It’s the world according to Trump: Could Biden turn back the clock?

Why We Wrote This

Transactional diplomacy. America First. Autocrats have adjusted to the terms of President Trump’s foreign policy. Our writers explore what might happen if a President Biden tries to revive U.S.-led multilateralism.

Eraldo Peres/AP
A masked demonstrator with a Trump 2020 shirt makes a heart sign at a rally in support of President Donald Trump and his reelection, in front of the U.S. Embassy in Brasilia, Brazil, Sunday, Oct. 4, 2020.

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In his nearly four years in the White House, President Donald Trump has shrunk from intervening to preserve the U.S.-led global order. As America has pulled back from its leadership role, nations not only have taken notice, but have acted. While the cat’s been away, in a sense, the mice have come out to play.

The exercise of this newfound freedom has been strongest among leaders who find inspiration in Mr. Trump’s “America First” unilateralism. From Brazil to India and Saudi Arabia to Hungary, the leaders have pursued national interests and regional ambitions that an earlier imperial America might have sought to check.

Yet a U.S. election is approaching that may turn the White House over to former Vice President Joe Biden, and foreign policy experts anticipate that a President Biden would seek to refurbish American leadership and reinvigorate multilateralism.

Many say, however, that the nationalist genie may be out of the bottle. “The world is not the same,” says analyst Robert Kaplan. A Biden foreign policy “would seek to challenge” rising authoritarianism and blunt nationalism with multilateralism, he says. But a new administration would soon learn that “on the whole, each country is going on its own.”

When former Vice President Joe Biden used the first presidential debate to tout his plan for a $20 billion international fund to encourage Brazil to preserve its endangered rainforests, it was a shoutout to a bygone era of robust, American-led multilateralism.

But when Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro lost no time in condemning Mr. Biden’s idea as an arrogant stab at national sovereignty, it was a different kind of shout – a reminder that much of the world has already adjusted to the approach of President Donald Trump.

In his nearly four years in the White House, Mr. Trump has shrunk from intervening to preserve the U.S.-led global order. Instead of wielding the influence of a superpower to tackle the issues of the day – from climate change and public health to trade and nuclear nonproliferation – Mr. Trump has preferred a more transactional foreign policy that meets America’s narrower economic and security interests first.

As America has pulled back from its leadership role, nations not only have taken notice, but have acted. While the cat’s been away, in a sense, the mice have come out to play.

The exercise of this newfound freedom has been strongest within what Shivshankar Menon of Brookings India calls the “League of Nationalists” – leaders like Mr. Bolsonaro, India’s Narendra Modi, and Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who find inspiration in Mr. Trump’s “America First” unilateralism.

In the U.S. pullback, they have also found a green light to pursue national interests and regional ambitions that an earlier imperial America would have sought to check.

Yet as the U.S. approaches an election that may turn the White House over to Mr. Biden, much of the world wonders if the cat is away for good – or poised to pounce back.

No one expects anything markedly different from a second-term Trump foreign policy. Yet based on Mr. Biden’s campaign pronouncements and long experience, many foreign policy experts anticipate he would seek to refurbish American leadership and reinvigorate multilateralism.

“World is not the same”

Yet even if a President Biden were to attempt to rein in the new nationalists, many believe that genie may be out of the bottle.

“We are not the same country that we were four years ago, and the world is not the same,” says Robert Kaplan, an influential U.S. analyst of geopolitics and U.S. foreign policy.

A Biden foreign policy “would seek to challenge” a rising authoritarianism and to blunt nationalism with multilateralism, Mr. Kaplan says. But a new administration would soon learn, he adds, that “while the U.S. can nudge the needle 10% in one direction or 10% in another, on the whole each country is going on its own.”

Around the world, leaders have adjusted to Mr. Trump.

In Brazil, for example, many see Mr. Bolsonaro inspired and empowered by the U.S. president as he has fired an independent federal police chief and severely cut the budgets of government agencies meant to protect the environment and indigenous people.

“Trump offers Bolsonaro clear cover,” says Andre Pagliarini, a lecturer at Dartmouth College writing a book on Brazilian nationalism. “He can say … ‘The leader of the most democratic country in the world is a friend and aligned with me, so by definition, I’m not radical,’” Mr. Pagliarini says.

