Edward Lucas is a senior editor at The Economist, at which he was the Moscow bureau chief from 1998 to 2002. He also is senior vice president at the Center for European Policy Analysis, a Washington think tank. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own.
(CNN)The first day of the G20 summit in Hamburg was notable for the attention given to Donald Trump's first face-to-face meeting with Vladimir Putin and the ferocity of the day's protests.
It would be nice to think that the protesters were particularly irked by the sight of two autocratic, media-hating leaders with dodgy business connections getting together. Sadly, the Trump-Putin meeting is a sideshow as far as the anti-globalization movement is concerned. They object to the whole idea of the G20, seeing the summit as the epitome of a global system based on a rapacious economic model and run by unaccountable elites.
While they are catching their breath from attacking the police and burning things down, the protesters might like to think how much worse they would fare if the summit were in Moscow or Beijing. Western democracies have many faults, but they do allow peaceful protest. Russia -- and China -- treat dissent much more harshly.
The protesters are greatly fired up by imperialism. Yet the biggest imperialists at the G20 are not the Western countries but the Russian and Chinese leaders. Xi Jinping's Communist Party occupies Tibet (and East Turkestan and Inner Mongolia). Mr. Putin's Kremlin has savagely crushed the Chechens, and pursues a chauvinist Russians-first policy in republics of the Russian Federation such as Tatarstan, Bashkiria, Mari-El and Komi. I doubt the protesters have ever heard of these places.
It is also odd that protesters hate President Trump, as he shares their disdain for the global trading system. Admittedly, they disagree about the nature of that unfairness -- Trump dislikes the rules-based international order because he thinks it is unfair to America, the biggest and richest country in the world, while the protesters object to the way the system is tilted against poor countries. But that is a secondary point.
The Trump-Putin meeting went on longer than expected -- for two and a half hours rather than the planned 30 minutes. That is apparently good news. I disagree. Half an hour was more than adequate for the necessary messages, which should have been on the lines of "Mr. Putin, we know what you are up to. Stop it." If further elaboration were needed, it could have included the line, "We know where you and your cronies keep your money. If you want to see it again, back off."
Instead, Trump seems to have decided to treat Putin as an equal. This is a big mistake. Russia's population is less than half of the United States. Its GDP is less than a single good-sized American state. It has a lot of nuclear weapons, true, but most of them are obsolete. Russia's defense modernization is ambitious, but running out of money. Russia's only real asset is that Putin can act quickly -- recklessly some might say -- in foreign policy, exemplified by invading Ukraine and propping up the regime in Syria.
Yet in the bilateral meeting, the leaders met as equals. Each was accompanied only by a foreign minister -- Sergei Lavrov for Russia, Rex Tillerson for America. That looked odd. America has colossal expertise on Russia, but Trump disdains it. And Tillerson is an able oilman but a newcomer to diplomacy. The Russian duo, by my count, had 62 years of experience between them; the Americans had just under a year.
Trump, under fire at home for many shortcomings and missteps, craves adulation. He reveled in his reception in Warsaw, where he delivered an incoherent and bombastic speech about Western civilization (main point: don't let people push you around).
Now he has pulled off a meeting with Putin, which he can portray as a diplomatic breakthrough. The Kremlin leader promised him that Russia had not meddled in American politics. Trump, himself dubious about those claims, has accepted the assurance. The two countries are going to cooperate in some vague project on cyber-security, and keep talking on Ukraine and Syria.
This is not the "grand bargain" of European nightmares six months ago, in which Trump would abandon NATO in return for Russian help in other trouble spots. I doubt very much that Trump's administration will find it any easier to make practical progress with Russia than previous efforts: remember the "reset"? Or before that the Gore-Chernomyrdin commission?
But it is still troubling. One especially concerning part of the apparent agreement was that their countries should not meddle in each other's affairs. That puts America and Russia on the same moral plane. Big mistake: Western efforts to promote democracy in Russia -- for example by helping civil-society groups monitor elections to stop them being rigged -- are hardly the same as Russia's use of cyber-attacks to steal and leak private e-mails in order to smear politicians and sow mistrust and discord.
Amid all the sound and fury in Hamburg, the real point is that the Western democracies are facing a severe challenge from varying blends of authoritarian populist crony-capitalism. Russia and China are the most egregious examples, Turkey is becoming one, with Hungary, Poland and the Philippines all in the same orbit.
On the other side are Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, along with Justin Trudeau and some other Western leaders, championing and reviving the Western liberal order. The Hamburg protesters are setting fire to the city while the world that protects them is on the brink of conflagration.