A Joe Biden presidency: The likely winners and losers among world leaders

Rightwing populists will be scrambling to adapt to the departure of Donald Trump

Addressing the media in Wilmington, Delaware, US president-elect Joe Biden says nothing will stop the transition of power, even as president Donald Trump refuses to concede. Video: Reuters

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The president of the US does a lot to set the tone of global politics. The themes and language used by the occupant of the Oval Office are usually swiftly picked up by politicians all over the globe. Most nations want friendly relations with the world’s most powerful country.

Even a president as unorthodox as Donald Trump has gathered acolytes and emulators outside America. Trump’s favourite phrases – such as “fake news” – were picked up by leaders as diverse as Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Israel’s Binyamin Netanyahu. The fashion for denouncing “liberal elites” has also gone global in the Trump years – including by supporters of Narendra Modi, the Indian prime minister, and by Britain’s Brexiteers.

But while rightwing populists will be scrambling to adapt to a Joe Biden presidency, more liberal leaders will be relieved by the change of leadership in the US. Angela Merkel of Germany and Justin Trudeau of Canada had difficult relationships with Trump. Many European leaders were worried that a second Trump administration could see the US withdraw from Nato and attempt to undermine the EU. There will be delight in Brussels and Berlin that Trump is on his way out.

The attitude of Asian democracies may be more equivocal. Trump has proved to be a fickle and sometimes abusive ally. But the governments of Japan, Australia and Taiwan have appreciated his tougher line on China. They may be apprehensive about what happens under a Biden administration.

THE LOSERS

Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel

Israel’s prime minister enjoyed close relations with Donald Trump and his son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner. In last year’s parliamentary elections, Binyamin Netanyahu campaigned on his close ties with the US president.

Washington made decisions regarded as beneficial to Israel, including recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Its Middle East peace plan was rejected by the Palestinians.

On Sunday Netanyahu congratulated Joe Biden, a supporter of close Israel-US relations, underlining his “long and warm personal relationship” with the president-elect. However, Biden is expected to take a more even-handed approach than his predecessor.

Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia

The Saudi crown prince has cemented his grip on power during Donald Trump’s presidency. As he purged rivals at home, Mohammed’s direct line to the Trump family damped pushback against his regional adventurism, from the war in Yemen to the embargo of US ally Qatar.

Saudi Arabia, which cheered when Trump tore up the Iran nuclear deal, now fears the revival of its arch-rival Tehran if the president-elect rejoins the accord.

Joe Biden has also vowed the 2018 murder of Saudi dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi would not be “in vain”, pledging to reassess relations with the kingdom, to end support for the Yemen war and make sure “America does not check its values at the door to sell arms or buy oil”.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey

The Turkish president and Donald Trump enjoy a natural rapport and a shared taste for transactional politics. The US president shielded Turkey from facing financial sanctions for purchasing an air defence system from Russia. He also intervened in a criminal investigation against the Turkish state-owned lender Halkbank at Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s request.

Biden – who has previously described Erdogan as an “autocrat”– will need to balance a desire to take a stand against Turkish policies he considers wrong with the need to avoid alienating a strategically important Nato member that borders Syria, Iraq and Iran. But analysts say that, unlike Trump, he will be unlikely to do personal favours for the Turkish president.

Viktor Orban, Hungary

The Hungarian prime minister, who has consolidated control over the country’s institutions during his decade in power, was the first European leader to endorse Trump in 2016. While the race was under way, Viktor Orban lambasted what he said was the “moral imperialism” of Democrats.

“Since Trump became president, Hungarian-American relations are better than ever,” Orban said in his Friday radio address.

Peter Szijjarto, Orban’s foreign minister, attacked Biden at the end of October after the former vice-president critiqued Poland and Hungary as being part of “a rise in totalitarian regimes in the world”. Orban had clashed fiercely with Barack Obama, who Biden served as vice-president.

Boris Johnson, UK

Whether on Brexit, race or trade, the British prime minister has found himself on the wrong side of the incoming US president. Joe Biden warned Johnson during the campaign not to undermine the Belfast Agreement – a core part of the president-elect’s Irish identity – while his aides have not forgiven the prime minister’s unfortunate reference to Barack Obama’s “part-Kenyan” heritage.

Biden regards the UK’s departure from the EU as a historic error and will be in no rush to push through a free-trade deal with Brexit Britain. While policy means the two countries are bound together, it is difficult to imagine the transatlantic bonding that typically forms between the UK and the US.