The same holds for other leaders in the Americas.

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters/File
President Donald Trump and first lady Melania Trump stand with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales and Hilda Patricia Marroquin Argueta de Morales on the West Wing colonnade shortly after their arrival at the White House in Washington, Dec. 17, 2019.

In Guatemala, former President Jimmy Morales made multiple attempts to disband the regionally admired International Commission Against Impunity in Guatemala, finally engineering the commission’s demise before leaving office last January. That action gutted years of U.S. investment in fighting corruption in the region, experts say.

Since Mr. Trump came into office, says Ursula Roldán, a researcher at Rafael Landívar University in Guatemala City, “there’s been a weakening of U.S. interest here that’s in turn weakened our fight against corruption.”

Green lights to autocrats

Other regions are likely to present even tougher challenges to any president seeking to reverse Mr. Trump’s retreat from leadership.

Explicit green lights from the White House have emboldened autocrats in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt, and Turkey to suppress freedoms at home, hunt down dissidents abroad, and ramp up proxy wars across the Middle East and North Africa to secure economic and political interests.

Saudi Arabia and the UAE have escalated a war in Yemen and applied pressure in Sudan and Libya, while Turkey and Egypt are extending their influence into Libya.

“America has declared with its actions, inaction, and troop drawdowns that it no longer considers the Middle East critical to its strategic interests,” says an adviser close to Gulf Arab decision-makers, who requested anonymity for security reasons. “We have learned that we … must secure our own national interest with our own two hands.”

If a President Biden were to seek to set an example of U.S. diplomatic reengagement in the region, it would likely start with Saudi Arabia, says F. Gregory Gause III, a Saudi Arabia specialist who heads the international affairs department at Texas A&M University in College Station. Candidate Biden said this month his administration would end U.S. support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen and “make sure America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil.”

Other regional experts assert that uncertainty over the outcome of the U.S. election is prompting some regional autocrats to accelerate territorial grabs in Libya and Syria.

Ironically, it could be one of the Trump administration’s diplomatic successes that ends up serving as a blueprint for a Biden administration in the region.

When Sudan’s post-dictatorship political transition turned violent in June 2019, with Saudi- and UAE-backed paramilitary groups killing and torturing protesters demanding a civilian government, the U.S. stepped in. The result: an agreement for a mixed civilian-military interim government to oversee a three-year political transition, underscoring how the U.S. retains considerable leverage in the region.

Anti-war sentiment

Yet that does not mean the U.S. is about to reverse its retreat, no matter who occupies the White House. Indeed, the underlying reason for the U.S. pullback from the Middle East is Mr. Trump’s rejection of what he calls “endless wars” – such as those in Afghanistan and Iraq. The president has found broad support for that stance from the American public – a reality not lost on Mr. Biden, who has sounded Trump-like on ending “these forever wars.”

Conventional wisdom has it that Iran especially has benefited from the influence vacuum left by the diminishing U.S. military footprint. But it is the gains of outside actors in less visible conflicts – such as those in Syria and Libya – that most clearly expose the risks of American disengagement.

When Mr. Trump ordered 1,000 American troops out of northern Syria in October 2019, abandoning Kurdish militias trained by U.S. Special Forces to fight the Islamic State, critics faulted him for forsaking friends and ceding influence to Russia, Iran, Turkey, and others. But it was President Barack Obama’s earlier distancing from rebels arrayed against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad that told democratic forces across the region that the days of U.S. interventions for democratic governance were over.

That realization would be sustained in Libya – where U.S. disengagement following the 2011 overthrow of strongman Muammar Qaddafi paved the way for other outside players, including Turkey, to back opposing sides in the conflict between the United Nations-backed government in Tripoli and a rebel regime in eastern Libya.

Fahad Shadeed/Reuters/File
Vice President Joe Biden speaks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal upon his arrival at Riyadh airbase Oct. 27, 2011. Mr. Biden was leading an American delegation to offer condolences on the death of Crown Prince Sultan bin Abdul-Aziz al-Saud.

Yet while Mr. Trump’s desire to end America’s long wars largely explains his disengagement from the Middle East, another reason altogether may be behind his laissez-faire attitude toward the world’s new nationalists.

