By Natasha Lindstaedt
As Joe Biden takes office on January 20th, 2021 many questions arise about what a Biden administration will look like to the global community. Early indications show it will be a complete reversal from Trump’s America First policy. Trump was also noted for rejecting long-standing democratic American allies while embracing autocracies. But does this mean that a Biden presidency will offer any huge differences for autocrats?
Before looking at what Biden might do specifically, it’s important to note that the last five years has been viewed by political scientists as a period of democratic decline.[i] Overall, it’s been a great global environment for autocracies to flourish. It is not just that the US’s democracy that has autocratised under Trump’s leadership, but many countries around the world are increasingly becoming authoritarian as well.
This is partially due to authoritarian regimes becoming more adept at disseminating authoritarian norms while democracies, like the US, have failed to effectively offer compelling counter-narratives to authoritarianism. This void created by the Trump administration enabled autocrats to shatter democratic norms and dismantle democratic institutions without raising much alarm.
Trump went a step further than just turning toward authoritarianism. Trump has, through his actions and words, been more supportive of authoritarian leaders than democratic ones. Trump cosied up to a who’s who of strongmen, including Russia’s leader Vladimir Putin, the Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman of Saudi Arabia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey. He also claimed to have a great relationship with Kim Jong Un of North Korea, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi of Egypt, and Viktor Orban of Hungary. Meanwhile he praised efforts of Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, both democratically-elected, to attack human rights and civil liberties[ii].
Trump has made it no secret that he admires dictatorial leadership styles. Dictators may possess certain qualities that remind him of himself—given he perceives himself to be strong, decisive and confident. He’s extended a wide range of praise for leaders both past and present who ignored democratic processes. He’s praised Saddam Hussein’s ability to kill terrorists without worrying about human rights.[iii] He has also claimed the Libya and Iraq would be safer if Muammar Qaddafi and Hussein were still in power, respectively.[iv]
After being asked what he thought about China removing presidential term limits to extend Xi Jinping’s tenure, he replied, “I think it’s great,” and then added, “Maybe we’ll have to give it a shot someday,”[v]. But Trump has reserved most of his praise for Putin, who he has claimed is “sharp as a tack.”[vi] Recently he claimed that both Kim and Putin were more mentally sharp than President elect Joe Biden.[vii]
In contrast to past presidents, Trump has openly championed leaders who delegitimise the media, ignore human rights, repress political opponents and demand personal loyalty over loyalty to institutions. This has shifted the bar of what is acceptable in a democratic regime. With almost all countries around the world holding some form of elections today, leaders have taken cues from Trump, claiming to have a wide mandate while villainising the opposition. The term “fake news,” which was popularised by Trump, has been used by both Putin and Bashar al-Assad of Syria to repudiate factual media reports.[viii]
Autocrats used to have to work harder to hide human rights abuses and overtly repressive activities. Under Trump the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia felt confident that ordering the brutal murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi would face no repercussions whatsoever, with Trump even defending the Crown Prince.[ix]
With Biden taking over in a few months, there are bound to be major shifts in the tone of US leadership. Biden is likely to run US foreign policy that is similar to past President Barack Obama. For example, Obama had a tense relationship with Saudi Arabia because of the Kingdom’s human rights record, and Biden’s administration won’t lavish praise on the country. Biden’s administration will also change the US’s stance on North Korean dictator Kim, with more pressure applied on Kim to stop its nuclear ambitions and less flattery of Kim’s intelligence. Biden will also be more critical of leaders such as Erdogan, Duterte, and Orban.
However, the two wildcards that are hard to predict are how a Biden administration will deal with China and Iran. With the case of China, the Obama administration had been criticised by Republicans for being too easy on Beijing, allowing the country to take advantage of trade deals that benefited China more than the US. It is not entirely clear how Biden will navigate this relationship other than offering a US stance that is less erratic.
When it comes to Iran, the Trump administration famously withdrew from the Iran nuclear deal to the ire of not just Iran but also to European powers who had worked hard to finalise an agreement. Biden wants to return to that deal (three of his nominated cabinet members worked to put the deal together) but he will find he is dealing with an entirely different context than in 2015. Iran is much angrier with the US and has little trust in its leadership, especially after the assassination of Iranian Revolutionary Guards General, Qasem Soleimani in January of this year, and the recent assassination of top nuclear scientist, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh this month[x]. If Iran refuses to budge, Biden’s team will have little move to manoeuvre, further hardening US relations with Iran.
In many ways the shift from Trump to Biden will not lead to huge shifts in the global landscape for authoritarian regimes. Little changes from administration in terms of how much aid is delivered and how much trade takes place. That being said, the Biden administration will be a direct contrast to Trump’s rhetorically speaking. Biden’s victory should lead to a slow reversal in the prominence of democratic norms around the world.
Natasha Lindstaedt is a Professor in the Department of Government at the University of Essex. She is an expert in international relations and comparative politics, with a specific interest in development, Middle East politics, African politics and Latin American politics.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article reflect the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of The Big Q.