second, many Russian and Chinese elites consider American foreign policy objectives fundamentally hostile to their vital interests. Neither group views American democracy promotion as reflecting any genuine commitment to freedom; instead, both perceive it as a selective crusade to undermine governments that are hostile to the United States or too powerful for its comfort.

Meanwhile, Russian and Chinese leaders make clear that Washington’s support for their neighbors in practically every dispute involving Beijing or Moscow is less a matter of respect for international law than a form of dual containment that seeks to curtail the regional and global influence of these two major powers.