Donald Trump may not be over the U.S. elections… but plenty of other countries sure are. As the congratulations for president-elect Joe Biden and vice president-elect Kamala Harris from foreign leaders stream in, here’s a quick look at which world leaders have the most to gain and lose with the changing of the guard in Washington.
THE BIG WINNERS:
Canada—There’s good reason why Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was among the first world leaders to congratulate Biden and Harris on their victory. Much like Trudeau himself, Biden is a committed multilateralist in a world that’s increasingly hostile to that approach to global politics. Now Trudeau gets to be neighbors with someone who will work with him to build many of these institutions back up rather than undermining them from within… particularly on critical issues like climate change. A Biden administration is also less likely to start random trade wars with its northern neighbor over aluminum. Pretty much the best Canada could have hoped for.
France—French President Emmanuel Macron is in the same boat as Trudeau—a defender of a multilateral order that has seen better days. Trump’s departure on that front alone would be considered a significant win for Paris, but you better believe the French are all too happy to be welcoming into the Oval Office a president who will treat Europe as the traditional ally that it’s been for the last 80 years rather than an overnight trade enemy. Just as importantly for Macron—the French president is preparing to assume the European leadership reins once Angela Merkel finally leaves Germany’s political scene, and that transition will be made easier with the knowledge that the U.S. president views countries like Russia and Turkey as the same kinds of threats as his French counterpart does.
Germany—Angela Merkel did her duty, acting as primary foil and de facto leader of the free world as the Trump era got underway. Now that the U.S. has elected a more traditional/predictable leader, Merkel can step back from politics knowing she did the best she could under trying circumstances… and Germany can (finally) figure out what comes next post-Merkel.
Japan—Remember in November 2016, when then Prime Minister Abe Shinzo rushed to be the first foreign leader to congratulate Trump in person on his election win? That’s the premium Japanese leaders place on the U.S.-Japan relationship—and the security guarantees that come with it. But Abe was unable to ever fully woo Trump, who complained the bilateral alliance doesn’t provide enough benefits for the U.S. and should be overhauled. Now that Trump is on his way out, the man who replaced Abe in September, Suga Yoshihide, can look forward to a calmer, more traditional relationship with the U.S. Biden assured Suga on a call that he considers the Senkaku islands, which Japan controls but China also claims, to be covered by a U.S. commitment to come to Japan’s aid in the event of a third-party attack. Past U.S. presidents (including Trump) have made this pledge, but Biden also having done so will help dispel fears in Tokyo that he might take Japan for granted or be “soft” on China.
THE “MOSTLY” WINNERS:
Iran—Another Trump win would have forced Tehran into the unenviable position of deciding between suffering through the pain of its faltering economy or negotiating with the administration of the man responsible for assassinating the popular Qassim Suleimani. But the return of Joe Biden to Washington is no guarantee that the U.S. will rejoin the JCPOA, or that the U.S. will provide Tehran any type of meaningful economic relief; it’s also far from guaranteed that Iran would eagerly return to the JCPOA without preconditions after having been burnt so badly by Trump’s abrupt withdrawal (and given that their frozen assets have already been handed over)… especially if hardliners manage to win upcoming Iranian elections. All that said, the departure of Trump is addition by subtraction to the U.S.-Iran relationship.
Mexico—Back in 2016, plenty expected Mexico to struggle mightily as the world headed into the Donald Trump era, especially given the vitriol Trump directed at the country during the campaign trail. And yet the reality of the past four years has been quite different, mostly a result of Mexico’s political leaders being extremely practical and (correctly) recognizing the U.S. as being asymmetrically more powerful, yielding a policy of non-confrontation. As of this writing, Mexico’s president Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (AMLO) still hasn’t congratulated Biden, but that has to do with his own history in contested presidential elections and a desire to avoid any scorched-earth policies from Trump until Biden can get sworn in. The Biden administration gets that, and they will be a much more predictable neighbor and one less likely to provoke a political crisis over migration issues. That said, a Biden administration is also more likely to emphasize labor and environmental standards than the Trump team ever did; it’s also possible tensions over AMLO’s state-centric policies impacting American renewable (and other) energy companies will emerge. Still, the changes work out in Mexico’s favor… plus they didn’t have to pay for that new, non-existent, wall.
South Korea—President Moon Jae-in remains keen to reengage North Korea and put the North-South relationship on a more even—and predictable—keel. But this already difficult task was made even more challenging by Trump constantly going off script in pursuit of his own political aims and budding bromance with Kim Jong-un, both of which resulted in big headlines but no progress toward persuading Kim to denuclearize. Now Seoul will have a partner in the White House more willing to coordinate to confront the North Korean challenge and who recognizes the geostrategic need for having U.S. troops stationed in South Korea—and won’t threaten to remove them if Seoul refuses to pay a lot more money for their upkeep. That said, Moon shouldn’t assume Biden will enthusiastically support Moon’s plans to pursue cross-border economic projects and cooperation with Pyongyang. Biden will be far more open than Trump to soliciting and accepting input from Seoul in formulating strategy vis-à-vis the North. But that doesn’t mean he’ll agree to give Kim gifts without getting some in return.
THE WINNERS WHO WOULD HAVE WON NO MATTER WHAT HAPPENED:
India—India’s Narendra Modi had one of the very best relationships with President Trump among world leaders, a function of his own personal politics as well as India’s critical geostrategic importance for a U.S. administration keen on taking the fight to China. While Modi’s Hindu nationalist politics will resonate less with President Biden, India’s position as a key part of the burgeoning Indo-Pacific strategy and potential as a counterweight to China in the region means it will retain a prime spot on the U.S. foreign policy agenda. And all that is before we mention Harris being the first person of Indian descent to make it to the vice presidency of the U.S.
