Tom Hanson introduces himself as a “recovering diplomat.” He worked for the State Department for 25 years, as an officer of the Foreign Service in the Soviet Union, East Germany and other European countries in the last years of the Cold War and its aftermath.

After he retired more than 10 years ago, he has served on Foreign Relations Committees in both the U.S. House and Senate and now lives in Minnesota. He is a Diplomat in Residence of at the University of Minnesota Duluth and the chair of the Minnesota Committee on Foreign Relations.

Because of this remarkable experience, I interviewed him about the Russia-China alliance, after the recent meeting between Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping, and the challenges for democracy in the world.

Thomas Hanson, during a lecture with the WPI fellows / Danilo Alves

What are the risks that the U.S. faces regarding the reinforced alliance between China and Russia?

Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was the National Security adviser (1977-1981), said that the one thing that could threaten America would be if we succeeded in pushing China, Russia and Iran together. We are in effect pushing China and Russia together, Taiwan and Ukraine as proxy wars. So, in this context, Russia becomes a very important factor that strengthens China. This is a structural long-term relationship that’s evolving and geographically it makes sense because they share the Eurasian landmass. This is a problem for the United States. And I’m wondering at what point we’re going to rethink this, the way we did in the early 1970s when Nixon went to China. It was the same logic: those two countries had been together in the ‘60s and they started to fall apart and we went in. But I don’t think this will happen again.

How do you see the future of U.S.-China relations?

First, we are now a very polarized country, and the one thing people agree on is China right now. During the Cold War, we had the Soviet threat. Now we have China’s threat to bring us together again. And we do feel challenged by China’s technology. So, it’s going to depend on the leadership of both countries, because if you really look at the world situation, the real threats are global and shared, such as climate change and the pandemics. I think it should be possible to stabilize the relationship again.

Apart from China and Russia, we see now other countries, such as Israel and India, where politicians are moving toward retaining their power. What do you see as the main challenge for democracy in the world?

It’s often elected politicians who once in office begin to wear away at the democracy and what they almost always go after is the judiciary. They go after the legal system, whether in Hungary with Viktor Orban or in Israel with Benjamin Netanyahu. That’s a threat from the inside. It’s like an ‘elected autocracy.’

Can you imagine that happening in the U.S.?

Well, we took some steps toward that with Trump. Interestingly, he didn’t try to weaken the court; he packed the court with conservatives. In other words, he legally recreated the court. And of course, the press. The way Trump demonized the press and tried to make it seem as if nothing could be trusted – that’s a big problem.