Butterfly Effect: Can Biden Control America’s Allies? - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Butterfly Effect: Can Biden Control America’s Allies?

SourceImages Getty, Composite Sean Culligan/OZY

Butterfly Effect: Can Biden Control America’s Allies?

By Charu Sudan Kasturi


Trump’s adversarial approach to key U.S. partners has forced them to chart out their own courses. Getting them to give up that approach won’t be easy for Biden.

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Addressing a media briefing alongside authoritarian Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi, French President Emmanuel Macron lauded their relationship on Monday, defending the French sale of arms to Cairo as a vital part of their anti-terrorism cooperation. Macron said he would not hinge their military partnership on Egypt improving its human rights record.

It was a position that stood in stark contrast to the one articulated just days earlier by Antony Blinken, nominated by President-elect Joe Biden to serve as his secretary of state. After the arrest of three Egyptian human rights activists following a meeting between them and Western diplomats, Blinken had tweeted: “Meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights.” The activists have since been released — to improve the atmospherics ahead of el-Sisi’s Paris visit — but the cases against them remain in place, as do broader concerns over human rights in Egypt.

For Biden, though, there might be a deeper worry: how to rein in allies that for the most part have traditionally coordinated key global positions with the U.S. but have gotten used to charting their individual courses over the past four years.

That’s right. It’s natural for the incoming administration — and armchair analysts like myself — to focus on rivals and enemies as the key diplomatic challenges America’s 46th president will face. Biden’s team has spoken of the president-elect’s plans to call a summit of democracies — a meeting of leaders from the world’s major democracies to chart out a common response to threats from China and other nations run by authoritarian leaders.

Bringing the country’s partners back into the tent won’t be easy.

But Trump’s hands-off, adversarial and even insulting approach to key U.S. allies and partners over the past four years has forced them to exercise a muscle they often didn’t previously: an independent, assertive foreign policy not always in sync with America or other partners. Now that they’re beginning to explore just how far that freedom from the American umbrella can take them, bringing the country’s partners back into the tent won’t be easy.

Egypt would sit in the list of authoritarian states in the Biden team’s book. But to Macron, it’s a solid ally that he doesn’t mind embracing publicly to secure what he believes are his country’s interests. France has traditionally held a major security presence in North, West and Central Africa — regions that were formerly a part of its empire. But under Macron, it has intensified its intervention in Africa. France has in recent months been accused of interfering in the internal politics of Ivory Coast, Guinea and Mali. And the Middle East, for decades largely outside France’s sphere of influence, is suddenly a playground for Macron again. Remember his much publicized visit to Beirut after the Lebanon explosion in August, where he came across to many as the white savior trying to fix a former colony’s problems?

Macron, though, is hardly alone. India’s Narendra Modi administration and Australia’s Scott Morrison government are making sure that Biden will have very little wiggle room in Asia-Pacific diplomacy with China, if he doesn’t want to be seen as betraying friends. Beijing is fundamentally at fault in both cases: It is locked in a Himalayan border conflict with India and a tit-for-tat trade war with Australia, in both cases unrelentingly clear that those nations must accept China is the bigger power before it will settle. But in a pre-Trump era, India’s response — and that of Australia — would have been moderated by conversations with Washington that would have done two things at the same time. First, America would have been able to ensure those tensions didn’t hurt its own long-term strategic planning. And second, India and Australia would have been reassured of American support enough to not engage in a war of words with Beijing that could lead to no real solution.

Instead, forced to defend their interests on their own, New Delhi and Canberra have chosen a different path. For either Modi or Morrison to back down from their rows with China now would be politically difficult.   

India’s tensions with Pakistan are hardly a recent phenomenon. But even there, previous U.S. administrations have rarely allowed the pattern of non-engagement that the neighbors have settled into, with very little diplomatic interaction and constant border skirmishes. Modi has also upset other Indian neighbors — Bangladesh and Afghanistan — with a new citizenship law that effectively accuses them of victimizing their religious minorities. An unstable South Asia makes it that much harder for a Biden administration to plan a withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Of course, none of these nations will contest American leadership, at least officially. Their leaders will happily attend Biden’s summit of democracies. Nor have they always accepted America’s positions on global affairs: India still has deep differences with the U.S. over Russia, a key strategic partner; and European allies like France and Germany opposed the Iraq War.

Yet for the most part, the elastic that held these nations together with the U.S. has in the past snapped back into place after temporarily being stretched. But the longer you keep it pulled, the more it loses its elasticity. Convincing allies and partners to stop stretching will be the ultimate test of Biden’s assertion that “America’s back.”

Charu Sudan Kasturi

Charu Sudan Kasturi

OZY Senior Editor Charu Sudan Kasturi's column, "Butterfly Effect," connects the dots on seemingly unrelated global headlines, highlighting what could happen next and who is likely to be impacted.

Sign up for the weekly newsletter!

Related Stories