Biden promises to 'repair alliances' as world questions U.S. strength, commitment
LONDON – Relief and skepticism in Europe. Anger in China over a parting shot. And concern in Russia over what the next four years herald for Moscow's activities on the world stage.
The whole world watched Wednesday as Joe Biden was sworn in as the 46th U.S. president – and outgoing President Donald Trump departed the White House one last time for Florida, turning the page on an administration that has hurt the U.S. image abroad and exposed some of America's most glaring social, economic and racial fault lines.
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"Europeans like Biden, but they do not think that America will come back as a global leader. Most think the U.S. political system is broken, that China will be more powerful than the USA and that Washington will not defend them," said Mark Leonard, director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, a London-headquartered think tank.
Leonard's comments accompanied a new European Council on Foreign Relations survey that found that two-thirds of Europeans don't believe, despite their admiration for Biden, that they can always rely on the U.S. to come to their defense, few are confident the U.S. will stage a comeback as the preeminent global player under his leadership, and the majority want to remain neutral in any U.S.-China conflict.
Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris took their oaths in Washington, D.C., in a scaled-down ceremony amid the coronavirus pandemic and heightened security after a siege of the U.S. Capitol building this month by a pro-Trump mob. Harris is the first woman, the first Black person and first Asian person to serve as vice president.
"We learned again that democracy is precious. Democracy is fragile and at this moment, my friends, democracy has prevailed," Biden said in his inaugural speech. "Now, on this hallowed ground, where just a few days ago violence sought to shake the Capitol’s very foundation, we come together as one nation, under God, indivisible, to carry out the peaceful transfer of power as we have for more than two centuries."
Biden, a Democrat, called on all Americans to "unite" and "start afresh" in conciliatory comments that appeared aimed at Republicans and other opponents.
"My whole soul is in this, in bringing America together," he said.
Biden also spoke about restoring America's reputation overseas.
"Here’s my message to those beyond our borders: America has been tested. And we’ve come out stronger for it. We will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again."
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Ivan Krastev, chairman of the Centre for Liberal Strategies, a policy research institute in Sofia, Bulgaria, said that "Donald Trump is no Evita Perón. Few will cry to see him go," referring to the Argentine political figure.
"Yet, it's clear that his tumultuous presidency has left an indelible imprint on Europe’s attitude towards the United States."
Trump's foreign policy did make some gains: He hasn't started any new wars and delivered on his promise to reduce U.S. troop levels in Afghanistan and Iraq. Trump's White House brokered historic "normalization" agreements signed between some Arab states and Israel. But Trump's divisive rhetoric and strict adherence to an "America First" theme alienated allies, buoyed dictators and undermined decades of multilateralism seen as integral to fighting climate change, global disease, nuclear proliferation and preserving hard-won battles connected to democracy promotion and human rights.
In the early days of his presidency, Biden is expected to quickly move to transform U.S. domestic and foreign policy through dozens of executive orders and official directives. He announced Wednesday the first of these actions aimed at altering the course of the coronavirus pandemic, rejoining the Paris climate accord, addressing racial inequalities and stopping construction of a border wall with Mexico.
Shifting relations with American adversaries will take more time.
Tension with China
U.S.-China relations sharply deteriorated under the Trump administration over disputes on trade and the coronavirus pandemic, and Biden's first few days in office could be a diplomatic challenge after outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declared Tuesday that China's violent repression of its Uighur population constituted "genocide." It was the strongest such condemnation yet by the U.S. government of the Chinese authorities' campaign of mass internment of more than 1 million Muslim minorities.
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Biden’s campaign claimed, well before the Nov. 3 presidential election, that genocide was occurring in China's western Xinjiang region, and human rights groups have documented evidence of forced labor, sterilizations and other human rights violations against Uighurs. But the official "genocide" determination by Pompeo's State Department, supported by Biden's secretary of state nominee, Antony Blinken, is a more diplomatically sensitive allegation and has drawn a strong rebuke from China.
China's embassy in Washington described the claim as a "lie and farce," and Hua Chunying, a spokesperson for China's foreign ministry, told reporters in Beijing on Wednesday that Pompeo's characterization amounted to "poison" and that Pompeo had turned "himself into a doomsday clown and joke of the century" with his "lies."
China's dislike for the Trump administration was made clear in a tweet by its official state Xinhua News Agency, which offered the following remark: "good riddance, Donald Trump!"
Just minutes after Biden was sworn in, China's foreign affairs ministry announced sanctions on 28 Trump administration officials, including Pompeo.
Tension with Russia
Top officials in the Kremlin, meanwhile, are worried Biden could take a more combative stance against Russia than Trump, whose critics have long alleged that he has been inexplicably soft on Moscow over the past four years, whether in his effusive praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin, his refusal to discuss with Putin U.S. intelligence reports accusing Russia of offering bounties to Taliban fighters to kill U.S. troops, or Trump's apparent shrugging off of a massive cyberattack targeting multiple U.S. federal agencies. Lawmakers and cybersecurity experts have blamed Russia for the attack.
"Biden has not yet said anything positive about Russia. On the contrary, his rhetoric has always been openly unfriendly, harsh, even aggressive," wrote Dmitry Medvedev, a former Russia president, in a lengthy opinion piece published by Russian state news agency Tass on Saturday. "He has repeatedly stated that Russia is the biggest threat to the United States in terms of undermining our security and alliances," Medvedev said in the op-ed, headlined: "America 2.0 after the election."
He added that Biden's team "includes politicians who hold similar views and have no interest whatsoever in improving relations between Moscow and Washington."
Putin gave no formal reaction to Biden's inauguration, but Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said he did not foresee a change in the U.S.-Russia relationship.
"Russia will continue to live just the way it has lived for hundreds of years, seeking good relations with the U.S.," he told reporters. "Whether Washington has reciprocal political will for that will depend on Mr. Biden and his team."
'Law, order and democracy have prevailed'
As Biden officially became president, words of encouragement filtered in from overseas.
"The events at the U.S. Capitol shocked us so much," said Charles Michel, president of the European Council – the body that shapes the European Union's overall political direction – in a speech to the European Parliament.
Michel was referring to the uprising on Jan. 6 when supporters of Trump stormed the Capitol, leading to five deaths and more than 100 charges related to the siege. About 25,000 troops guarded inauguration ceremonies in Washington after the riot.
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"But the darkness of violence will never dim the light of democracy. Law, order and democracy have prevailed over this disgraceful attempt to overturn the election," Michel added. "Today is more than a transition. Today is an opportunity to rejuvenate our transatlantic relationship, which has greatly suffered in the last four years."
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier released a video statement on his website before the inauguration, calling it a "good day for democracy."
Steinmeier said the U.S. had "faced tremendous challenges and endured."
He said that "despite the attempts to tear at America’s institutional fabric, election workers and governors, the judiciary and Congress have proven strong. I am greatly relieved that, today, Joe Biden is being sworn in as president and will be moving into the White House. I know many people in Germany share this feeling."
There were similar remarks from leaders in Spain, France and Italy.
And British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pledged to work "hand in hand" with Biden on a range of shared interests, including security and "defending democracy."
For Iran, it was also an opportunity to make a fresh pitch to the incoming administration to lift U.S. sanctions on Tehran and rejoin the 2015 nuclear agreement exited by Trump.
"The ball is in the U.S. court now," Iran's President Hassan Rouhani said in a televised address. "Today, we expect the incoming U.S. administration to return to the rule of law and commit themselves, and if they can, in the next four years, to remove all the black spots of the previous four years."