Jair Bolsonaro, Brazil

The Brazilian president is one of Donald Trump’s closest political and ideological allies. In the two years since his election, Bolsonaro has followed the US lead on foreign policy issues from climate change to relations with China and Venezuela – a big change for a country that has historically prided itself on a more neutral, nonaligned foreign policy.

As the outcome of the US election began to emerge last week, Bolsonaro started hedging his rhetoric, telling supporters that “Trump is not the most important person in the world”. The change in tone reflects a stark reality facing Bolsonaro under a Biden presidency: Brazil will need to overhaul its foreign policy or face isolation.

Vladimir Putin, Russia

The Russian president, accused of meddling in the 2016 election to help elect Donald Trump, has so far declined to recognise Joe Biden’s victory, while Kremlin-controlled media and senior Russian officials have regurgitated his rival’s claims of a “stolen election”.

Moscow has reason to feel glum: while Trump has praised Putin’s leadership, Biden has vowed to step up pressure on the Kremlin as part of a pledge to target autocracies and promote human rights under his incoming administration’s foreign policy. Beefed-up sanctions, renewed backing of Nato and stronger support for Ukraine are all likely.

Kim Jong-un, North Korea

Donald Trump’s defeat draws to a close a volatile chapter of US-North Korea relations, characterised by dangerous weapons tests and unusual American overtures to Kim. Joe Biden has signalled an end to the theatrical summitry favoured by his predecessor, who met the North Korean dictator three times.

The Biden administration’s deprioritisation of North Korea will deliver a blow to Kim, whose legitimacy on the world stage was bolstered by his personal dealings with Trump. But cooling ties risks sparking military provocations by Pyongyang as it seeks to resume talks over crippling sanctions.

Narendra Modi, India

The good rapport between the Indian and US leaders was on display in a joint mass rally last year in Houston – where Modi appeared to endorse Donald Trump’s re-election – and in Ahmedabad.

Strategic ties have deepened, as Washington offered New Delhi more advanced military equipment and sided with India in the Himalayan border stand-off with China. Trump turned a blind eye to policies seen as eroding India’s secular foundations, marginalising Muslims and cracking down on dissent.

The relationship could grow more fractious as Joe Biden has pledged a values-based foreign policy, which could put the spotlight on India’s record on human rights and religious freedoms. However, Indian officials note the bilateral relationship has steadily improved as the US looks to India to counter China.

Andrés Manuel López Obrador, Mexico

The leftist populist Mexican president and Donald Trump co-operated on Washington’s tough immigration policies – many of which Joe Biden plans to reverse. Because of Mexico’s economic dependence on the US and their long common border, López Obrador has the most to lose from a poor relationship with his new neighbour.

The Mexican leader has refused to congratulate Biden until Trump’s legal challenges are resolved. Joaquín Castro, a Democratic congressman from Texas who is chair of the Hispanic caucus, called the decision to hold off congratulations “a stunning diplomatic failure”. Mexico can expect more pressure on labour relations, the environment, human rights and anti-corruption, said Verónica Ortiz, head of Comexi, a foreign affairs think-tank.

THE WINNERS

Hassan Rouhani, Iran

The Iranian president – who gambled on the 2015 nuclear agreement as his signature achievement – suffered a huge blow after Donald Trump pulled the US out of the deal in 2018 and reimposed crippling sanctions.

Before he steps down next summer, Rouhani hopes Joe Biden will return to the historic deal. “Now, there is an opportunity for the next US administration ... to return to its international commitments,” Rouhani said following Biden’s win. “The Islamic republic ... considers constructive interaction with the world as its strategy.”

His hardline opponents might hamper these efforts. They hope to win the presidential election after which they – rather than Rouhani – could receive the credit for a change in the US’s stance.

Angela Merkel, Germany

Germany is one of the countries that stands to gain the most from a Biden presidency. Under Donald Trump, relations between the two countries dropped to historic lows. He routinely castigated Berlin for its relatively low defence spending, high current account surplus and backing for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline that will bring Russian gas directly to Europe.

On the day Joe Biden won, Heiko Maas, Germany’s foreign minister, offered Washington a “new deal” – a fresh start in transatlantic relations. He said Berlin would offer the new administration “concrete proposals” on how to deal with China, climate change and the pandemic. Merkel, who had a notoriously testy relationship with Trump, noted she remembered “good meetings and conversations” with Biden.

Justin Trudeau, Canada

The Canadian prime minister can look forward to a significant decrease in trade tensions, with the Biden administration unlikely to continue the tariff war over Canadian aluminium imports to the US. As recently as this summer, the Trump administration slapped fresh tariffs on certain kinds of Canadian aluminium, which it argued undermined US production and therefore presented a national security threat to the US.

