What Joe Biden as US President will mean for the rest of the world

In his Delaware victory speech, President-elect Joe Biden declared that “this is the time to heal in America”. But bitter partisan conflict, rising racism and nativism, misinformation and fears for democracy and human rights aren’t just a problem for the United States but for the whole world.

Since World War II, nations in every corner of the world have either looked hopefully to the US for leadership in tackling major global and regional challenges or been forced to reckon with Washington’s interventions.

On climate change, global trade, immigration and a host of other issues, Biden has pledged that leadership will come “not only by the example of our power but by the power of our example”.

Can the new administration return Washington to its place at the head of the international table as a guarantor of the “rules-based order”? Or will the Biden administration be forced to contend with a new multipolar reality in which nations tend to their own patches?

Europe

by Bevan Shields

European leaders have spent their summer hoping and praying Trump would be a one-term wonder. Yet he has arguably been a force for some good on the continent by forcing some of its wealthiest nations to lift their lacklustre contributions to the crucial NATO alliance. Europe was getting defence and security on the cheap and Trump was right to call them out on this.

Europe’s main players — German Chancellor Angela Merkel, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron and European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen —believe Biden will bring a more stable and pragmatic style of leadership. But they might still face a rough ride on one key issue: digital taxation.

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Several European countries have planned new taxes on US-based internet behemoths like Google, Facebook, Apple and Amazon, but hit a roadblock when Trump threatened to retaliate with a trade war. The relationship between Trump and Macron collapsed over it.

Raiding the tech giants grew in urgency this year because the extra revenue would help repair government budgets hit hard by COVID-19 and the consequent recession. The annual global haul from such a tax could be as high as $US100 billion ($137 billion).

To avoid a series of messy country-by-country schemes, the Paris-based Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has been working on an international tax accord. Trump effectively blew up that process earlier this year by withdrawing from the talks.

Under Biden, the US might return to the table and will avoid tit-for-tat trade wars, but Europe will still face huge resistance. The new administration is unlikely to offer up Silicon Valley as a sacrificial lamb for better transatlantic relations.

Russia

by Chris Zappone

After four years of Trump praising Russian President Vladimir Putin, a Biden presidency will take the Kremlin back to frostier days. One of the first issues Biden will face is among the easiest: the New START II nuclear weapons treaty is due to expire in February. He has shown a willingness to accept Russia’s offer to extend a treaty limiting both countries’ intercontinental ballistic missile arsenals.

Everything else between Washington and Moscow could get a lot more difficult and tense. Biden has pledged to convene a Summit for Democracy “to renew the spirit and shared purpose of the nations of the Free World”.

The summit would seek commitments from countries to fight corruption, defend against authoritarianism and advance “human rights in their own nations and abroad”.

To the Kremlin, that will sound a lot like a threat to its legitimacy and power. Perhaps for this reason, the Kremlin has so far responded coolly to Biden’s election. For his part Biden is unlikely to forget that Putin held off congratulating him, adding one more log to the bonfire of doubts ignited by Trump’s refusal to concede.

The Kremlin’s silence will remind the White House of the role Russia has in seeking to shape perceptions of US politics, even if Republicans themselves don’t seem to care. The linkage of messaging between the Kremlin and right-wing parties in the West is a tool Russia uses for influence and even interference in Western affairs. Biden won’t be shy about confronting Russia in the places an American president typically does — human rights, corruption and pro-democratic politics — all things Trump ignored or downplayed.

North Asia

by Eryk Bagshaw

China has arguably been one of the few beneficiaries of the Trump presidency. Despite an 18-month trade war, the COVID-19 pandemic and rising military tensions, Beijing has emerged in a stronger position than Washington.

The chaos of the past four years has seen China expand its economy and ambition. But that same aggressiveness now faces a very different opponent. Where Trump’s transactional tactics saw Washington goad Beijing, Biden is more likely to draw on his foreign policy experience and adopt a multilateral approach to containing China’s ambitions. That means less inflammatory freelancing and more unified positions involving Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and other allies.

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In his first phone call with Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Thursday, Biden said the Japan-US Security treaty, obliging the US to defend Japan if it is attacked, would apply to the disputed Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims as its own. The pair pledged to deliver “a free and open Indo-Pacific”, a clear message of containment repeated with other leaders in Asia.

