Donald Trump remains in the White House, tweeting conspiracy theories and refusing to concede the Nov. 3 election won by Joe Biden. But much of the world has already begun planning for life after Mr. Trump.
No one quite wanted to say it out loud at a pair of key European policy conferences this week – not with Mr. Trump in office until Jan. 20 and pursuing longshot legal avenues in an attempt to get the election result overturned – but there was a renewed sense of calm among long-time U.S. allies who were repeatedly rattled by Mr. Trump’s words and actions over the past four years.
The outgoing President was rarely mentioned by name at the virtual sessions of the Paris Peace Forum, an annual gathering created by French President Emmanuel Macron – in part to defend the multilateralism that Mr. Trump seemed intent on dismantling – or the Riga Conference, a security-focused meeting hosted by Latvia, on the eastern edge of the NATO military alliance. But the result of the U.S. election was repeatedly referenced as a reason for hope, as were Mr. Biden’s promises to swiftly return the U.S. to the World Health Organization and the Paris Agreement on climate change and to restore to his country’s leadership role on the international stage.
With an agenda focused on the parallel crises of the pandemic and climate change, the Paris Peace Forum might have been a gloomy affair had it been held a month ago, with the second wave of the pandemic arriving and a climate-change denier ensconced in the White House. Instead, the forum had an almost cheerful air to it, thanks to the twin injections of hope provided by news of a vaccine breakthrough and Mr. Biden’s election win.
In a Thursday speech, Mr. Macron said the U.S. election result was “proof we had to stand firm against all the headwinds and stay the course” – validation for those who had fought to preserve international institutions and agreements over the past four years. “We made it,” he said, before adding an unsubtle poke at Mr. Trump’s nationalist sloganeering: “We are able to make our planet great again, not just in words but in reality.”
Mr. Macron cited the need to create a new international consensus, and several forum participants spoke about the possibility of inviting India, Australia and South Korea to join the G7 industrialized countries, making it a G10 of major democracies. The idea could appeal to Mr. Biden, who has promised to hold a global “Summit for Democracy” during his first year in office.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus also appeared to rebuke the “America First” policies of Mr. Trump during a panel discussion in which he called for any COVID-19 vaccine to be rapidly shared with the developing world. “This is a moment for saying no to nationalism and yes to our shared humanity,” he said.
The sentiment was similar on the other side of the continent at this year’s virtual Riga Conference. The meeting focused on NATO’s response to the pandemic, the post-election protests in Belarus and growing tensions between Turkey and other members of the alliance. But after four years of internal NATO crises, most of them created by Mr. Trump – who repeatedly questioned the relevance of the alliance and complained that the U.S. was contributing too much to the security of Europe – there was a palpable sense of relief that things might soon return to something like normal.
Canadian Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, who joined the Riga Conference via videolink, was among those who seemed to express relief about the U.S. election result without mentioning the sitting President by name. “Even with some of the sometimes-challenging information that was coming out, the support we got from the U.S. was always strong,” Mr. Sajjan said – an apparent reference to Mr. Trump’s Twitter feed – when asked how the election result might affect NATO solidarity. “Moving on to president Biden’s administration, that won’t change.”
Latvian Prime Minister Krisjanis Karins came a little closer to saying what many were implying. “The recent elections in the U.S. are, I believe, a glimmer of hope that we could have a basis for recovering EU-U.S. ties,” he said in his opening remarks. Mr. Karins said co-operation between the U.S. and the EU and between the U.S. and NATO was key to ensuring that it was the bloc of democracies, not authoritarian states such as Russia or China, that set the geopolitical agenda.
There was an obvious incongruity between NATO’s call, repeated Friday by Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, for Belarusian strongman Alexander Lukashenko to accept that he had lost his country’s Aug. 9 presidential election and the fact Mr. Trump was heading down a similar road in the U.S.
Belarusian opposition leader Svetlana Tikhanovskaya – who is widely seen as the legitimate winner of the Aug. 9 vote – said in a speech to the Riga Conference that Mr. Lukashenko “should conduct negotiations on the peaceful transfer of power and resign.” Mr. Trump has avoided condemning Mr. Lukashenko as he clings to office, but Mr. Biden has referred to the Belarusian leader as an “illegitimate autocrat” who should stand aside to allow for new elections.
The conversations in Paris and Riga, of course, ranged well beyond the U.S. election. Dr. Tedros warned that the second wave of the pandemic has demonstrated that governments and the public need to be just as vigilant now – despite a potential vaccine breakthrough – as they were during the first wave. “We may be tired of COVID-19, but it is not tired of us,” he said. “We cannot wait for a vaccine and put all our eggs in one basket.”
Climate specialists, meanwhile, bemoaned the past four years as lost, as the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement gave cover to other countries to drag their feet on meeting their commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.
In Riga, defence ministers said they expected to face even more instability in the years ahead, with the pandemic creating economic hardships and political divisions in Western societies that rivals such as Russia and China could seek to exploit.
In fact, much of the conversation in Riga focused on the threat posed by Russia, which occupies parts of Ukraine, supports Mr. Lukashenko’s crackdown on protesters in Belarus and is accused of repeatedly using chemical weapons against its opponents. When China congratulated Mr. Biden Friday as “the choice of the American people,” it left Russia as one of the few major countries yet to acknowledge the president-elect.
British Defence Secretary Ben Wallace told the Riga meeting that he believed “a more divided world” lay ahead, as Western democracies grapple with public anger ignited by the economic costs of the pandemic, something authoritarian states did not have to worry about.
And there are limits to what a change in the White House can bring. Anne-Marie Slaughter, who served as the State Department’s director of policy planning during the Obama administration, told the Paris meeting that Mr. Biden would quickly seek to project that “the United States is back, that the internationalist, multilateralist, engaged United States is once again there.” But she warned that a Biden administration would have to deal with America’s internal divisions before it could fully return to its former role on the international stage. “President Biden is no isolationist, but his advisers across the [Democratic] party agree that the United States cannot play the role it needs to play internationally unless we renew ourselves at home.”
Former U.S. secretary of state John Kerry, speaking in a personal capacity, sounded a similar note. “This will not be an America, I can say with some assurance, that acts with the arrogance we’ve seen over the past four years,” he told a climate change discussion that was part of the Paris forum. But he pointed out that Mr. Biden will inherit a country battered by a pandemic, economic crisis and a deep political divide, as well as an international picture altered by the growing assertiveness of strongmen such as Mr. Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping. “We’re in a very different world right now,” Mr. Kerry said.
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