Allies and Adversaries Brace for America's Return | Opinion

"The world is watching," said Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. as he was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday. With a new Administration entering the stage, allies and adversaries alike are reassessing the United States' position on the world stage in the aftermath of a tumultuous and disruptive Trump presidency. For all the pomp and circumstance of the day, it is hard to forget the events of two weeks prior, which saw the U.S. Capitol besieged by insurrectionists, and the Capitol swamped by over 20,000 troops. The former president Trump is now mired in an unprecedented second impeachment trial.

President Biden struck on themes of global cooperation and the power of democracy in his inaugural address. Allies have expressed confidence in American democratic institutions, awaiting the transition to a more competent Administration capable of confronting foreign enemies and looming global dangers. To this end, the 46th president is expected to re-enter negotiations with Iran and to return the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement. And while there is a broad consensus on global warming, questions regarding the handling of the implacable Iranian threat linger.

America's European allies say they yearn for a return to the pre-Trump status quo, while its adversaries are hopeful that four years of embarrassment and mismanagement have dealt a death blow to the American global power. Most took advantage of Trump's unilateralism, lack of tact, and incompetence, while also suggesting the Capitol siege demonstrated a fatal flaw in American liberal democracy.

China, against whom President Trump took a historically hawkish stance would like to become the inheritor of a post-United States world. The PRC has a vested interest in supplanting America, while the United States in turn hopes to contain and restrict its rival's rise.

Complicating these efforts is a China-EU trade deal, demonstrating a cleavage in the traditional western unity. The RCEP Free Trade Agreement additionally demonstrates China's proactive response to an America AWOL, countering the failed Obama-era TPP and placing itself at the center of Pacific trade. Biden will not be able to simply turn back the clock and resume negotiations.

Relations between the US and China will also hinge on President Biden's approach toward Taiwan and Hong Kong. Mike Pompeo's last-minute overtures to Taiwan—lifting restrictions on U.S. official visits to the island—have left tensions extremely high. PRC has been further frustrated by criticism by the American outrage over the Hong Kong protester arrests and the internment of Uighur Muslims, areas in which China hawks would like to see an aggressive stance by the administration. The latest blow came when the outgoing Trump Administration declared the treatment of the Uyghurs a "genocide", and Biden appointees did not challenge that. China has largely faced no consequences for these human rights violations, though Biden has suggested an intent to retain economic sanctions. Kurt Campbell, a veteran Asia hand is a great choice to lead the Indo-Pacific policy in the Biden Administration.

Also likely to face continuing sanctions is Iran. Unlike China, the Iranian positions have deteriorated over the last four years. U.S. sanctions were brutal, but failed to bring Teheran to the negotiating table.

Backed by the Trump Administration, an Israel-Emirati-Saudi coalition has worked to isolate Iran and penalize its allies. Iran was hit hard by the pandemic, exacerbated by its leadership's fundamentalism. While Biden no doubt retains hope of re-entering agreements so long as Iran returns to the Iran nuclear deal (JCPOA) compliance, the French Foreign Minister recently said the Islamic Republic has little faith in future agreements and is moving quickly to acquire nuclear weapons.

Iran has been more openly contemptuous than usual of American democracy since the Capitol siege. "What we saw in the US last night and today really showed that first how brittle and weak western democracy is, and how weak its foundations are," said President Rouhani. Israeli officials have warned against conciliatory moves toward Tehran, regarding a nuclear Iran as an existential threat.

Given its existing economic and strategic partnership with China and security ties with Russia, Iran might seek some form of Chinese and Russian protection. The upcoming June presidential elections represent a potential turning point in the region, as a more hardline candidate supported by Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGS), a U.S.-declared terrorist organization, and a Chinese ally might win control.

Russia, similarly, in conflict with its neighbors and increasingly challenging the U.S. interests in Europe and the Middle East, as well as in cyberspace, has reasons to celebrate America's turmoil under Trump. Russian officials described American democracy as "limping on both feet" in the aftermath of the siege, a crisis many believe was triggered by Russia-promoted misinformation campaigns on social media. While Mikhail Gorbachev suggested relations could be salvaged, President Biden's support for Ukraine is a Washington concern the Kremlin will have to address, while the two nuclear powers tackle the arms control agreements.

With many Americans resentful of Russian interference in US democracy, the Kremlin must prepare for the possibility of further sanctions, for example against Russia's continued pursuit of the Nord Stream 2 Baltic Sea pipeline, a venture that would greatly increase European dependence on Russian energy.

And then there's North Korea. Biden has expressed unwillingness to continue face-to-face diplomacy without moves toward denuclearization, while Kim Jong Un has reacted to failed negotiations by pressing forward with military buildup and tests. Pyongyang is likely viewing American internal conflict as further motivation to provoke Washington.

The world has changed considerably over the last four years. The insurrection at the US Capitol and the legacy of Donald Trump left America reluctant to tout its democratic model, at least for now, and robustly engage in the global commons. Not all hope is lost for the future of US global leadership, however. In the words of Biden's inaugural address:

"America has been tested and we've come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again. Not to meet yesterday's challenges, but today's and tomorrow's challenges. And we'll lead, not merely by the example of our power, but by the power of our example".

To achieve these goals, the Biden Administration will have to work overtime and get full Congressional, popular, and allied support. One can only hope these words will come true.

Ariel Cohen, Ph.D., is Senior Fellow (non-resident) at The Atlantic Council and Director, Program on Energy, Growth and Security (EGS) at International Tax and Investment Center. He is the Founding Principal of International Market Analysis. Hailey Arlin is a research assistant at EGS.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.