Joe Biden takes the oath of office Wednesday. (Photo courtesy by Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
The world – in all the populated continents – watched soberly as the United States inaugurated Joe Biden as the 46th president of a country of more than 331 million people, described by some observers, as “on its knees” after Donald Trump said, “we are one nation.”
From the European Union to the Philippines, many offered congratulations and hoped the new administration will lead to better relations and reverse some of the policies of his predecessor.
True enough, Biden started his four-year term with executive orders on measures ranging from curbing the coronavirus pandemic to addressing racial inequality, many of which are certain to roll back measures enacted by the predecessor administration.
For instance, Biden signed an executive order requiring masks and social distancing in all federal buildings, on all federal lands and by all federal employees and contractors, according to his transition team.
Biden has pledged a new path for his country Trump’s four years in office.
That starts with confronting a pandemic that has killed 400,000 Americans and extends to sweeping plans on health care, education, immigration and more.
But for most of the world, Biden’s term, with vice-president Kamala Harris, also comes with hope of repairing ties left strained, or even wrecked, by Trump’s chaotic four years.
Harris becomes the first woman, first Black American and first Asian American to win the second-highest US office.
Biden is also launching the “100 Days Masking Challenge,” asking people to wear a mask for up to 100 days to help contain the spread of the disease, which has claimed more than 400,000 lives in the United States, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.
Another executive order will create a new position, the COVID-19 response coordinator, who will be tasked with coordinating the government’s response to the pandemic, including the vaccine rollout, and who will report directly to Biden.
Foreign policy challenges
Beyond doubt, Biden will face foreign policy challenges on multiple fronts.
Diplomatic analysts say it is clear his agenda will focus on the challenges at home. His slogan to “Build Back Better” was centered around handling the coronavirus pandemic, rebooting the US economy, and tackling systemic racism and economic inequality.
But these analysts say the challenges facing the US and the world will not wait.
From Latin America to East Africa, nuclear-capable rogue states to revanchist regional powers, the Biden administration is sure to face foreign policy crises as it tries to address those domestic issues.
“The preponderance of the focus will have to be internal,” Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, told one of CFR’s podcasts in December. “The president is going to walk into a really demanding situation domestically and internationally, and my instincts are … he has got to deal with repair work, rather than think of it as a major innovation phase.”
That repair work was the heart of Biden’s foreign policy pitch, talking repeatedly on the campaign trail of working on America’s alliances, particularly in Europe and Asia, and on American leadership at the World Health Organization, in the Paris climate accord and elsewhere on the world stage.
But while that kind of steady work is underway, Biden is likely to face a North Korean long-range missile test, continued Russian and Chinese cyber attacks, or Iranian provocations in the Persian Gulf — requiring him to prioritize and delegate.
Diplomatic observers say at the top of Biden’s list should, therefore, be a one-two punch, persuading America’s allies into alignment to manage together a rising China.
The Trump administration had identified China as the greatest long-term threat to the US, a position around which there is growing bipartisan consensus in Washington.
China has shown more assertiveness in the region — expanding its military presence in the South China Sea, battling Indian troops in the Himalayas and harassing Taiwanese armed forces with greater frequency — and greater repression at home, especially against Hong Kong and Muslim Uighurs.
Its years of economic espionage and intellectual property theft have met a backwash that’s now bordering on “decoupling,” separating supply chains and economies.
From Day One of the Biden administration, China’s ambassador to the US, Cui Tiankai, tweeted:
“China looks forward to working with the new administration to promote sound & steady development of China-US relations and jointly address global challenges in public health, climate change & growth,”
The president of the European Commission, Ursula von der Leyen, a physician, proclaimed in a tweet hours before the swearing in: “The United States is back. And Europe stands ready.” She referred to Biden as “an old partner,” adding “I look forward to working together with Joe Biden.”
She said: “This time-honored ceremony on the steps of the US Capitol will be a demonstration of the resilience of American democracy.
“And the resounding proof that, once again, after four long years, Europe has a friend in the White House.”
But the Brussels’ top official left a remonstrance the fact that millions of Americans had voted for Trump and that some of them had rioted on his behalf on January 6 should serve as a warning.
“And this really is what it looks like when words put into deeds, when hate speech and fake news become a real danger to democracy,” she said.
In the Philippines, an ally of the United States for over seven decades but whose president Rodrigo Duterte pivoted towards the People’s Republic of China as from the start of his six-year term in 2016,
presidential spokesperson Harry Roque said this nation of 110 million will maintain “close and friendly” relations with the US under Biden, amid a period of strain in their strong alliance.
“We congratulate again the incoming president and we look forward to having close and friendly relations with the Biden administration,” Roque told CNN Philippines.
Relations have been tested since Duterte, who once said he would never visit the United States, took office in June 2016 and embarked on months of swear words-laden tirades against Washington and threatened repeatedly to scrap their bilateral military agreements.
Duterte has spoken confidently about Trump, although he has remained critical of US foreign policy.
Political observers here expect the Biden administration to be more vocal than its predecessor about human rights issues in the Philippines, including Duterte’s signature war on drugs, during which thousands of people have been killed – an issue repeatedly answered by Malacanang. (AI/MTVN)