The new administration has signalled a sharp break in foreign policy from the Trump era – but how is that playing globally?
in Paris, in Moscow, in London, in Rio de Janeiro, , and in Johannesburg
The European Union
At the opening of Joe Biden’s online climate summit last week, Europe’s relief was was palpable: “It is so good,” gushed the European commission president, Ursula von der Leyen, “to have the US back on our side.”
But while improved relations will certainly help after four years of what one analyst called Hurricane Donald, they will not be enough – because if the US and EU do now agree on the climate crisis, there are plenty of areas where they don’t.
Biden’s early Trump rewinds (rejoining the Paris accord, dropping US opposition to a digital tax, seeking a return to the Iran nuclear deal, removing many tariffs on EU goods) have been greeted effusively in Europe as signs of normalisation.
But analysts warn the US will need more than charm to secure concrete policy change in Europe on trade, energy or defence spending – and that the EU should not consider that American re-engagement means US priorities are aligned with Europe’s.
Washington’s major foreign policy goals in Europe – ensuring the EU is closer to the US than to China, pays more of the bill for its own defence and stops discriminating against US companies – need the EU to take steps it is not yet willing to contemplate.
On the EU side, observers say the bloc has to realise the pre-2016 US has gone for good. Longer-term trends in US policy, combined with plummeting European public confidence in the US as a useful and reliable partner, amount to a new normal in transatlantic relations. Jon Henley in Paris
Joe Biden came in to the White House with little interest in talking to Vladimir Putin, beyond extending the New Start arms treaty. “The Biden administration has a clear set of things they want to achieve in the world … Russia isn’t part of the solution to any of them,” said Sam Greene, the director of the King’s University Russia Institute.
But Russia has clawed its way back on to the agenda, not least because of the largest buildup near Ukraine since the 2014 annexation of Crimea.
The US response, which has included both sanctions and summit talk, is “a bit like whiplash” Greene said. “One day Biden calls Putin a murderer and two weeks later he invites him over for tea and the day after that he slaps him with sanctions on sovereign debt.”
Those sanctions are “deceptively the strongest sanctions package we’ve yet seen”, said Yuval Weber, a Russia expert, saying that the Biden team was seeking to “create some aspect of deterrence” without going all-in on a new conflict. Moscow has responded by targeting the US embassy and has pressured the ambassador to leave the country.
The White House’s carrot-and-stick strategy has confused some Russian commentators and created a debate in the Kremlin about whether to write off the Biden presidency or seek to engage with him.
“It seems to me that the second line has won and the Kremlin is actively working to get ready for this meeting [between Biden and Putin],” said Tatiana Stanovaya, a political analyst and founder of R.Politik. “Putin seems set on not missing a chance to speak with the US president about mutual interests, even though his retinue seems to be far more hawkish. Because the anti-American rhetoric seems to be fuelling itself at this point.” Andrew Roth in Moscow
Days after Biden’s nomination, Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, made Joe Biden a potentially significant offer of talks not just on Iran’s nuclear activities, but on oil and the region. He tempered the offer with a warning: “Iran and the United States are two different entities. We represent a civilization, but the United States wants to convert us into something else. America does not represent a civilization but believes in American Exceptionalism.”
Now, with talks on the two countries returning to nuclear deal well under way, Biden may no longer be trying to convert Iran into something else, but instead offering it a way out of its isolation.
The reset did not start so well. Tehran was frustrated at the slowness with which Biden acted on his campaign promise to re-enter the nuclear deal which Donald Trump quit in 2018. Hardliners, convinced America is irredeemable – and positioning themselves for the June Iranian presidential elections – accused Biden of continuing a policy of maximum economic sanctions, largely indistinguishable from Trump’s. Iran responded by reducing nuclear inspections, ramping up nuclear enrichment and striking a 25-year strategic partnership with China.
Now, with the help of Russia and Europe, America and Iran are deep in indirect talks in Vienna. Working parties have been formed to look into the sanctions the US will lift, the steps Iran must take to come back into compliance and the means by which it can verify sanctions have been lifted.
Both sides, staffed by negotiators involved in the 2014 talks, now know that the other side is not playing a game, but since Iran demands all US sanctions are lifted, the chances of failure remain. Patrick Wintour
Joe Biden’s victory was a body blow for the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, a rightwing populist who basked in his ties to Donald Trump.
Already Biden’s presence in the White House has forced some change on Brazilian foreign policy, with Bolsonaro jettisoning his pro-Trump foreign minister Ernesto Araújo in the hope of avoiding further international isolation. Bolsonaro, under whom Amazon destruction has soared, has also been forced to moderate his rhetoric on the environment, pledging to end illegal deforestation by 2030 in a conciliatory letter to Biden ahead of last week’s climate summit.
Guilherme Casarões, a foreign affairs expert from Brazil’s Getúlio Vargas Foundation, said the rhetorical shift was clearly driven by a desire to avoid further alienating Brazil’s second-largest trading partner. “Under no circumstances would clashing with the US be desirable,” he said.
But given Bolsonaro’s long history of Trumpism, Casarões thought the best that could be hoped for was a “cordial” relationship with the new US president. Senior Biden officials recently visited Colombia, Argentina and Uruguay during their first visit to South America – but skipped Brazil, the region’s biggest economy.
