With Biden’s victory, the world looks to US with hope for change

Why We Wrote This

Joe Biden’s incoming presidency will chart a very different course in international relations than that of President Trump. But will it bring the changes that so many countries are looking to the United States for?

Alexander Zemlianichenko/AP/File
Vice President of the United States Joe Biden (left) shakes hands with Vladimir Putin, then Russia's prime minister, in Moscow, March 10, 2011. Russia is likely to try to negotiate an extension to the New START strategic arms reduction deal with a Biden White House.

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Much of the world, exhausted, disappointed, and confused by four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, breathed a sigh of relief on the news that Joe Biden had won the U.S. election.

Many foreign governments are looking forward to calmer and more predictable relations with Washington. But that doesn’t mean that they won’t be lining up to press Mr. Biden for the policies they would like to see the White House adopt. They all have their wish lists for the president-elect.

Some world leaders have high hopes of the next president. Things have been so difficult for Beijing recently that matters can probably only get better for the Chinese authorities. On the other hand Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler, must fear the worst. President Trump has been a special friend; Mr. Biden says Riyadh’s human rights record makes it a “pariah.”

Nobody expects Mr. Biden to make foreign policy a priority when he has the pandemic and an economic crisis to deal with at home. But when he does look up from domestic affairs and casts his eye around the world, he will see a lot of people trying to catch his attention.

Left exhausted, disappointed, and confused by four years of Donald Trump’s presidency, much of the world breathed a sigh of relief on the news that Joe Biden had won the U.S. election.

But simply “not being Trump” will not be good enough for very long on the international stage. Governments and their citizens are already voicing their hopes and expectations of the next U.S. leader. Soon they will be lining up to press their case. What do they want?

The East looks to ease tensions

Mr. Trump has perhaps taken no foreign country on such a wild roller-coaster ride as China. Now Beijing is hoping for eased tensions; a renewal of regular consultations with Washington; and what Jin Canrong, a prominent Chinese commentator, calls a “moderate and mature approach.”

Beijing is hopeful that Mr. Biden will lift some of the trade tariffs that his predecessor slapped on over $360 billion worth of Chinese exports. He may well do so, since he has called Mr. Trump’s trade war “damaging and erratic.”

China would also like Mr. Biden to lift restrictions on Chinese tech enterprises such as TikTok and WeChat, abandoning the current administration’s policy of technological decoupling. But Beijing is likely to be disappointed if it hopes Mr. Biden will greenlight Huawei’s 5G telecom technology, seen as a national security threat.

More broadly, Chinese leaders would like to resume practical cooperation with Washington on global issues such as COVID-19 and climate change. But the extent of that will depend on the two sides’ ability to “rebuild mutual strategic trust,” said Xin Qiang, deputy head of the Center for U.S. Studies at Fudan University, to the Communist Party-run Global Times.

That’s something that Moscow would like too, but few there expect it.

“Biden has said that Russia is an adversary, while China is a competitor,” says Anatoly Tsiganok, head of the independent Center for Military Forecasts. “That makes it clear we are going to be enemy No. 1.”

That does not stop Russia from hoping for the sort of agreements that enemies make – specifically an extension to the New START strategic arms reduction deal, which Mr. Trump had said Washington would leave when it expires next February.

The last remaining arms control agreement between Washington and Moscow, the treaty can be rolled over for five years if both sides agree. Mr. Biden has written that he would pursue such an extension of the deal, which he described in a Foreign Affairs article last June as “an anchor of strategic stability.”

“That will be very welcome in Moscow,” says Vladimir Dvorkin, an expert at the government-linked Institute of World Economy and International Relations.

More family planning in Africa

On the continent of Africa, which President Trump once insulted with a scatological obscenity, people are hoping for at least a little more respect. And women’s rights groups are hoping for something much more concrete – an end to the “global gag rule.”

Carlo Allegri/Reuters/File
U.S. first lady Melania Trump and Kenyan first lady Margaret Kenyatta play with children at the Kenya National Theatre in Nairobi, Kenya, Oct. 5, 2018. Women’s rights groups in Africa are hoping that President-elect Joe Biden will bring an end to the “global gag rule.”

That is what opponents call the policy that prevents the U.S. government from funding nongovernmental groups that help women to have abortions that are legal in their countries. The policy has been used as a partisan light switch: Republican presidents turn it on, Democratic presidents turn it off. Mr. Biden has promised to reverse the policy that Mr. Trump adopted in 2017.

“Joe Biden’s victory is an historic one for global, accessible, and affordable health care,” said Melvine Ouyo, a Kenyan women’s health activist, in a statement. “The last four years were full of struggle, pain, and loss of lives for lack of access to reproductive resources and affordable health care.”

“We’ve all been worn down by the criticism of our work and the funding issues,” adds Carole Sekimpi, Uganda director of Marie Stopes International, one of the world’s major family planning charities. “We’re looking forward to having fewer distractions.”

Mr. Biden has also pledged to fulfill another broadly held hope by ending Mr. Trump’s immigration ban on people from 13 countries with large Muslim populations. Five of those countries are in Africa, home to 25% of the continent’s inhabitants.

An upheaval of expectations in the Mideast

Almost all citizens of Iran are subject to that ban, but its repeal is by no means top of Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s agenda.

Rather, what he wants most of all is to see the United States return to the landmark 2015 nuclear deal that Iran signed with Washington and six other parties. President Trump pulled the U.S. out of that agreement in 2018 and imposed a draconian “maximum pressure” regime of economic and other sanctions on Iran.

