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What Might Biden's Presidency Mean For U.S. Foreign Policy?


What might Joe Biden's presidency mean for U.S. foreign policy? With us now, three of NPR's international correspondents in some of the regions that are most consequential to the United States. NPR's Emily Feng is in Beijing. Lucian Kim is in Moscow. And Jane Arraf is in Irbil, Iraq. Hello to you all.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.

JANE ARRAF, BYLINE: Good morning.

LUCIAN KIM, BYLINE: Good morning.

KING: So, Emily, let's start with you. The relationship between the U.S. and China right now is quite tense. How was news of President-elect Biden's win received in Beijing?

FENG: Well, there wasn't much news because two days after the election results were called noticeably absent is any official reaction from China's leader, Xi Jinping. He's not put out a message. By contrast, in 2016, Xi congratulated Trump hours after the race was called. This year, the foreign ministry has dodged every question we've had for comment on their views about the election. And the silence is not because China prefers Biden over Trump or Trump over Biden. It's more out of an overabundance of caution because Trump has not officially conceded. So in China's view, it does not want to take a side, if you will, until someone is definitively inaugurated. And Trump still has more than two months left in office, so he could put significant pressure on China still if he is provoked.

KING: OK, so China's taking a wait-and-see approach. Lucian, there was all of this concern about Russian - potential Russian interference in this election. We didn't see much of that. How is Moscow reacting to the prospect of a Biden presidency?

KIM: Well, it's interesting. It's very similar to the situation in Beijing. Here, the absence of any congratulations from President Vladimir Putin has been noticeable. Today, his spokesman told reporters that Putin will wait for official results because Trump has not conceded and wants to dispute the count in the courts. One prominent Russian who did congratulate Biden is opposition leader Alexei Navalny. He's recovering from a poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. The day after the U.S. election, Navalny went on social media to say that the suspense about who would eventually win the race was evidence that America's elections are real. But officially on state TV, the main message is that this election was marred by irregularities and fraud - so in a sense, not that different from Russian elections. And the messier the transition of power is in the U.S., the better it is for the Kremlin because the U.S. stops looking like a model democracy.

KING: Oh, that's interesting, Jane, China and Russia both taking a wait-and-see approach. Did Iraqi leadership say anything this weekend?

ARRAF: They did. They generally welcomed Biden's election. And, you know, there's not expected to be really a dramatic or immediate change in policy. One of the big issues here is the withdrawal of U.S. troops. And Biden, like Trump, is in favor of those. But got to be honest, officials here are breathing a sigh of relief. You know, one of them put it we'll no longer be one tweet away from learning of major foreign policy decisions. And then there's the fact that Biden, you know, has had - as a member of the - leading member, ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and then the point man on Iraq for then-President Obama - knows the leaders here. And he knows them well, and that will make a difference. I spoke to one senior Iraqi official who said he's dealt with him in years - for years - sorry. And the thing that stands out is Biden's essential decency, he says.

KING: Decency. OK. Lucian, Joe Biden, known for his decency, yes, but unlike President Trump, he does not seem primed to like Vladimir Putin or to soft pedal things with Russia. How might his election change the U.S.-Russia relationship?

KIM: Well, right, there is no expectation here at all that Biden will be easier on Russia. I spoke to one of Russia's leading foreign policy experts, Fyodor Lukyanov, about what he expects from a Biden presidency.

FYODOR LUKYANOV: I don't think that many people in Moscow believe that the U.S. will be able to be back to the old good days of liberal world order, as it was in '90s or in 2000s. But the rhetoric will be much more like Obama or even Clinton period.

KIM: So in other words, the expectation in Moscow is that Biden will bring up human rights and democracy and also take a greater interest in what happens in the former Soviet Union. There is no love for Biden in Moscow. He met with Putin when he was vice president and has been very critical of the Kremlin. But those negative feelings aside, there is also a certain Trump fatigue in Moscow. There were really high hopes four years ago. And today, U.S.-Russian relations are at their lowest point since the Cold War. So there is some hope in Moscow that Biden will be more predictable and be able to start a sober, professional dialogue on pressing bilateral issues. The first one that comes to mind is arms control.

KING: More predictable, Emily, might also be interesting or helpful to China, right? Because it's been four sort of madcap years of trade wars and overnight tweets. And yet Beijing's position in the world is different now than it was when President Trump took office, isn't it?

FENG: Yes. It's gone from what was then a developing regional power to, in the U.S.' eyes, and this is accurate, a global competitor. And that growing more negative view has led the U.S. over the last four years to sanction Chinese officials, major Chinese companies and to limit the number of Chinese people who study and work in the U.S. But within China, you have the inverse of this negativity. China's had this surge in self-confidence since 2006. It's controlled a coronavirus pandemic. It's produced some truly global companies. And that gives Beijing a sense that this is China's time to shine. And right now, we're at this hugely uncertain moment in the relationship. Trump's refusal to concede means that there's even more uncertainty because Beijing cannot decide what its next move is going to be right now.

KING: OK. If China is under the impression that it is its time to shine, economically, it makes a lot of sense. Does a President Biden change that in any way?

FENG: He could. Biden is expected to continue to push China on human rights issues such as Hong Kong civil rights, Xinjiang, where hundreds of thousands of people have been detained. Remember, he called Xi Jinping a thug during one of the last presidential debates. But many in China hoped the U.S. under Biden will temper the relationship and cooperate on things like trade and climate change. But Biden could also have a much more multilateral approach, and that could actually put pressure on China.

KING: And Jane, lastly, I want to reach back into history. Joe Biden once suggested that Iraq would be better off as three separate autonomous regions - Kurdish, Sunni and Shiite. How was that idea held up?

ARRAF: Yeah. So he was suggesting autonomous regions but still with a central government. And here in the Kurdistan region of Iraq, they very much welcomed that support for increased power to the regions. But in other places, it was seen as fueling Iraq's sectarian divide. And there's still a bit of concern about that idea. But a lot of it has moved on to concern about Iran. And on that one, he's seen as not being quite as obsessed with isolating Iran. So even some militia leaders here have welcomed his election.

KING: OK. NPR's Jane Arraf in Irbil, Iraq, Emily Feng in Beijing and Lucian Kim in Moscow. Thanks, everyone.

FENG: Thanks, Noel.

KIM: Thank you.

ARRAF: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF EMANCIPATOR'S "AWAKENINGS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.
Lucian Kim is NPR's international correspondent based in Moscow. He has been reporting on Europe and the former Soviet Union for the past two decades.
Jane Arraf covers Egypt, Iraq, and other parts of the Middle East for NPR News.