What a cyclone of a year. And now it seems we have entered a new phase. The major networks have all called the election for President-elect Joseph Robinette Biden. While President Donald Trump has protested, senior Republican officials have said to OZY that they expect the transition to commence in earnest later this week. We shall see. For now, we at OZY bring you a special series of dispatches this weekend on what the election of Biden and Kamala Devi Harris will mean and what they will face. The first of our half-dozen dispatches looks at what the world is saying and what will likely confront the 46th commander in chief. As always, we warmly welcome your thoughts. (Photo credit: Erin Schaff/The New York Times/Redux)
Imagine a collective sigh of relief blowing over Brussels, home to the European Union and NATO. Trump’s approach to the West’s bedrock alliances was transactional and based on the belief that America was performing an act of charity by propping up the defenses of Europe and others. For Europe and other NATO partners, a Biden administration represents hopes of a return to a relationship that appreciates the true reason the U.S. built these alliances in the first place: keeping Russia in check, which ranks highly among Washington’s interests. Yet rewinding the clock won’t be easy, writes former CIA Director John McLaughlin.
Biden must rebuild it — especially on global deals that America cajoled others into accepting, only to abandon it under Trump. It took a combination of checkbook diplomacy (promises to support transitions to clean energy in poorer nations) and deft negotiations from the Obama administration to convince most of the world to sign onto the landmark Paris Climate Agreement in 2015. Trump signaled the U.S. was exiting the pact in 2017. Ironically, America’s withdrawal was formalized a day after the Nov. 3 vote. Biden has promised to return America to its Paris commitments immediately and to rejoin U.N. bodies like the World Health Organization. But can the world trust that a future American leader would respect predecessors’ promises? Climate change and major diseases can’t be fixed in four years. Can America’s reputation? It could start by restoring global faith in its democracy.
For four years, we’ve frequently seen U.S. allies and partners at loggerheads with Trump and his administration. But there’s one area where America’s Asian friends in particular want his approach to continue: China. Japan has been trying for years to get its top companies to relocate factories from China amid growing tensions. Trump’s trade war with Beijing and the pandemic have sparked fears of a disruption to their supply chains that’s finally making Japanese firms shift homeward, aided by a Japanese program funding their transition. Trump has ignored Chinese threats and bolstered Taiwan's defenses. And Trump has breathed life into a powerful strategic counter to Beijing: the so-called Quad, a coalition of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia. Biden’s big challenge will be to convince Asian partners he will do what President Obama promised but didn’t follow up on — a true pivot to Asia, with the promise to lead the security challenge to Beijing in the region.
Trump has come closer to actually ending America’s longest war, the one in Afghanistan, than his predecessors and earlier this year inked a controversial but landmark peace deal with the Taliban. But while the country’s popular sentiment remains in favor of ending the war and bringing American soldiers back home, U.S. allies and partners have long argued that as things stand, this would effectively hand Afghanistan over to the Taliban and undo American and global counter-terrorism efforts over the past 19 years. Will Biden walk back from the deal with the Taliban, winning plaudits globally but potential brickbats domestically? Or is this one Trump legacy he’ll build on?
5. Global Cop
Afghanistan is just the tip of the iceberg. Under Trump, America has largely steered clear of conflicts in other hot spots — from Mali to the Mediterranean and, most recently, in the ongoing war between Armenia and Azerbaijan. It’s the latter that could present the first test of Biden’s approach to global interventionism. A hot mic moment in February 2019 brought Armenia’s President Armen Sarkissian precious moments on American television. At the Munich Security Conference, Sarkissian cornered Biden and asked him if he would run for president while cameras picked up their hushed conversation. Now Sarkissian and Armenia are hoping that a Democrat — and especially Biden — in the White House might get them more support from Washington amid their ongoing war with Turkey-backed Azerbaijan. Democrats have been friendlier toward Armenia than Republicans, but it’ll be a tightrope for Biden. He’s tried his hardest to distance himself from a Republican-conjured scandal involving Ukraine. He wouldn’t want to attract charges of favoritism in a war involving two other ex-Soviet republics.
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Moscow knows that a Biden administration is expected to publicly target Russia over its aggression in Ukraine, its interference in American and other global elections, and over dozens of other issues — from outer space to cutting-edge weapons — where the two nations are fundamentally opposed. But Russian President Vladimir Putin also knows that Biden will bring a level of predictability to their relationship, and will likely look to work with him on the little common ground they do share — such as extending an agreement to limit the numbers of their deadliest weapons. Perhaps that’s why Putin has in recent weeks uncharacteristically tried to reach out to Biden.
There is no way Biden can roll back the hostilities between Washington and Beijing over the past year and pretend we’re back in 2015, when the world’s two largest economies competed fiercely and tried to outsmart each other while following traditional rules of diplomacy. He’ll be under pressure from Republicans to prove that he’s “strong” against China. Yet while the trade war won’t end overnight, Biden could use diplomacy to reduce tensions and rebuild a working relationship. That’s important for the world at a time the pandemic has wrecked the global economy: The two big boys fighting it out hasn’t helped. Despite their deep differences, the two countries have worked constructively in the past. Look no further than the Paris Climate Agreement, made possible by a bilateral deal between Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
3. Tehran Trouble
Biden has promised to renegotiate the nuclear deal with Iran but is expected to fundamentally dial back the sanctions and aggressive rhetoric against Tehran that were common under the Trump administration. But a thaw with Iran won’t be easy now. The country feels betrayed by America’s unilateral abrogation of their nuclear agreement when the CIA itself said Tehran was abiding by the pact. Trump’s approach to Iran has strengthened the country’s hardliners and their argument that Washington simply can’t be trusted. They already control the Iranian legislature and appear poised to win presidential elections next year. Negotiating with them will be difficult for a Biden administration. And then there’s Israel, a close U.S. ally that lauded Trump’s anti-Iran policies. Already, one Israeli cabinet minister has threatened war with Iran if Biden is president. It’s not the first time Israel has made such threats — but they’ve never had an American president so pointedly take sides in the Middle East as Trump has done. With Biden in the White House, the stakes are higher for Israel too.
4. America’s Trumpian Friends
India and Brazil are fellow democracies with giant markets American firms want to tap. They’re also among a rare set of America's traditional friends whose leaders got along well with Trump. So well, in fact, that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi effectively campaigned twice for Trump to woo Indian American voters to the Republican’s cause, and Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro recently said he would prefer a Trump victory in the U.S. Both Modi and Bolsonaro have also demonstrated an authoritarian streak that has worried many in the U.S., including apparent Vice President Kamala Harris. Biden can’t afford to alienate Modi or Bolsonaro — but he also can’t overlook their actions.
America’s next president will face a new challenge much closer to home than the faraway conflicts in the Middle East, Afghanistan and the South China Sea. From Bolivia to Chile, and Argentina to Venezuela, the resurgence and resilience of left-leaning movements and governments are posing difficult questions for Washington. Apart from Venezuela, the left’s successes in the other nations are entirely democratic. But America’s spotty track record of fomenting coups against precisely such administrations has tainted its reputation in the region. Can Biden repair that?
President Trump’s racist reported remarks calling African nations sh*tholes in January 2018 weren’t just deeply offensive: They reflected his administration’s decision that the continent was simply not a priority. In some ways, the attitude was a throwback to a period in the 1970s when the Nixon administration ignored the region: Secretary of State Henry Kissinger once conceded he didn’t know Zambia shares a border with Angola. Back then, it meant that the U.S. lost ground in the Cold War in Africa. Today, China is the dominant economic force on the continent. Biden’s task will be to bring respect and dignity back into the relationship — and offer a strong alternative to China.