“Biden is someone who knows Latin America pretty well so this wasn’t by chance,” Casarões said. “My impression is that a deliberate decision was taken to signal to Brazil that it is not recognized by the current US government as a priority interlocutor.”
Casarões suspected Biden’s administration would be privately rooting for Bolsonaro’s defeat in the 2022 election so the US could re-engage with a less radical successor, “whatever their ideological stripes”. Tom Phillips in Rio de Janeiro
The presidency of Joe Biden may mark a drastic departure from that of his predecessor Donald Trump, but to leaders in Beijing the difference seems more one of style than of substance.
In China, the Trump presidency prompted a fundamental re-evaluation of the bilateral relationship. The former president’s erratic behaviour convinced Chinese elites of the superiority of their own style of leadership, which prizes stability and competence over democracy and institutions.
“Biden has yet to walk out of the Trump quagmire,” argued a prominent international relations expert, Zhu Feng, last month in the Global Times. “The Biden administration has not only performed mediocrely, but also continued to risk escalation and confrontation with China.”
The sense of growing confidence in Beijing has been building pace for a while. The financial crisis in 2008 and China’s role in global recovery was taken as proof by Beijing that the American way is no longer the only way. The Covid-19 pandemic has further emboldened China; some now talk of the irreversible decline of the United States – “the east rising, the west declining”.
In the year of the Communist party’s centenary and the 120th anniversary of the humiliation of the signing of an unequal treaty with western powers in 1901, leaders in Beijing are keen to tell their people that the United States is no longer superior to China – whoever occupies the White House. Vincent Ni
Saudi Arabia and the US were friends, partners and mutual enablers during the Trump years, but their relationship could hardly be more different under the new president. Just a month after Biden took office, his administration blamed the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman, for ordering the assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, setting a course for a relationship that has proven far more at arm’s length, and more at odds.
Citing protocol, Biden has refused to even deal with Prince Mohammed, opting instead for his father, King Salman. The young heir views Biden as offhand, and misguided, and sees his readiness to re-engage Iran as a strategic pivot at the Kingdom’s expense.
Saudi Arabia pushed back strongly against Biden’s attempts to punish Prince Mohammed for Khashoggi’s murder, effectively putting strategic ties on the line if he did. Biden blinked, but the ensuing trust deficit has left both sides semi-estranged. As Washington tries to convince Tehran to surrender its nuclear ambitions in return for sanctions relief, Riyadh has been courting Israel directly, and also speaking with Iran. The difference this time is the absence of the US, with whom relations seem unlikely to improve as long as Biden remains president. Martin Chulov
Under Donald Trump the US ran two foreign policies: one chaotic, values-free and personally led by Trump, and another more traditional version implemented by his administration. Similarly, the UK ran two US policies, one publicly pandering to Trump, and another privately appalled.
So Biden represents both a relief and chance for the UK government’s public and private postures to cohere. Biden’s national security team presents alliances as the unique US asset – and for alliances to work, predictability, consultation and discipline are required.
Trump’s refusal to follow British advice on Iran led to deep soul-searching inside the Foreign Office, and there is still anxiety about where the UK sits in the pantheon of Biden alliances. But the G7 and chairmanship of the Cop26 in Glasgow have gifted the UK a unique chance to show it can be midwife to many American objectives on climate change, strategy towards China and pandemic preparedness.
That does not mean no tensions exist. The US-UK trade deal has for now slipped away. The withdrawal from Afghanistan is not popular in the British army and the UK prizes its relations with Turkey more than does Biden. The UK is more invested than the US Congress in the Saudi war in Yemen. In search of friends outside the EU, the UK will be less picky about human rights and democracy, but Biden’s appointments at the state department suggest he plans to align moralistic language closer to policy.
If fighting international corruption does become a Biden calling card, a spotlight on the UK’s role as enabler of illicit finance may be awkward. Corruption is not a subject No 10 currently wants to be put on the daily media grid. Patrick Wintour
Joe Biden benefited from considerable goodwill in South Africa when he took power: his outspoken criticism of the apartheid regime, and the visit he made to South Africa in 1986 when he refused to be separated from black members of the delegation, was noted, if not widely remembered.
Biden’s predecessor had been reviled in South Africa, where the former president’s comments about murders of white farmers had caused much anger and a diplomatic incident. The Nelson Mandela Foundation, an NGO, described relief at the defeat of Trump and said it looked forward to “seeing the White House occupied by a leadership team which understands the central importance of human dignity”.
South African officials and analysts are aware that the “Rainbow Nation” and its concerns will struggle to get US presidential attention. One newspaper recently argued this was its policymakers’ own fault.
“In our relations with the world’s most powerful nation and biggest economy, SA hasn’t done itself any favours. Our government has amassed a long record of siding with unsavoury governments and an instinct to thumb its nose at the traditional powers, despite them still being SA’s biggest source of investment,” said an editorial in Business Day.
Mired in its own economic and political troubles, and a Covid outbreak that has killed tens of thousands, most South Africans have paid little attention to decisions in Washington. Jason Burke in Johannesburg