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What a Biden presidency means for the rest of the world

The president-elect has told foreign leaders: ‘America is back’. What does he mean? Our global team take a look.

11 November 2020
Biden could be hamstrung domestically by a Senate deadlock – will he focus on international relations instead?
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More women in the Global South will get vital health services

Lydia Namubiru, Africa Editor, 50.50

Within days of assuming office, Joe Biden is expected to rescind the ‘global gag rule’.  This will have a major impact on women’s health services in the Global South – including access to contraception, HIV/AIDS testing and care, tuberculosis (TB) treatment and many other services.

The infamous Mexico City Policy, first implemented by the Reagan administration in 1984, forbids the use of US government funding for abortion abroad. It means that NGOs performing abortions, lobbying for fewer abortion restrictions or even running public education campaigns that include advice on abortion cannot access US funds.

In a decades-long game of political football, every Democrat President since Bill Clinton has rescinded the global gag rule; and every Republican president has re-implemented it. But the Trump administration went much further: substantially expanding the kinds of US funding withheld from healthcare providers globally. 

It has meant, for example, that healthcare providers who advise paying clients in urban clinics about abortion have been unable to access US government funding to provide other critical services – such as HIV testing and counselling, contraception or even baby nutritional advice to poorer rural women elsewhere.

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Under Trump, 55 global healthcare providers refused to comply with these restrictions, including International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) and Marie Stopes International (MSI). Embassies and other US government offices abroad tried to find alternative organisations to provide the health services they were funding and implementing.

It didn't always work. The latest report from the Trump administration reviewing this policy says, "in the Republics of Liberia and Togo, for example, no other partners that operate in-country are prepared to implement integrated, voluntary family planning through both mobile outreach and local fixed clinics, as IPPF affiliates had been doing." It also mentions disruptions in Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mali and Madagascar. 

Even if the Biden administration rolls back the restriction as expected, advocates for global reproductive health rights will now be pushing for a full repeal of the law – pointing out that poor women in countries like Togo, Liberia and across the Global South are still vulnerable, come the next Republican president. 

No more enabling of Latin American demagogues and less intervention

Diana Cariboni, Latin America Commissioning Editor, 50.50

Francesc Badia i Dalmases, Director, democraciaAbierta

Bolsanoro has been firmly on Trump’s team throughout his presidency.
Bolsanoro has been firmly on Trump’s team throughout his presidency. | PA Images

Biden will replace a president who was a formidable enabler of Latin American authoritarians like Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele. The president-elect may also bring an end to an immigration policy that insults and persecutes Latin Americans who emigrate to the United States.

With Biden there’s a chance for a reset in US-Latin America relations, too. But it’s going too far to imagine another moment like 2016, when Barack Obama and Raúl Castro sat together to watch a baseball game in Havana.

The Biden administration will, however, have an impact on Venezuela. Perhaps Washington can’t do much about this never-ending disaster, but ending Trump’s punitive sanctions regime could be a step in the right direction. 

There are several other crises right now in the region – including Colombia’s failed peace process – and none of the region’s intergovernmental organisations are succeeding in tackling them. We are short of multilateralism and cooperation. Could Biden break this deadlock without patronising us? 

It’s likely, however, that the former vice president will pay Latin America less attention and focus more on China; Biden was a key player in President Barack Obama’s pivot to Asia. He may limit his interventions in Latin America to environmental policy. That will be a blessing in a region already doomed by the climate crisis, COVID-driven economic meltdown and a sharp rise in poverty and inequality. 

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Un mural contra Trump en Caracas, Venezuela, en Octubre 2020. | Humberto Matheus/SIPA USA/PA Images

Hope for the Amazon and its peoples

Manuella Libardi, Content editor, democraciaAbierta

During the September presidential debate, Biden mentioned the recent fires that have been ravaging the Amazon, vowing to raise $20 billion dollars to fight deforestation. He threatened “significant economic consequences” if Brazil failed “to stop destroying the forest”.

The statement was perceived in Brazil as an attack on President Jair Bolsonaro’s pro-extractivism and anti-environment agenda. In response, Bolsonaro took to Twitter to slam Biden’s remarks as “pitiful”, “disastrous and unnecessary”, contending that Brazil’s “sovereignty” is “non-negotiable”.

Biden’s position reflects the west’s increasing attention to the climate crisis. All eyes will be on Brazil and its environmental protection policies, which Bolsonaro has severely undermined since taking office in 2019.

Bolsonaro has placed renewed importance on Brazil-US relations, often using Trump’s own tactics to attack China, Brazil’s top trading partner. With Biden in the White House, he will have to make a choice whether to remain closely tied to the US, Brazil’s second-largest trading partner. Given the historic influence of the US in Brazilian foreign affairs, he will likely have to settle for doing so. Hopefully, the Amazon and its peoples will benefit. 

Continued support for African and Arab dictators

Walid El Houri, Editor, North Africa, West Asia

In north Africa and west Asia, US involvement, whether under a Democrat or a Republican, has historically entailed support for despots, corrupt regimes, war, oil, and a clear alliance with Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights. 

But during his four years in office Donald Trump took this precedent to a whole new level. During his tenure, the US quit the Iran deal; moved the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem’ and imposed the infamous “deal of the century –  essentially ending any chance of a viable Palestinian state or justice for Palestinians. It was a clear signal that the US no longer pretends to play the role of mediator, but rather serve as a spokesperson for Israeli ambitions. 

Meanwhile, Trump was also clear in his support for regimes mired by human rights abuses. Wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya and Iraq raged at the expense of thousands of lives. 

The question today is whether a Biden presidency will just add a friendly diplomatic face to the same destructive policies, or fundamentally change them. Few will be holding their breath for the latter. 

Palestinians around the world wait to see what a Biden presidency will do for recovering their rights. Though it is unlikely that the president-elect will take any progressive stance in this regard, a more realistic hope would be a return to some form of negotiations. But much damage has already been done. 

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Palestinian women take part in a protest against US President Donald Trump's "deal of the century" in Gaza city, on February 10, 2020. | Picture by Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto/PA Images. All rights reserved

What is likely to change, though, is US relations with Iran. For better or worse, this situation holds the fate of millions in the region hostage in its proxy wars. A return to diplomacy here is likely. 

The Biden administration’s relationship with Iran will also have knock-on effects for its relationships with Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, and the future of the war in Yemen. Biden might not be as strong a supporter as Trump is for the Saudi monarch’s belligerent strategy in the region.

One thing is certain: Trump supported ruthless dictators across the region, despite grave human rights abuses, and Biden will continue to do the same. But, unlike Trump, he will at least talk about democracy and human rights.   

This might sound trivial, but one thing that we have learned from Trump's presidency is that words do matter. 

No substantive progress in Russia and Central Asia

Tom Rowley, Editor, oDR

Both during the election and after, there’s been a consensus among US-Russia experts: Biden will mean a “stability” or “predictability” when it comes to relations with Russia. There was talk of a reset under Trump too, but it never happened. Instead, there was a somewhat chaotic pattern of friendly talk and direct contest, all set against the backdrop of very public investigations into Russian interference in the 2016 election and Trump’s impeachment.

Aside from the more procedural issues of arms control and NATO, the incoming administration will have to contend with four major issues when it comes to the post-Soviet space: Nagorno-Karabakh, Belarus’ pro-democracy standoff, and the ongoing wars in Ukraine and Syria. All of these are human tragedies in their own right, with many looking to the international community for some kind of leadership. 

Perhaps it is my scepticism or perception of American decline, but it is hard to believe that the US will manage to make substantive progress in terms of its own goals in any of these conflicts. Biden may have a history of engagement with Russia and, indeed, Ukraine, but it will require talent and sheer determination to exceed expectations.

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An even-more isolated Boris Johnson

Caroline Molloy, Editor, openDemocracyUK

Johnson previously praised Trump for “making America great again”.
Johnson previously praised Trump for “making America great again”. | Stefan Rousseau/PA Wire/PA Images

Trump indulged the Brexiteers’ vision of the UK as a deregulated Atlantic ‘bridge’ for US interests, free from the European Union’s consumer protections. But how much difference Biden’s more pro-European stance will make in the short term in the UK is debatable. 

In terms of trade and the economy, Biden’s gaze, like that of most of his compatriots, is fixed more steadily across the Pacific than the Atlantic. It’s been mooted that both the EU and, as an afterthought, the UK, could eventually join a Asia-Pacific trade deal which pointedly excludes China. But these are long-term, albeit worrisomely comprehensive, plans. 

“The sudden outpouring of green-speak from Downing Street gives a clue as to where Johnson sees his best chance to play Churchill to Biden’s FDR.”

Some in the UK are still holding out for the prospect of a quick UK-US deal to smooth the path to a EU agreement. But from Biden’s point of view, there are too many hurdles, and many suspect his focus for the next couple of years will be domestic. 

The sudden outpouring of green-speak from Downing Street gives a clue as to where Johnson sees his best chance to play Churchill to Biden’s FDR on the world stage, particularly with Britain chairing both the G7 and UN climate conference next year. 

But the greatest impact of a Biden administration may be political and cultural, rather than economic. Biden’s close associates have expressed strong distaste at Johnson’s embrace of Trump’s racist rhetoric, including the British PM’s quips about Obama’s “part-Kenyan heritage”

Without Trump in the White House, Johnson’s own bombast and casual relationship with the truth may start to look a little uglier and more inappropriate. But we should not be complacent. Britain has been a significant focus of Trump’s culture warriors, and Trumpism has not gone away. The fight for hearts and minds will continue to rage, including on social media, and US big money will continue to influence that fight.

International collaboration on fighting COVID

Kerry Cullinan, Health editor, 50.50

Joe Biden indicated in his first speech as president-elect that he would keep the US in the World Health Organization (WHO). This restores the possibility of achieving global consensus on the world’s most pressing health problems, including how to address COVID-19 and distribute vaccines. It also means that the WHO will have the resources it needs: the US is its biggest donor, contributing $893 million in the last financial year. 

A return to rule of law

Charlotte Threipland, Editor, openJustice

Trump and newly appointed supreme court justice Amy Coney Barrett
Trump and newly appointed supreme court justice Amy Coney Barrett | PA Image

Donald Trump’s disdain for the rule of law has been clear since 1989. That year, he paid thousands of dollars to place adverts in various New York newspapers implicitly calling for the Central Park Five, a group of teenagers wronglyful accused of raping a woman in New York, to be executed. Trump had decided their guilt before the law had (or perhaps he didn't care either way) and used them to galvanise public support for the death penalty. According to a lawyer involved in the case, the ads may also have had an influence on the jury’s decision to – wrongfully – convict the youths.

That was more than 30 years ago but it was a sign of things to come. Throughout his presidency, Trump has continued to disregard legal process when it suits his personal or political ends. Biden is the polar opposite to Trump on matters of legal process, emphasising the importance of independence and impartiality. He has pledged to put together a bipartisan commission to make recommendations on the US court system to stop it becoming a “political football”. 

Kamala Harris, as a former district attorney and state attorney general, understands the importance of an effective justice system. A Biden-Harris administration may not be progressive but, going forward, it will seek to restore the status quo.

Nevertheless, it’s unlikely to be able to undo some of the damage that Trump has already done. Trump has politicised the courts and sown the seeds of distrust in the justice system in the minds of many conservatives.

If Biden’s administration is deeply committed to the rule of law, Trump should be prosecuted for his list of suspected crimes that include tax fraud and the obstruction of justice. Unless he is held accountable, this will underscore a longstanding and fundamental problem for justice in the US (and the UK) – that those with wealth and power are above the law. 

A setback for Europe’s nationalist populist leaders – but not for fascism

Rosemary Bechler, Editor, Can Europe Make it?

A Biden presidency represents a setback for Europe’s nationalist populist leaders – from Hungary’s Victor Orbán to Boris Johnson in the UK – who saw in Trump a leader and a role model. For Europe’s liberal leaders, Trump’s exit will be a relief. He spent his presidency criticising NATO, stoking trade wars with the European Union, undermining international law, and ripping up multilateral agreements and institutions. Biden, they must hope, will reverse much of this damage.

But it would be a terrible mistake for Europeans to assume that Trumpism has gone away, given the 70 million US votes that he received, or that the rising far right across Europe will be deterred for long by his loss. As Italian political scientist Nathalie Tocci argues, Trump’s worldview has made “inroads across generations, gender and ethnic backgrounds” and “is a reality we cannot ignore” in Europe any more than in the US.

Moreover, with neocons back in the Pentagon, the US-China confrontation is bound to deepen, at a time when toxic, political polarisation, deepening social divisions and economic inequalities are threatening all our democracies. Under these circumstances, it’s vital that Europeans pull together to prove that democratic systems of governance are effective in response to public health crises. China has thrown down a gauntlet that both Biden’s US, and the EU, will have to take up in ways as yet unimagined.

An almighty battle between the climate movement and fossil fuel companies

Adam Ramsay, Mainsite editor

Activist movements contributed to Biden's victory by driving voter turnout in decisive states.
Activist movements contributed to Biden's victory by driving voter turnout in decisive states. | PA Images

The climate movement in the US, and its close allies in the Bernie Sanders campaign, managed to extract a series of surprisingly radical pledges from Joe Biden in exchange for bolstering his ground game. 

Biden has pledged to scrap the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to carry tar sands – one of the dirtiest, most-carbon intensive fuels – from Canada to the US. The project became a key target for the climate movement, partly because its carbon footprint is large enough to push global climate change beyond a number of dangerous tipping points. But also because of the significant damage the pipeline would do to indigenous lands and waters.

Biden has also pledged to rejoin the Paris Agreement and hit net zero carbon emissions by 2050 with a version of left-wing Democrats’ Green New Deal. He has also centred environmental racism, saying on his website that he will “stand up to the abuse of power by polluters who disproportionately harm communities of color and low-income communities”.

Sticking to these promises will require a willingness to bankrupt many of the world's largest fossil fuel companies, whose balance sheets rely on being able to realise the value of coal, oil and gas in their known reserves. 

Over the next four years, we can expect an almighty battle between young climate activists, like the nationwide climate justice collective Sunrise Movement, and oil lobbyists and firms swelled by Obama’s climate-busting fracking boom. 

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