Mr. Biden was vice president in the administration that negotiated the 2015 agreement, and he has indicated a readiness to rejoin it if Iran goes back to respecting the deal’s limits on its nuclear program.

Hard-line Iranian opponents of the agreement, though, determined to deny President Rouhani any benefit, have been arguing that Iran should expect nothing from Mr. Biden, portraying him as a longtime ally of Israel’s.

In neighboring Afghanistan, President Ashraf Ghani would like President-elect Biden to listen to him more carefully. Washington largely ignored the Kabul government as it negotiated its February peace deal with the Taliban. That deal traded a full withdrawal of Western troops in return for a Taliban promise to prevent Al Qaeda and Islamic State from planning attacks abroad from Afghan territory. It also required President Ghani to release 5,000 Taliban prisoners. But that has not stopped the Taliban from continuing to kill Afghan soldiers and civilians.

In the Middle East, it is Saudi Arabia that has had to downgrade its expectations of Washington most dramatically in the wake of Mr. Biden’s election victory. Where President Trump shielded the kingdom’s de facto ruler, Mohammed bin Salman, from criticism, Mr. Biden has threatened to treat the country as a “pariah” for its human rights violations.

Going into a defensive crouch, Riyadh is distilling its hopes down to a single modest goal – security – say people close to the Saudi government’s decision-making process. The Saudis hope to persuade Mr. Biden to maintain the U.S. security umbrella in the Gulf, protecting the oil-rich sheikhdoms there from Iranian attack. They also hope to convince the incoming U.S. president to ensure that the Iran nuclear deal respects Gulf security concerns.

Elsewhere in the region there are hopes of a more active U.S. diplomatic role. Jordan’s King Abdullah, who has long mediated conflicts in the Arab world, would welcome such a development: He has found his own role less potent without an active U.S. administration.

And while Iraqi President Mustafa al-Kadhimi is hoping Mr. Biden will revive Washington’s role in anti-terrorism efforts as his government vies with sectarian militias for control of the state, the Palestinians hope that the next U.S. president will be less one-sidedly supportive of Israel than his predecessor.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, cannot hope that Mr. Biden will offer the same wholehearted personal support that he enjoyed from Mr. Trump. But Israel can likely count on the president-elect’s long record of support for the Jewish state.

Aid and anti-corruption in Latin America

Closer to home, south of the border, Latin America’s leaders are expecting closer attention from Mr. Biden, who made over a dozen visits to their region when he was vice president. And that, they hope, will bring stronger relations and fresh aid.

In Central America, Mr. Trump has used development aid as a tool to negotiate with Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala, wielding it so as to convince them to serve as “safe third countries” for asylum-seekers arriving at the U.S.-Mexican border.

Charlie Riedel/AP/File
Members of a U.S.-bound migrant caravan stand on a road outside the town of Arriaga, Mexico, Oct. 27, 2018. Economic conditions and crime in Honduras, El Salvador, and Guatemala serve as primary drivers of migration to the United States. Those countries hope that under President-elect Joe Biden, the U.S. will supply more aid to address such underlying problems.

“Central American governments will be looking for an end to those agreements” when Mr. Biden takes office, says Elizabeth Oglesby, an expert on Central America at the University of Arizona in Tucson. “Governments will want more of a commitment to economic aid but in a more stable way.”

Many citizens and human rights defenders, meanwhile, hope to see renewed U.S. attention to fighting corruption and impunity. This was not a priority for Mr. Trump, who said nothing when the Guatemalan government dismantled an anti-corruption body that served as an international model.

“In Guatemala, judges, prosecutors, and attorneys are hoping for more technical and political support” from a Biden administration to combat impunity and corruption, says Claudia Paz y Paz, Guatemala’s former attorney general who has dedicated her career to strengthening Guatemala’s judicial system. “The politics of the U.S. have big, direct impacts on our countries. ... I’m hopeful President-elect Biden will help win back the progress we lost” under Mr. Trump.

Hands off in Europe

European leaders are not expecting Mr. Biden to play an especially active role in their region, says Susi Dennison, an analyst at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

“The bandwidth for dealing with the European agenda might be slimmer than some may like,” she predicts. “Part of that is a strong expectation that Europe is in charge of its own neighborhood.” And on top of that, Mr. Biden is expected to devote more of his attention to Asia, in line with his old boss’s pivot to that region of the world.

There could be choppy transatlantic waters ahead, cautions Patrick Diamond, head of policy for former British Prime Minister David Cameron. He sees “a push for a digital tax on big tech” firms such as Google, Amazon, and Facebook in Europe but suspects that “President-elect Biden may be as reluctant to impose [them] as President Trump.”

On the other hand, Mr. Biden’s commitment to multilateralism is reassuring to Europeans, who live by that creed. They can be confident that the next U.S. president values NATO, and they are delighted that he has pledged to rejoin the Paris accord on climate change and keep the U.S. in the World Health Organization.

That matters, especially in smaller European countries suffering badly from COVID-19, says Ms. Dennison. “Their health and economic recovery will be tied to any policy that requires international cooperation.”

Ann Scott Tyson in Seattle; Fred Weir in Moscow; Ryan Lenora Brown in Johannesburg; Taylor Luck in Amman, Jordan; Scott Peterson and Shafi Musaddique in London; and Whitney Eulich in Mexico City contributed reporting to this article.

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