It was a campaign period like no other in living memory. The US elections this year was a story of suspense that lasted for five days, followed by the world at large. Billions of people of all races were glued to their TVs following the slow count of the votes cast. No other presidential elections in the United States has caught world attention with such intensity. Four years of President Donald Trump have shaken the world, particularly in the Middle East and the Arab region. People everywhere became uncertain what to expect next. Not only the majority of Americans wanted to go back to normalcy in conducting domestic politics, but also the world was looking forward to predictability in American foreign affairs.
On Saturday, 7 November, we learned that the 46th president of the United States is President-elect Joe Biden, previously vice-president under Barack Obama from 2009 to 2017 and a former US senator with five decades of experience in American politics and in foreign affairs. He had been chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for more than a decade. He won the elections by securing 273 delegates in the Electoral College. He secured the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania with its 20 delegates. For two days the number of delegates for the president-elect stood at 253 till the city of Philadelphia tipped the balance in his favour. In the final tally, he got 279 delegates (till time of the writing this article, Saturday evening). The president-elect tweeted minutes after his elections victory that, “I will be a president for all Americans.” In reaction to the news that the candidate of the Democratic Party won the elections, the Trump campaign released a statement from President Trump saying: “We all know why Joe Biden is rushing to falsely pose as the winner, and why his media allies are trying so hard to help him.” Trump added that: “The simple fact is this election is far from over.”
Hours later, the president-elect delivered his victory speech, stressing that “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but unify, who does not see red states and blue states, but only sees the United States.”
He addressed Trump supporters directly in the speech, saying: “All those of you who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment. I have lost a couple of times myself. But now let us give each other a chance. We have to stop treating our opponents as our enemies. They are not our enemies. They are Americans.”
The first woman vice-president in American history, Kamala Harris, delivered a few remarks of her own praising Joe Biden as a “healer, and uniter,” adding that, “I may be the first woman in this office, I will not be the last, because every little girl watching tonight sees this a country of possibilities.”
The world breathed a sigh of relief after his announced victory. The mayor of Paris probably summed up feelings around the world when she wrote, “Welcome Back, America.” However, the America that we all welcome back is a highly polarised polity and society. And one of the arduous tasks before the 46th president of the United States is to heal the wounds of the last four years and unify the American Republic around a set of goals, both domestic and foreign, so that the United States could muster an effective and constructive re-engagement with the international system. Restoring the Euro-Atlantic Alliance; managing relations with both Russia and China; reintegrating the international agreements that President Trump had decided to withdraw from, such the Paris Climate Agreement of December 2015 and the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action and the Pan-Pacific Trade Agreement. Furthermore, we should expect a revision by the future Biden administration of the peace plan announced by President Trump last January to solve the Palestinian question — a plan that disregarded UN resolutions in this regard. On the contrary, it empowered Israel to annex 30 per cent of the West Bank plus the Jordan Valley. In this context, I would expect the new US administration to revive the two-state solution and to encourage the Palestinians to resume peace negotiations with Israel. It should not come as a surprise by the Biden White House to resume American financial assistance to the Palestinian Authority and to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) as well as reopening the representative office of the Palestine Liberation Organisation in Washington DC in return for the resumption Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations.
Moreover, the Trump decision to recognise Israeli sovereignty over the Syrian Golan Heights would come under review in an effort to revive peace talks between Israel and Syria. Some press reports have indicated that there are some ideas being discussed between the Americans, the Russians and the Israelis in this regard as a part of a larger political solution of the Syrian crisis, provided foreign forces, including the Iranians, would withdraw from Syria. The Syrian government would be interested in negotiating such a deal in the context of carrying out Security Council Resolution 2245 of December 2015 on a democratic transition in Syria.
The most serious foreign policy issue that the Biden administration would deal with would be how to manage relations with China after almost two years of confrontation between Washington and Beijing from the commercial to the strategic. The new administration will have to find a way to balance its approach to China and find common grounds with the Chinese to solve outstanding trade questions. Strategically speaking, the fierce tone adopted by the Trump administration against Chinese policies in the world, and against the Chinese Communist Party, would be replaced by a more nuanced position. I would expect that attacks against the ruling party in China would become rarer, if not discarded.
Of course, Arab countries, particularly those who have cultivated undue personal connections with President Trump, are assessing the probable new directions of the new American administration vis-à-vis human rights and public freedoms. Their record in the last four years was not that great. It is time to re-evaluate such a dismal record. The cover provided by President Trump will be lifted when President-elect Biden is sworn in 20 January 2021. The things that were papered over by the Trump administration would come under close scrutiny by the future Biden administration, supported by both houses of the US Congress, unlike the previous situation when Congress wanted to act but President Trump, for one reason or another, always blocked attempts to call out Arab rulers who violated human rights.
Restoring American leadership in the world will take time, but it is a necessity right now in order to restore a certain balance and reason in international relations.
The last four years have proven that such leadership is a cornerstone for international peace and security. Let us hope that under the Biden administration, American leadership will be value-based. That would give it moral authority, something absent from 2017 till the end of 2020.
The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly