President Trump with Saudi crown prince Mohammed bin Salman in the Oval Office on March 14, 2017. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
On his first foreign trip as commander in chief, President Trump went to Saudi Arabia and touched an orb. The surreal 2017 photo op of Trump flanked by Saudi King Salman and the autocratic Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi, as well as the speech the president delivered in Riyadh then, signaled a theme that lingered through the rest of his presidency. Here was an American leader who was willing to de-prioritize questions of human rights, more eager to champion might over diplomacy, and more at ease with strongmen and unelected potentates.
Now the geopolitical landscape is shifting as the world comes to terms with Trump’s defeat in last week’s U.S. presidential election. Though a flurry of world leaders moved quickly to congratulate Joe Biden on his win, others were more conspicuous in either their silence or reticence.
In the latter camp were Trump’s hosts in Riyadh. More than 24 hours after U.S. networks called the election for Biden, King Salman and the influential Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman sent their pro forma congratulations. They know a Democratic administration may represent a significant change in their political fortunes. Biden will probably push to both revive nuclear negotiations with Saudi arch rival Iran and ease Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign. He may also have bipartisan congressional support to drawdown U.S. support for the Saudi-led war in Yemen.
Moreover, Biden advisers have made clear that, under his watch, the United States will reevaluate the overall relationship with Saudi Arabia (and, possibly, Egypt). That includes pushing for some further actions following the killing of Saudi dissident journalist and Washington Post contributor Jamal Khashoggi. Trump, whose priority remained making sure the Saudis kept buying U.S. arms, shielded Riyadh from congressional rebuke. But Biden is expected to take a tougher line and could extract certain public concessions, including the release of a host of detained Saudi civil society activists.
“Issues like arms sales, issues like human rights — there certainly will be a different approach on that,” said Dennis Ross, a former U.S. diplomat and fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, in a recent webinar.
The dictatorial leaders of Russia, North Korea and China had yet to publicly comment on Biden’s victory. Though at odds with Trump on some fronts, they have benefited from the disruption he represented on the world stage. Biden’s return to the White House after eight years as vice president in the Obama administration would see a reinvigoration of the U.S.’s traditional alliances and fewer avenues for geopolitical opportunism.
“They are going to be very unhappy,” Andrei Lankov, a professor of North Korean studies at Kookmin University in Seoul, told my colleagues in reference to the inner circle of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with whom Trump claimed “a special relationship.”
Biden may pick up where the Trump administration left off with nuclear negotiations with the Kremlin, but will seek to more aggressively stand up to Russia’s perceived interference in elections and conflicts elsewhere. “Moscow sees downsides to a Biden presidency, including his expected re-engagement with NATO,” wrote my colleague Isabella Khurshudyan. “Biden also has signaled harsher measures, perhaps in the form of more sanctions, for Russia’s interference in Western democracies.”
“We expect a massive toughening of the stance towards Russia,” a high-ranking western diplomat in Washington told the Financial Times. “There is a hatred for Russia amongst [Biden’s team] that is really amazing. It’s not just rational; it’s also very emotional.”
Biden has announced a plan to host a “Summit for Democracy” soon after taking office. It would bring together numerous “like-minded nations” in a bid to bolster what many experts see as the flagging fortunes of liberal democracy in parts of the world. Whether that initiative succeeds or not, it’s a sign that a Biden administration would eschew Trump’s coddling of demagogues and illiberal nationalists.
Among the list of those likely left in the cold are Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — one of Trump’s closest foreign allies; Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, whose corruption scandals at home and misadventures in Syria Trump appeared to disregard; and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has mocked the “moral imperialism” of American liberals.
Trump’s envoy in Budapest defended Orban’s creeping authoritarianism and crackdowns on civil society and independent universities. The Hungarian leader may be out of luck with Biden.
“Trump’s presidency meant unconditional support from Washington,” Peter Kreko, director of the Budapest-based Political Capital Institute, told my colleagues. “I think a Joe Biden administration would be much tougher on Hungary, on democratic backsliding and corruption related to Chinese and Russian investments, where Trump just looked away.”
For Netanyahu, who is again leading a government plunged in domestic political turmoil, Biden’s ascension may narrow his scope for provocative action. The Israeli prime minister was a vocal opponent of the Obama administration’s overtures to Iran. In the months that remain before Biden’s inauguration, the Trump administration, backed by the Saudis, Israelis and Emiratis, may ratchet up punitive measures on Tehran to make Biden’s path toward rapprochement even more difficult.
Of course, it’s still too early to gauge how dramatic a change Biden will represent. His moderate politics and establishment bonafides will reassure some jittery allies, but unnerve others. He still has to contend with trouble at home: In Washington, after all, the election is not even a settled matter, with Senate Republicans lining up behind Trump’s effort to contest the results on baseless allegations of fraud.
That lingering crisis is feeding into politics elsewhere. Trump-era conspiracy theories have already crossed the Atlantic and inflamed corners of Europe’s far right. Speaking to Today’s WorldView during a webinar Monday, Célia Belin of the Brookings Institution suggested the “sense of victimhood” some of the continent’s alienated ultranationalists may feel is now getting “reflected in the plight of Trump at the moment.”
Though Trump grasps at straws in his bid to keep power, he was backed by more than 70 million American voters. “This election was not a full rejection of Trumpism,” said Belin, adding that it sent a message that “nationalist populist movements have strength.” And they may gain more strength after Biden enters the White House.