World greets Biden’s win with relief — and wariness

By Nahal Toosi
·9 min read

Meet the new U.S president … same as the old U.S. president, just nicer?

As Joe Biden was finally declared the victor over Donald Trump in the U.S. presidential race, there was a near-audible sigh of relief in numerous other countries.

Trump’s crude outbursts, shifting positions and derision of U.S. allies has made him a deeply unpopular figure on much of the world stage. Foreign officials expect that a Biden-led United States will, at the very least, be more organized, predictable and cordial.

That said, Biden can still expect a somewhat wary global reception.

For one thing, many foreign officials expect Biden will serve for just one term, meaning a Trump-style Republican figure (maybe even Trump himself) could retake the White House in just a few years.

Plus, there’s a growing sense in international circles that key aspects of U.S. foreign and national security policy will largely stay the same from Trump to Biden. That includes taking a more antagonistic position toward China, looking more skeptically at trade deals, reducing the U.S. focus on the Middle East and pushing Europeans to bolster their defense spending.

“The Biden administration — you can expect them to act nicely, but still quite forcefully,” said Constanze Stelzenmüller, a senior fellow with the Brookings Institution who studies U.S.-European relations.

As leading news organizations called the race for Biden on Saturday, world leaders offered congratulations to the new president-elect, a man many of them know from his years as Barack Obama’s vice president or in the Senate, where he led the Foreign Relations Committee.

Senior officials from U.S. ally Germany, a country Trump has held in special disdain, called for a “fresh start, a new deal.” Spain’s Deputy Prime Minister Pablo Iglesias called Trump’s defeat “good news,” but said “the far right … remains a huge threat to America and Europe.”

Even world leaders who had tried to ingratiate themselves with Trump congratulated the new president-elect, though at times acknowledging Trump’s view of the race. Polish President Andrzej Duda, for instance, congratulated Biden but also mentioned waiting for the Electoral College. “As we await the nomination by the Electoral College, Poland is determined to upkeep high-level and high-quality PL-US strategic partnership for an even stronger alliance,” he tweeted.

To some extent, the reactions reflected the reality that no matter who leads the United States, its economic, military, political and even cultural might mean it cannot be ignored.

Biden will take part in calls with world leaders ahead of inauguration, a Biden transition aide told POLITICO. For many months, Biden and his campaign aides had resisted engaging with foreign officials, keen on avoiding even the perception of foreign influence.

It’s standard for presidents-elect to chat with foreign leaders during the transition period. Obama engaged in more than 50 such conversations before taking office, according to an analysis by the Center for Presidential Transition and Boston Consulting Group. The calls were often placed in bunches, with close U.S. allies, for instance, contacted the same day.

In interviews with an array of foreign officials, diplomats and analysts in recent months, most made it clear they wanted to see the United States step back into a global leadership role by rejoining the agreements and international organizations it quit under Trump — a vow Biden made repeatedly during the campaign.

But there also was a sense that Biden will continue pursuing some of the same avenues as Trump. In fact, some diplomats noted that Trump himself pursued certain goals — such as trying to scale back America’s role in the Middle East and Afghanistan and taking a tougher line on China — whose origins date back to well before he ran for president.

“Trump has basically taken foreign policy trends in America, even under Obama, and just accelerated some of those shifts,” said an Asian ambassador, speaking on the condition of anonymity because of the need to maintain good relations with both U.S. political parties. “Now, Biden has to work with these new trends and developments, and the rest of the world has to look at America under these new conditions.”

It wasn’t lost on foreign officials that Republicans could still keep control of the Senate, not to mention how strongly Trump performed among voters despite losing the White House. That, the officials said, suggested that the populist sentiment that helped propel Trump to the presidency in the first place was far from receding.

Trump’s baseless claims of election fraud, however, drew rebukes from an international election observer team from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. “Baseless allegations of systematic deficiencies, notably by the incumbent president, including on election night, harm public trust in democratic institutions,” the observers said in a statement.