If Mr. Trump has not sought to rein them in, some experts say, it is because he identifies with them. And this may be true nowhere more than with India, where the president has developed a close relationship with Mr. Modi, the Hindu nationalist prime minister.

“We’ve learned that it’s a very personal prism through which President Trump sees other leaders,” says Navnita Behera, a professor of political science at Delhi University. “And so when we see [Mr. Trump’s] policies on refugees, on illegal immigrants, and his views toward white nationalism, we understand his close friendship with Mr. Modi,” she says. “The two identify with each other.”

Professor Behera notes that President Trump steered clear of the controversy flaring over Mr. Modi’s Muslim-excluding citizenship law when he visited India in February. Nor did the U.S. have much to say about Mr. Modi’s revocation of majority-Muslim Kashmir’s autonomy in 2019.

Professor Behera believes Kashmir is the kind of potentially destabilizing regional issue that a Biden administration would try to influence.

“And that,” she adds, would “force both sides to come up with a better set of rules of engagement than the two leaders’ personal relationship.”

Trump’s “bad boy” admirers

Mr. Trump’s identification with nationalist leaders has also played a part in the close relations the U.S. has developed with two of the European Union’s nationalist “bad boys” in Poland and Hungary.

In both countries, sky-high public approval for Mr. Trump is shared among the top echelons of government, analysts say, where leaders are relieved that the Trump administration seems to care little about democracy or human rights.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has chipped away at the rule of law and the independence of media, while most recently concentrating power through a law allowing him to rule by decree.

“The election of Trump, such an important international actor, emboldened similar discourse in Hungary,” says Dr. Zsuzsanna Végh, a political scientist at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt.

Poland is on a similar path, with Mr. Trump and right-wing populist President Andrzej Duda professing to share many of the same values. “I sometimes joke that we Poles have put on the MAGA T-shirt more than many other countries,” says Michal Baranowski, director of the German Marshall Fund’s Warsaw office.

The Trump administration, which responded to Polish jitters over Russia, its geopolitically ambitious neighbor, by moving U.S. troops from Germany to Poland, has said nothing about erosions of Poland’s independent press and judiciary.

That could change under a President Biden, some European experts believe. They expect a Biden administration would work to reinvigorate the NATO-centered transatlantic alliance – with renewed focus on shared democratic values.

To be sure, there are exceptions to the narrative of America’s global retreat. The Trump administration has intensified America’s focus on China and its periphery, labeling Beijing a strategic competitor that is undermining the international order.

Economically, Washington has imposed tariffs on hundreds of billions’ worth of Chinese goods, while cracking down on intellectual property theft and China’s infiltration of U.S. government-funded research.

Citing threats to national security, Washington has placed restrictions on a widening range of Chinese technology. The U.S. has stepped up patrols in the South China Sea, and increased arms sales to Taiwan.

Across Asia, the expectation is that a President Biden would largely continue the tough stance, while doing more to reassert U.S. leadership in the Indo-Pacific region and return human rights to the core of U.S. foreign policy.

A welcome inattention

While that return to a more traditional U.S. foreign policy might be cheered by some allies, it would not sit so well with others who have welcomed a less attentive America.

Those would likely include the Philippines, where President Rodrigo Duterte has racked up an abysmal human rights record while showing open disdain for foreign leaders who meddle in other countries’ domestic affairs.

A President Biden could learn quickly from Mr. Duterte just how complicated it would be to push back on the newly emboldened nationalists.

Mr. Biden would lose Mr. Duterte “the moment he or any U.S. official” dared to criticize the Philippines over extrajudicial killings, suppression of a free press, or detention of political enemies, says Herman Joseph Kraft, a political science professor at the University of the Philippines.

That could mean losing a strategic ally in the fight for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, or abrogation of a binational accord allowing joint training of American and Filipino soldiers on Philippine soil.

It could also push Mr. Duterte and others like him deeper into China’s arms – not the outcome a new president looking to burnish American global leadership would want to encourage.

Contributing to this report were special correspondent Whitney Eulich in Mexico City; special correspondent Taylor Luck in Amman, Jordan; staff writer Scott Peterson in London; special correspondent Lenora Chu in Berlin; correspondent Aie Balagtas See in Manila; and staff writer Ann Scott Tyson.

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