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Donald Trump is a “symptom of malaise, and decline, and decay” in the US, his former top Russia expert Fiona Hill has observed. If some countries have thus seized upon his presidency as an opportunity, many have been horrified.
Few US elections were watched quite as anxiously as this one around the world. Widespread relief at Joe Biden’s victory is evident. Much foreign policy, unlike domestic, can be enacted by executive order, without the backing of the Senate. At the most basic level, he will be a president who is patient enough to read a report and knowledgeable enough to understand it; who grasps that America cannot prosper alone; who does not lavish praise on dictators while humiliating democratic allies; who listens to his own intelligence services over Vladimir Putin; and who will entrust Middle East policy to seasoned officials rather than his son-in-law.
Mr Biden has already vowed to undo many of Mr Trump’s decisions, rejoining the Paris climate change agreement and rescinding the order to withdraw from the World Health Organization. He plans to extend the soon-to-expire New Start treaty with Russia – the last arms control agreement standing. Tackling the pandemic is likely to be a priority for his international diplomacy: signing up to Covax – the global initiative to ensure that poorer nations also get a share of coronavirus vaccines – would send a powerful signal. More than 180 countries have already done so, including China.
The wait to enter the White House has dangers of its own. Other nations may take advantage of US distraction. The president-elect is not receiving intelligence briefings, leaving him in the dark as he prepares for office. There are anxieties that Mr Trump’s replacement of the defence secretary, Mark Esper, and other senior officials with loyalists may not just be payback for public disagreement, but about paving the way for action at home or abroad. Key administration officials have visited Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia since the election to discuss Iran, raising concerns that Mr Trump might yet pursue a scorched-earth policy – perhaps upping the pressure on Tehran so that it hits back, making it far harder to salvage the nuclear deal.
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The Trump administration has been much tougher on Beijing than anticipated, and has taken measures such as imposing sanctions on officials over human rights abuses in Xinjiang. Yet on this relationship, as elsewhere, the president has been both erratic and crudely transactional, making it clear that human rights concerns are barterable for a better deal on trade. The turn against China has also come across the political spectrum, in response to its actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and above all internationally. Countering such behaviour will require intelligence, experience (the state department has been hollowed out and politicised) and consistency. Shoring up international alliances is essential. Finding ways to support Taiwan that don’t backfire in the response they trigger from Beijing will be crucial – and extremely hard.
Critics of Mr Trump have sometimes taken an overly rosy view of US foreign policy before him. Mr Biden is likely, in essence, to pursue the status quo ante. But if Mr Trump recognised that America’s place in the world was changing, he has also sped its decline. That such a man could become president, and that he could govern as he has, has fundamentally diminished US standing. The world has watched in disbelief as the president has allowed coronavirus to ravage his nation – and now as he refuses to concede. Last week, Mike Pompeo, the secretary of state, attacked Beijing for crushing democracy in Hong Kong – but while opining, with a smirk, that at home there would be “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration”.
If large parts of the world thought the US was malign or at least deeply flawed before, they also thought it mostly functioning and competent, and often enviable. Demolition is an easier task than construction. Mr Biden will undo some of the worst aspects of the last four years, but he cannot erase them from the record.