But perhaps Biden’s most significant looming challenge is one much closer to China’s national identity: Taiwan. Now that Beijing has abandoned all pretence of democracy in Hong Kong, Taiwan frames as a major geopolitical challenge in the next President’s term.

China has in recent months ramped up its propaganda on unification with the democratic island, which split from China in 1949. Beijing has vowed to bring it back under its control by the centenary of the civil war, but Chinese President Xi Jinping’s personal ambition, rising nationalism and military exercises in the Taiwan Strait have fuelled fears that that timetable could be accelerated.

The Trump administration courted Taiwan, sending the highest-level US representation in decades to the island and selling $US30 billion ($41 billion) worth of weapons to Taipei to help defend it from attack.

There is little detail on how Biden’s administration would respond if Taiwan came under threat. Its policy remains firmly in the realm of “strategic ambiguity”.

South-east Asia

by James Massola

Across South-east Asian capitals, political leaders will be breathing a quiet sigh of relief at seeing the back of the Trump administration.

US standing in the region has crashed over the past decade, beginning with the Obama administration’s failure to push back as China militarised islands in the South China Sea and expanded its naval and air forces. Despite Trump’s tougher rhetoric, Beijing has solidified its gains and locked in its “facts on the water”.

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Biden cannot count on a forthright, unified ASEAN response to China. Cambodia and Laos are largely in China’s pocket and the Philippines under Rodrigo Duterte has come under Xi’s sway, though that could change after the country’s May 2022 presidential election.

Rather than lecturing countries in the region about the dangers of China – as US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo recently did – the Biden administration must urgently engage in bilateral and multilateral diplomacy.

That means continuing to strengthen ties with Vietnam — no friend of China — engaging more deeply with Indonesia (and selling it military hardware it is looking to buy), and re-engaging with Singapore, Thailand and Malaysia.

It must recognise that China is the pre-eminent investment partner even for countries such as Indonesia and Thailand that are more wary of China’s rise – and that is not likely to change.It must also realise that China has stolen a march in terms of providing aid during the pandemic.

Biden and his team must show that the US can once more be a reliable security and economic partner, one that will guarantee freedom of navigation in the South China Sea — a $US1trillion trade artery — without antagonising China or triggering confrontation.

In the longer term, they must look to lock in a new status quo in that waterway – because short of a hot war, China’s heavily-armed islands aren’t going anywhere.

Middle East

by Maher Mughrabi

The President-elect faces a region torn between four main actors: Saudi Arabia, the Turkey-Qatar axis, Israel and Iran. The first three are ostensibly US allies. Yet it is the fourth that could determine how all the other relationships fare.

The Obama administration regarded the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, aimed at constraining Iran’s nuclear ambitions in return for sanctions relief, as one of its major achievements in concert with Russia, China and the European Union. Trump campaigned against that deal and eventually scrapped it.

Iran, which has been ravaged by COVID-19, is scheduled to elect a new president to replace Hassan Rouhani in 2021. Should Biden seek to revive the JCPOA, he risks alienating Saudi Arabia and Israel. Yet assuring all four actors that their interests will be protected is vital if the many festering conflicts in the region are to be addressed, much less resolved.

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Biden has said he would end US support for Saudi Arabia’s offensive in Yemen but this in itself would not address the plight of millions of starving and displaced Yemenis. Vice-President-elect Harris told The Arab-American News that a Biden administration would “help advance a political settlement where the Syrian people have a voice”. What that means in practice is anyone’s guess, but settlement of the Syrian conflict is likely to require Iranian, Russian and Turkish input, and there is little progress to be made in Lebanon until peace returns to its larger neighbour.

Ending the Libyan conflict would require bringing Turkey, Qatar and Saudi Arabia back into diplomatic alignment, a task that proved beyond the Trump administration. Harris added that a Biden administration would resume economic assistance to the Palestinians that Trump had terminated, but whether Biden is really willing to advance the cause of Palestinian freedom in the face of Israeli and domestic opposition remains to be seen.

Latin America

by Lia Timson

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro, often dubbed the Trump of the Tropics, has championed a number of measures that go against the tide of global expectation, including mining and exploration of the Amazon rainforest and minimisation of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Bolsonaro’s first comments on the election came midweek, when he described the Democrat as “a head-of-state candidate” and threatened to use gunpowder instead of words to settle any potential trade sanctions over the Amazon – a reference to comments Biden made during the campaign.