Biden has made some of his short-term goals clear: He’s said he would immediately reverse Trump’s decisions to quit the Paris climate agreement and the World Health Organization, as well as the travel bans Trump imposed on several countries, most with majority Muslim populations.

Biden has also pledged to pursue an extension of the New START nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, which expires in February and which Trump has flirted with quitting. In addition, Biden is expected to quickly launch an effort to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, which Trump also quit. Separately, Biden has promised to hold a summit for the world’s democracies in 2021.

Such a focus on multilateralism will be a significant change from Trump’s disdain for international cooperation and his often-bilateral view of the world, a European ambassador said, calling it “a starting point for working differently.”

Biden foreign policy adviser Jeff Prescott stressed that the contrast between Biden and Trump will overwhelm any similarities. “What people are going to be looking for is a sense that there’s an affirmative agenda that brings America back to playing a leadership role,” Prescott said. “As the vice president has said, he will say to our allies, ‘We’re back and we’ve got your back.’”

Many of Biden’s promises will be relatively easy to keep, requiring simply an executive order. But others will be more challenging.

A Central Asian ambassador pointed out that Biden’s promise to return to the Iran nuclear deal would be a 180-degree turn from Trump, but that’s only if both sides are willing to cross numerous logistical hurdles. The odds aren’t good, the ambassador argued. A GOP-run Senate may also seek ways to throw up new roadblocks.

The Iran deal “doesn’t really exist anymore,” the ambassador said. “How would that actually, practically change?”

Biden is expected to raise many of the same complaints about China that the Trump administration has voiced, from anger over its theft of intellectual property to warnings over its attempts to dominate the South China Sea. Biden has even hinted that he’ll leave on some of Trump’s tariffs on China, which were aimed at getting trade-related concessions from Beijing. He’s gone further than Trump has on the issue of China’s mass internment of Uighur Muslims, calling it a genocide.

European officials expect Biden to urge them to stand up to Beijing just as Trump has, but they hope — and anticipate — that Biden will be more open to working in a coalition with like-minded European countries as opposed to just making demands of them.

Along similar lines, there are hopes in Europe that Biden will drop some of the tariffs that Trump has imposed on European countries such as France and Germany. Biden aides have promised to end what one called Trump’s “artificial trade war” with European countries.

At the same time, they’ve made it clear that Biden won’t necessarily lift all tariffs immediately. Even before the economic damage caused by the coronavirus, Biden signaled he will look at trade and related issues in a far more skeptical way than he has in past decades.

He’s under pressure to do that not just because trade skepticism galvanized many Trump voters, but also because progressives to his left are pushing for a more cautious approach to international trade that doesn’t exacerbate economic inequality in America.

A European diplomat said one Biden move that could help relieve trade tensions is if his administration takes personnel-related steps to fix a dysfunctional World Trade Organization.

The Trump administration, for instance, has blocked the appointment of appellate judges needed to resolve disputes at the WTO. More recently, the administration signaled it will not support the candidate most other WTO member countries want to name as the organization’s new leader.

Biden also is expected to continue efforts by Obama and Trump to reduce if not fully end America’s military presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. That would be a piece of a broader strategic shift away from the Middle East and more toward focusing on China and Asia as a whole.

But unlike Trump, Biden is expected to coordinate more closely with European and other members of the NATO military alliance when it comes to making decisions about troop deployments. At the same time, Biden is expected to echo longstanding U.S. demands — voiced with unusual vehemence by Trump — that NATO members live up to commitments to spend more on defense.

“Europeans have realized they have to shoulder a greater burden for their own security,” the European ambassador said. “It’s not only a response to what happened in the U.S., but we need to do it because the world has changed and the geopolitics have changed.”

Many foreign diplomats expect that the coronavirus pandemic and resulting economic damage will eat up much of Biden’s time, especially during the early months. Some also predicted that the Republican Party will follow a similar strategy toward Biden that it did toward Obama: oppose virtually everything he tries to do.

Overall, though, they expect a calmer, more predictable U.S. foreign policy under Biden.

“If the people working with him on foreign policy today are confirmed for positions in his administration, these are people we know in Europe,” the European diplomat added.