Israel—The warm personal relationship between Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and Trump has netted Israel some clear wins, like getting the U.S. to move its embassy to Jerusalem and U.S.-brokered normalization of ties between Israel and Bahrain/UAE/others. But a president Biden is one of the most Israel-friendly politicians in Washington, and has no interest in expending the political capital to roll back any of these changes, changes that make both Israel and the Middle East more stable over the long-term. In other words, Israel got pretty much all it could out of Trump, and can use the next four years to help repair its relationship with the Democratic party—and with Biden’s help—to help restore U.S.-support for Israel to the bipartisan issue that it once was.
THE “KIND-OF” LOSERS:
The United Kingdom—Boris Johnson has been banking on a U.S.-U.K. trade deal as a sort of backstop in case a Brexit agreement couldn’t be reached with Brussels. With Biden on his way to the White House, that is looking increasingly unlikely… and Brussels knows it. That makes Johnson’s already difficult task of balancing a sufficiently hard Brexit deal (which he campaigned on), a poor COVID-19 response and an internal rebellion among hardline Brexiteers within his government that much harder… all while maintaining support from an increasingly frustrated British public. And we didn’t even get to the part where Biden explicitly warned the U.K. from taking any moves that threatens reimposing a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, a personal issue for the former Senator from Delaware with Irish roots. On the plus side, Brexiting in a world with a Biden sitting in the White House will be less chaotic than the alternative. So that’s something.
Saudi Arabia—Saudi Arabia will continue to remain a top-3 ally of the U.S. in the region (Israel and the UAE being the other two) under a president Biden given its wealth, energy and geostrategic importance in the region, but they are about to lose their particularly privileged position that they enjoyed under Trump. To say nothing of the fact that with Trump they finally had a U.S. president willing to make deals (and overlook thorny issues like human rights abuses), and one as oriented against Tehran as Saudi Arabia’s own political leadership. Not to mention they’re less relevant in the eyes of the most environmentally-oriented president in U.S. history. Needless to say, the Saudis will need to tread more carefully around Biden, and will need to brace for more potential trade-offs than they have had to make these last four years.
United Arab Emirates—See above, but replace the words “Saudi Arabia” with “United Arab Emirates.”
THE CLEAR LOSERS:
Brazil—Can one be the “Trump of the Tropics” if the original Trump no longer has a job? We’re about to find out. The one thing we know for certain is that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro is about to lose the most visible world leader who largely agreed with his approach to global politics—complete with climate change denial—that gave Bolsonaro some cover on the global stage. With Trump’s exit, Bolsonaro now becomes the torchbearer for this particular kind of politics, and it’s far from clear he’s ready for that role. To say nothing of the fact that Bolsonaro now needs to deal with a U.S. president that is about to make the environment a priority. Hard to see how the next few years will get any easier for Bolsonaro.
Russia—And what did Russia get for having the most pro-Russia U.S. president in generations sitting in the Oval Office? Shockingly little… which is what happens when the president is a fan, but the rest of Washington (Republican, Democrats, and the national security establishment) is most decidedly not. From that perspective, a Trump loss isn’t a devastating blow for Moscow. But when your country has spent the past four years trying to stoke divisions in the U.S. and inserting itself in all manner of geopolitical hotspots around the world, losing a figure as divisive as Trump—and replacing him with the consensus-building Biden—you’re not moving in the right direction.
Turkey—Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan really didn’t need the additional hit of a Trump loss this year. COVID has squeezed Turkey’s already-ailing economy, which in turn has squeezed Erdogan’s popularity. His response? Taking aggressive moves abroad to change the narrative back home. Hence the Turkish forays into the Eastern Mediterranean, in Nagorno-Karabakh, in Syria, in Libya… all made possible by Trump’s broad indifference to anything outside his immediate orbit, and Erdogan’s personally warm relationship with Trump. That’s about to change with a President Biden who will take a more active interest in E.U. and global affairs, which makes life a whole lot more challenging for Erdogan both at home and abroad.
DEPENDS WHO YOU ASK:
China—One of the principal reasons China has been so successful in recent years is that it has taken a comprehensively strategic approach to global affairs. Biden’s victory will be viewed through that same strategic lens; in the short term, a Biden presidency benefits China as it relieves some of the short-term pressure on the U.S.-China relationship (though, critically, it doesn’t fundamentally improve the trajectory of it) and brings more predictability to the global economy, which China needs to continue its economic rise. The stability a Biden presidency ushers in also buys China time to build up its resiliency to whatever trade and tech fights lay ahead. On the other hand, a second Trump term would have provided China a bigger opening—and a more compelling argument—that the world needs more Chinese global leadership, not less.
LET’S FACE IT, WE HAVE NO IDEA:
North Korea—Will Kim Jong-un’s regime be upset that the most overtly friendly U.S. leader it has seen in decades is on his way out, even if he didn’t deliver a deal that declared peace or eased sanctions? Or will Kim be open to structured negotiations with a U.S. president who will demand more concessions but also be more likely to honor, and build broad support in Washington for, a good-faith compromise between the U.S. and North Korea if one is ever reached? Whether Kim welcomes Biden with a show of force in the coming months will provide some sense of how a Kim-Biden combo might play out. But it will be hard for Kim to resist doing something naughty to make sure he has Biden’s attention. Anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen… is lying to you.
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