By Gamini Akmeemana
US President Joe Biden may not be colourful like his mercurial, unpredictable predecessor, but he has worked hard from day one to extricate his country from the foreign policy black hole former President Donald Trump so callously threw it into.
Unlike Trump’s nerve-wracking one man show, Biden has emphasized consultation with key allies and partners. His catchphrase “America is back” has taken on a different meaning altogether from the “America first” ultra-nationalist rhetoric of Trump.
Biden knows quite well just how much damage control he and his administration must do, as Trump’s antics have left a deep distrust and dislike of the US around the world.
The Biden administration has lost no time rejoining the WHO, the Paris climate accord and the UNHRC while renewing the New Start arms control treaty with Russia and making moves to revive the nuclear deal with Iran. Veteran negotiators of past multilateral negotiations have been brought back to high positions in the state department and national Security Council.
Speaking to the US Congress last week, Biden said that no one nation “can deal with all the crises of our time alone – from terrorism to nuclear proliferation to mass migration, cyber security, climate change – and as we’re experiencing now, pandemics.”
Biden’s style differs from Barack Obama’s as well – for example, his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and the even bolder decision to declare formally the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman empire as an act of genocide.
Turkey is a key US ally and the US declaration drew a furious response from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Not stopping at that, Biden put China’s persecution of the Muslim Uyghur minority in the same stark category.
“Biden administration has lost no time rejoining the WHO, the Paris climate accord and the UNHRC while renewing the New Start arms control treaty with Russia and making moves to revive the nuclear deal with Iran”
Despite what would be perceived by Beijing as an aggressive foreign policy towards China, Biden has clearly signaled a willingness to work together with China on vital issues such as global warming. Though he started with en even more hostile stance towards Russia, sanctioning it for cyber attacks and the persecution of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, the US President has invited his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin to a summit meeting on strategic stability.
At the same time, the US has shied away from sanctioning Saudi crown prince Sheikh Mohammad Bin Salman despite declassifying an intelligence report implicating the Saudi ruler in the murder of dissident Jamal Khashoggi. Despite Saudi Arabia’s awful human rights record in Yemen, Biden has maintained arms sales to Saudi Arabia.
On the key issue of refugees to the US, Biden initially shocked many, including progressive Democrats, by signaling he would maintain the limit of 15,000 imposed by Trump. But strong protests made him revert to a pre-election pledge to admit 62,500 people.
Actually, Biden’s administration will have to work very hard to regain its self-professed position as the principal supervisor of global democracy. A new poll shows that in many parts of the world, the US is now seen as a bigger threat to democracy than China or Russia.
The poll finds support for democracy remains high worldwide even though citizens in democratic countries rate their governments’ handling of the pandemic less well than people in less democratic countries. While economic Inequality is seen as the biggest threat to global democracy, the power of big tech companies is also seen as a challenge in the US.
The findings come in a poll commissioned by the Alliance of Democracies Foundation among 50,000 respondents in 53 countries.
The results will make stark reading for the G7 foreign ministers meeting in London. They have collectively assumed that they have to confront anti-democratic forces and defend democratic values increasingly under threat as governments become more and more autocratic under the guise of keeping the lid down on the pandemic.
“Biden’s style differs from Barack Obama’s as well – for example, his decision to withdraw US troops from Afghanistan and the even bolder decision to declare formally the mass killing of Armenians by the Ottoman empire as an act of genocide”
The survey was carried out by the Latana polling company between February and April. The results show perceptions of the US starting to improve after Trump’s defeat last year.
In the first half of 2020, people in both more democratic and less democratic countries were equally satisfied with their government’s pandemic response (70%), a year later the approval ratings have dropped down to 65% in less democratic countries, and to 51% in the more democratic countries. In Europe the figure is 45%. Positive ratings reach 76% in Asia.
Forty four per cent of respondents in the 53 countries see a threat to democracy in their countries from the US; fear of Chinese influence is at 38%, and fear of Russian influence is lowest at 28%. The findings show that neither the US, nor the G7, can complacently claim to be the biggest defenders of democracy.
Since last year, the perception of the US as a threat to democracy around the world has increased significantly, from a net opinion of +6 to a net opinion of +14. This increase is particularly high in Germany (+20) and China (+16). The countries still overwhelmingly negative about US influence are Russia and China, followed by European democracies.
The study shows an attachment to democracy globally, with 81% of people around the world saying that it is important to have democracy. Only fifty three per cent say their country is actually democratic today – even in democracies. The single biggest cited threat to democracy is economic inequality (64%).
In almost every country surveyed save Saudi Arabia and Egypt limits to free speech are seen as less of a threat to democracy than economic inequality.
But half the people surveyed (48%) say the power of big tech companies, as opposed to the simple existence of social media, is a threat to democracy in their countries. Among democracies, the US is the most concerned about big tech (62%), but wariness is growing in many countries compared with last year, reflected in broad support for greater regulation of social media.
Voters in Norway, Switzerland and Sweden are most confident their country is democratic, but so are the Chinese, where 71% agree that China has the right amount of democracy. In Russia only 33% think their country is democratic. Global support for Joe Biden’s plans to stage a democracy summit is high in every country save China and Russia.
The findings will also make disturbing reading for the eastern European democracies such as Hungary where only 31% of voters think their country is democratic – on a par with findings in Nigeria, Iran, Poland and Venezuela.