Justin Trudeau will also welcome the Biden administration’s renewed focus on climate change and environmental protections. While investing in green energy and reducing carbon emissions have been key policies for Trudeau’s Liberal Party, the Trump administration withdrew from the Paris climate agreement and has not supported any multilateral efforts to combat climate change.

Emmanuel Macron, France

The French president earned his nickname of the “Trump-whisperer” by trying harder than most western European leaders to forge a good relationship with the president. He courted Donald Trump and pointed out to his EU colleagues that most of the US president’s more outrageous decisions – such as pulling of the Paris climate accord – were fulfilling campaign promises and unlikely to be reversed.

Emmanuel Macron came close to organising a negotiation between Trump and Iran’s Hassan Rouhani. In the end, hemmed in by hardliners in Tehran, Rouhani backed out. But even Macron has found it impossible to overcome Trump’s unpredictability. He will welcome the arrival of the more multilateral-minded Joe Biden, whom he has never met in person but who has promised to rejoin the Paris climate accord.

Nicolás Maduro, Venezuela

Venezuela’s leftwing president looks set to outlast Trump, despite vigorous US efforts over the past four years to dislodge him. Maduro’s revolutionary socialist government hopes Joe Biden will ease sweeping US sanctions that have exacerbated a humanitarian crisis brought about by years of misrule.

Within hours of the US election result being declared, Maduro said in a tweet that Venezuela “will always be ready for dialogue and understanding with the people and government of the United States”. However, Biden has been critical of the Maduro regime and described Venezuela’s leader as a dictator.

Former senior US officials believe Biden’s administration will offer Maduro some concessions to ease the humanitarian suffering exacerbated by the sanctions. They also think there will be a renewed effort to find a negotiated solution to the crisis, rather than simply trying to force Maduro out by choking the economy.

Alberto Fernández, Argentina

The country could be one of Latin America’s biggest beneficiaries, given Joe Biden’s need for diplomatic partners to promote US interests in regional stability and prosperity, especially in Venezuela. However, tensions could soon emerge if Washington fails to support a new International Monetary Fund programme desperately needed to stabilise Argentina’s struggling economy.

Donald Trump’s top adviser on Latin America had boycotted the leftwing Fernández’s inauguration, and Argentina had opposed the Trump administration’s nominee to lead the Inter-American Development Bank.

“A Biden victory [will] turn the page on Argentina’s complicated relationship with the Trump White House, ” said Benjamin Gedan, who leads the Argentina project at the Wilson Center, a think-tank. But he warned that old tensions, including over Argentina’s close ties to China, would remain.

WAIT AND SEE

Xi Jinping, China

The Chinese president probably won’t have to worry about sudden US tariff increases on his country’s exports or sanctions being slapped on Chinese companies with little or no warning once Joe Biden is in the White House.

The vicissitudes of dealing with Donald Trump will soon give way to more predictable diplomatic communication between the world’s two largest economies.

But the short-term headaches Trump gave Xi were regarded as worth the longer-term “strategic opportunities” that China reaped over the past four years as the US withdrew from global leadership roles in areas ranging from climate change to world health. Trump also did much to alienate European allies eager to work with Washington in confronting Xi’s administration. In some ways Trump will be missed in Beijing.

Yoshihide Suga, Japan

Japan’s new prime minister is a winner from Joe Biden’s victory. Suga, who is less keen on golfing and taking selfies than Shinzo Abe, would have struggled to match the personal rapport his predecessor had established with Donald Trump.

On substance, however, it is too soon to tell whether Japan will benefit from the change in the White House. Some Trump irritants will go away, such as demands Japan pay more for US bases, but Biden’s stance on core Japanese interests such as China and a US return to the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal is less clear.

Economically, Japanese companies rely on healthy demand from the US. The Tokyo stock market hit new highs as the US election result became clear on hopes of an American coronavirus stimulus package.

Reporting by Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem, Simeon Kerr in Dubai, Laura Pitel in Ankara, Valerie Hopkins in Budapest, Sebastian Payne and Michael Stott in London, Jude Webber in Mexico City, Bryan Harris in São Paulo, Henry Foy in Warsaw, Edward White in Seoul, Amy Kazmin in New Delhi, Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran, Gideon Long in Bogotá, Guy Chazan in Berlin, Victor Mallet in Paris, Tom Mitchell in Singapore, Aime Williams in Washington, Benedict Mander in Buenos Aires and Robin Harding in Tokyo – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2020

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