World Sighs Relief Over Biden Win - OZY | A Modern Media Company
President Joe Biden gestures prior to delivering remarks at a Drive-in event in Coconut Creek, Florida, on October 29, 2020.
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WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because countries will be looking to Biden to restore traditional relationships of trust and consultation.

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

Former Vice President Joe Biden’s victory will be welcomed with a mixture of relief and hope in most parts of the world which, when surveyed in recent years, declared itself distrustful of the American president’s judgment and leadership. Some countries and regions had become more comfortable with and supportive of President Trump in recent years — Israel, as well as a few parts of the Middle East, Asia, Europe and Latin America. But other than Israel, these are mostly countries with governments leaning toward or embracing authoritarian policies.

The European allies will probably be most welcoming of the result, with the exception of some leaders in the east, mainly in Poland and Hungary, who share some of the Trump ethos and style. But the major continental countries grew tired of his hectoring and apparent disdain for the NATO alliance and the European Union.  They will be looking to Biden to restore traditional relationships of trust and consultation. European allies have become more independent and accustomed to going it alone during Trump’s term. Still, they will probably look for American leadership in dealing with the larger problems they confront from Russia and even from China.

Beijing will expect Biden to have more success in tightening American alliances with their neighbors, ranging from Japan through Southeast Asia and the subcontinent.

The U.K. is a particular case. Although Trump is deeply unpopular with the British public, the Boris Johnson government had been hoping to strike an advantageous bilateral trade agreement with Trump to offset some of the problems the UK is encountering as it finalizes withdrawal from the European Union (EU), the so-called Brexit. Biden, however, has made clear that any US-UK trade pact will depend on the UK preserving the 1998 agreement that settled the dispute between Protestant Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Catholic Republic of Ireland; Johnson threatens to abrogate parts of the agreement as a pressure tactic with the European Union (The Republic of Ireland will remain in the EU).

Russians will have mixed feelings about the result. Trump’s attitude toward Putin has remained a puzzle throughout the last four years, especially his refusal to say anything critical about the Russian leader. Some Russia specialists maintain that Putin must see Trump as what Russian intelligence has always called a “useful idiot” —  that is, someone who is easily co-opted by flattery and deception. On the other hand, Trump has a point when he says he has been, in practical terms, tough on Russia, carrying out extensive expulsions of Russian intelligence officers and issuing more lethal weapons than the Obama administration to Ukrainian forces battling Russian incursions.

Russians will expect a more overtly critical posture from the Biden administration, but will also anticipate more official contact and a more normal and rational negotiating process — positives that modestly balance the tension likely to remain or grow in the relationship.

China equally will have mixed feelings. Beijing can expect a tough posture from Biden but one that is more predictable and not as dominated by trade conflicts, though these will persist in some form. Beijing knows that relations with China will be the primary focus of Biden’s foreign policy to the extent that he is not distracted by other obligations, such as the lingering wars in the Middle East. So China will be preparing for enhanced competition across the board — military, diplomatic and economic. Beijing will expect Biden to have more success in tightening American alliances with their neighbors, ranging from Japan through Southeast Asia and the subcontinent. So Beijing is likely to step up its diplomatic and economic engagement in the region to augment its heightened military posture.

Biden Lands In China Bringing Message Of Reassurance on Debt

Xi Jinping, China’s vice president, left, attends a welcoming ceremony with Joe Biden, U.S. vice president, at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, on Thursday, Aug. 18, 2011. Biden begins meetings today with Chinese officials who have been raising questions about U.S. economic leadership in the world amid persistent tensions over trade and currency.

Source Nelson Ching/Bloomberg via Getty

These will all be preliminary reactions subject to change as Biden chooses his cabinet and formulates policies. Assuming he hews to the hints he has given, the likelihood is that he will try to reengage in various multilateral arenas from which Trump has withdrawn. Nearly all countries would welcome his follow-through on a commitment to rejoin the Paris climate agreement, although China might not welcome the leadership competition that America can provide in that forum. Europeans, China and Russia would welcome a move away from unrelentingly hostile policies on Iran. Few things have soured American relations with these countries more than Trump’s withdrawal from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Iran has used the time to strengthen its nuclear capabilities by resuming uranium enrichment — stopping just short of achieving capability that would be hard to reverse. So, Tehran will present Biden with a complicated picture that makes it hard for him to just resume the agreement without additional difficult negotiations.

North Korea will not welcome Biden’s victory.  It knows that the weirdly cozy relationship Kim Jong Un had with Trump will end.  Pyongyang will expect a more skeptical and demanding position from Biden, from whom concessions are likely to be hard-earned, if granted at all. 

Overall, the world will be looking to Biden to clear up the confusion and disorientation worldwide about whether and how Washington will lead in the wake of four years of Trump’s “America First” policies. Come what may, Biden will not be able to reverse Trump’s policies overnight. Illustrative in the trade arena is that 11 Asia-Pacific nations simply formed their own trading bloc after Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Trade Agreement in 2017. So, in many arenas, the United States may face a price for reengagement, and this will take time to work out. 

In some respects, Biden will have to re-invent America’s place in the world, so the early international impact of his victory may be as much atmospheric as concrete. But that is the essential first step toward the longer-range changes he chooses to pursue.  

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin

John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).

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