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Although Bolsonaro rephrased his comment immediately to avoid the impression he would declare war on the US, it is clear he sees Biden in the same light as France’s Macron and Germany’s Merkel: leaders who think they can tell Brazil what to do. Biden’s promise to rejoin the Paris climate change agreement will create trade difficulties for Brazil, whose new trade pact with the European Union ties the country to the accord’s requirement that Brazil delivers 12 million hectares of Amazon reforestation.

Biden’s other pressing issue in South America will be Venezuela. Trump was keen to see regime change in Caracas and the down-with-socialism narrative suited his campaign and expatriate Latino base. Trump’s tenure has seen US relations with the oil-producing nation dive to new depths, culminating in the backing of Juan Guaido as an alternative president, crippling economic sanctions, the threat of military action to oust Nicolas Maduro and a $US15 million bounty on his head. Maduro has rushed to congratulate Biden, adding he is willing to participate in “decent dialogue” with the new administration.

Biden’s immigration policies will also have a bearing on Latin American countries, as the majority of people joining migrant caravans to the US are from impoverished and often violent nations in crisis, including Venezuela, Guatemala and Mexico. The latter’s leader has refused to congratulate Biden until the Electoral College has voted, a clear indication he wants no trouble with the man who promised to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.

Africa

by Lia Timson

In Africa Biden will be competing with China for influence, but he will have Macron, who is very engaged in former French colonies on the continent, in his corner.

China has a number of Belt and Road projects in Africa, including its first overseas military base in Djibouti. Its stated aim is the recreation of the trade Silk Road, but its ports and projects go much further than facilities simply dedicated to the flow of goods.

Eric Olander, managing editor of the China Africa Project, says it’s no secret that Africa is largely an afterthought in US foreign policy. “If Biden wants to change this he’s got to make the effort of picking up the phone and re-introduce himself to presidents and prime ministers across the continent. After all, this is exactly what Xi Jinping does all the time.

He says Biden needs to communicate to Africa that a reset in ties is coming. “It’s too early for him to start talking about programs, aid … as he still doesn’t have control of the government and visibility on the budget.”

Instead, Olander says, “rather than just focus on Africa’s largest countries, as is customary for the US, he should reach out to one of its smaller countries for that first call to demonstrate that the entire continent is important, not just Nigeria, Ethiopia, Kenya and South Africa.”

India

by Matt Wade

When Trump visited India in February, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi greeted him at the airport with a bear hug and treated him to a huge “Namaste Trump” public reception in the city of Ahmedabad attended by about 100,000 people. Modi also warmly praised Trump when the pair appeared at the “Howdy Modi!” rally at a football stadium in Texas last year.

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The Trump-Modi bromance extended to Twitter, with both leaders using the social media platform to exchange friendly messages. (Combined the pair have over 150 million Twitter followers).

Some in New Delhi are concerned that Modi’s close bond with Trump could hinder relations with the Biden administration. But Ian Hall, professor of international relations at Griffith University, says India is now too strategically important to the US for that to make much of a difference.

“There is a bit of anxiety in India,” he says. “But I don’t think those concerns are well grounded.”

Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris’ mother was born in India’s southern state of Tamil Nadu; Harris’ Indian-American heritage is likely to be a positive for public perceptions of Biden’s team in the world’s biggest democracy.

Modi referred to the connection in a congratulatory tweet, telling Harris “your success is path-breaking and a matter of immense pride not just for your chittis [a Tamil word for aunts], but also for all Indian-Americans”.

Even so, new points of friction in Indo-US relations loom.

One reason ties have been relatively trouble-free during the past four years is that Trump has mostly avoided commenting on what India considers its internal affairs. Hall says a range of human rights issues, including Modi’s controversial policies in Kashmir, are likely to become more salient in US-India relations with a Democrat in the White House.

“That’s going to make New Delhi a little uncomfortable,” he said.

US-India military co-operation has deepened during the Trump administration. But Delhi-based strategic analyst Brahma Chellaney warns that if Biden or his top aides are “outspoken in their criticism of Modi’s domestic policies”, New Delhi will be less likely, and less able, to formalise a security alliance with Washington.

Trump Biden 2020

Understand the election result and its aftermath with expert analysis from US correspondent Matthew Knott. Sign up to The Sydney Morning Herald‘s newsletter here, The Age‘s here, Brisbane Timeshere and WAtoday‘s here

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