‘Succession’: the Xi, Putin and Biden editions

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Truth is often stranger than fiction. But it was the approaching release of Season 3 of Succession, the lightly fictionalised drama about the internecine family battles to succeed a media mogul, Logan Roy (a thinly disguised Rupert Murdoch), that prompted this note.

As well as being top calibre drama, Succession offers a brilliant tutorial on the instability that inevitably results from lack of succession planning. It is a problem that plagues companies and countries alike; democratic parties and autocratic regimes. It used mostly to be about tsars and monarchs. I could write a whole note about poor old Prince Charles but the Financial Times is biased towards more consequential successions.

In the next three years, the world’s three most powerful countries all face a transfer-of-power hump. History teaches us that the absence of legitimate succession is the likeliest moment for coups, assassination, civil war and upheaval. Admittedly, one of the big three, the US, is a democracy, which usually means that things will be fine. But with Joe Biden over 80 years of age by then, and Donald Trump threatening to run again, no sane person should bet on a smooth US election in 2024. The more obvious landmines, however, lie in China and Russia.

Next year, we will find out if Xi Jinping plans to extend his rule with an unprecedented third presidential term, or beyond, as he has enabled himself to do by scrapping China’s two-term limit. Likewise, in 2024 we will find out if Vladimir Putin will relinquish the Russian presidency, as its constitution mandates he should, and if so, whether he will transfer real power to the newly formed State Council, which he plans to head.

The more uncertainty there is, the greater the chance of violence and upheaval. As my former colleague, Richard McGregor, cites in this superb Lowy Institute paper on the looming Xi succession crisis (co-authored with Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies), roughly half of China’s 289 emperors across 49 dynasties were deposed by murder, forced suicide, exile, overthrow or forced abdication. Likewise, 41 per cent of the world’s autocrats either experience death, exile or imprisonment within a year of leaving office, according to a Harvard study. If you are Xi or Putin, that’s a pretty disturbing batting average. The same is true of only 7 per cent of democratic leaders. The prospect of a serious power struggle in China, Russia and the US within the next few years is one to which any student of global stability should pay close attention. In each case the risks are way higher than non-trivial. 

It is hard to know which of Putin or Xi is less secure. Putin is reputed to be worth at least $50bn according to estimates of all the wealth he has salted away through middlemen, cronies, judo instructors and viola teachers in offshore accounts. No premium on earth could insure that. The odds that Putin would find a trustworthy stooge to take over the reins and leave him unmolested are too low for him to risk. But the chances that he would fall victim to an insider assassination or an old-fashioned coup will rise with each year that he continues to monopolise power. It is the dilemma of the autocrat throughout the ages.

In some respects Xi faces an even worse quandary. Unlike Putin, who must at least pretend he will relinquish the Russian presidency in 2024, which gives him some protection from rivals until then, Xi could be president for life — a feat that Trump unhelpfully highlighted when he congratulated Xi on changing China’s constitution. As McGregor and Blanchette show, Xi could buy himself protection by announcing a successor to take over in 2027 or 2032, depending on whether he wants three or four terms. But that also carries risks. Having made so many internal enemies through sweeping corruption purges, Xi is facing Thomas Jefferson’s old quandary on slavery. Do you keep holding on to the wolf’s ears forever, or do you let go and risk it turning on you?

It is worth noting that Xi has aggrandised more titles to himself (not just the presidency, head of the party and head of the military commission) than any leader since Mao Zedong. That likely betrays his insecurity and brittleness. Deng Xiaoping, China’s most powerful modern leader, who instituted the two-term rule in 1982, held just one job in the last six (but powerful) years of his life — honorary chair of the Chinese Bridge Association. Imagine the self-confidence of that. Meanwhile, Putin will be aware that Mikhail Gorbachev was the first, and last, Russian leader in 1,000 years not to die in office, peacefully or violently. There is no precedent for genteel retirement in Russian history. Can you imagine Putin as a trailblazer?

In the case of the Roy and Murdoch families, we should all crave gory succession crises. With the Roys it means more of the best HBO has to offer, which is saying something. In the case of the Murdochs it could lead to the break-up of Fox News, which every democracy-loving westerner should crave. If a Fox break-up did happen before 2024, its absence might reduce the chances of another contested US presidential election. But I’m straying into wishful thinking. Rana, do you watch Succession? (I can’t imagine that you wouldn’t. If not, please account for yourself.) If you do, can you recommend any better tutorial for the potential succession crises that I’ve outlined?

Recommended reading

  • While I’m on the subject of succession, my column this week looks at how the Republican party has given up any pretence of being post-Trumpian — as the January 6 congressional hearings showed this week. “It is the enablers who change history,” I write. This week in Washington there were profiles in courage and profiles in nihilism.

  • My colleague Gideon Rachman had an excellent column on the dangers of Biden’s withdrawal from Afghanistan — a move that could result in tragedy. Sadly Gideon is right. I still don’t fathom this otherwise cautious administration’s cost-benefit analysis about the risks of a Taliban takeover.

  • Do also read this thoughtful Atlantic essay by Elizabeth Bruenig on Amy Chua, the controversial Yale Law School professor, and author of Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, who has the single-handed ability to send august publications and Ivy League faculties into frenzied orbits. It is hard to explain why Chua gets so much airtime unless you see her as a raw nerve in the liberal culture wars.

  • Finally, do listen to this rich and varied conversation between Tyler Cowen, the eclectic Washington-based economist, and Niall Ferguson, the Hoover Institution-based British historian. I don’t align with either of their world views (Cowen is a libertarian and Ferguson is an often pugilistic conservative). This podcast gave me plenty of food for thought.

Rana Foroohar responds

Ed, but of course I watch Succession. Covering the terrain that I do on Wall Street and Washington, I often feel I could be an extra in it. What lessons do I take from it? First, it’s better to be a daughter than a son. You get to be a bit more free-range and people don’t expect you to live up to Daddy (though as Elisabeth Murdoch stand-in Shiv Roy proves, whether you can be a Daddy’s girl and have a decent marriage is another thing).

Which brings me to the Great Man theory of history. Do we believe it’s all about the individual? Or do the fates of companies and countries hang on larger forces? When it comes to corporations, I would argue the former, particularly when so much corporate value now lives in brand. But for countries these days, there are simply too many vectors in play — from the power of decentralised technology to the surprises of markets and climate change (and its fallout, from pandemics to migration) — to guarantee that the plans of any particular autocrat (or Democrat) will hold. If I had to bet on the staying power of Xi, Putin or Biden, I think I’d have to go with Xi for the next few years. But as any binge watcher of Succession knows, plot twists are all part of the fun of TV and dysfunctional families.

Your feedback

And now a word from our Swampians . . . 

In response to ‘Covid, climate change and our tragedy of the commons’:

“It strikes me that the ‘social contract’ theorists describe liberty as though it were an absolute possession that is then given up to a ‘higher’ authority subject to certain rights — a bit like you might sell some land, subject to a right of way for you to cross over it. But I think a better analogy is a group of people playing a football match and agreeing to appoint a referee and assistants. They know the rules of the game and are expected to comply with them, and the referee is there to deal with infringements, rather than to lay down the law from on high. The players accept obligations to play within the rules, so it’s not a free for all. You could argue against this football match analogy that there is an existing knowledge of the rules of the game, so it’s not the same as humans forming a society. But societies didn’t come into existence from nothing — there must have been some pre-existing norms — just as the US constitution didn’t just drop out of the sky. So freedom is more a way of conducting yourself than a possession. And it is not absolute.” — Richard Lawes, Norwich, England

Catch up on previous Swamp Notes on FT.com.

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