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Biden’s win poses a dilemma for world leaders who went all-in on Trump

President-elect Joe Biden speaks at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Del.
President-elect Joe Biden speaks at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Nov. 10, 2020.
(Carolyn Kaster / Associated Press)

Some global leaders who loudly celebrated when President Trump won election four years ago are staying silent — or seemingly thinking aloud, in real time, about how to manage a relationship with President-elect Joe Biden.

Most traditional U.S. allies, mainly advanced democracies, quickly congratulated Biden on Saturday when projections after election day put him over the top for victory — just as they had done in 2016, when Trump was forecast as the winner.

But some leaders — North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, Russia’s Vladimir Putin, Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, to name a few — have been holdouts, not acknowledging a Biden victory.

Others, such as Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who once lobbed profane insults at Biden’s former boss, President Obama, refrained from any warm personal message, but allowed their governments to make formal statements referring to the importance of long-standing bilateral ties.

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Many of those now refusing to congratulate Biden, or dragging their feet in doing so, are autocrats, or at least of a populist-nationalist bent. They tend to share common traits: mistrust of science, a penchant for demonizing immigrants, a pattern of using levers of state to punish political enemies and consolidate their own power.

“This president embraces all the thugs in the world,” Biden said of Trump in an October debate.

As the president and his domestic allies continue to put forward unfounded claims of widespread election fraud, there are warnings that this show of intransigence could embolden anti-democratic forces elsewhere in the world.

Republican Sen. Mitt Romney of Utah, one of the few senior members of his party to congratulate Biden, said in a weekend television interview that the world’s authoritarians were closely watching Trump’s efforts to undermine the U.S. vote’s integrity.

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Here is a look at some countries whose leaders have either declined to recognize the U.S. election result, or have done so belatedly, or are working to recalibrate a staunchly pro-Trump outlook.

RUSSIA

Putin remained silent Tuesday, three days after Biden’s victory was called by major U.S. media outlets. When Trump won in 2016, the Russian leader was among the first to congratulate him.

Treated deferentially by Trump throughout his tenure, Putin did not overtly back the U.S. incumbent, but he has openly criticized Biden. Russia staunchly denies interfering in the American electoral process, either this year or in 2016, despite U.S. intelligence assessments that Moscow has done so.

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Putin’s spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Monday in Moscow that it would be “correct to wait for an official announcement” of Biden’s victory before offering congratulations.

One prominent Russian figure who did weigh in: dissident Alexei Navalny, who remains in Germany recovering from his poisoning with a military-grade nerve agent in August. On Twitter, he congratulated Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris for winning a free and fair election, calling that “a privilege which is not available to all countries.”

TURKEY

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan congratulated Biden on Tuesday, a day after a senior Turkish official had said NATO ally Turkey would wait until legal challenges to the U.S. results were resolved.

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During the last four years, Erdogan and Trump clashed on issues including Syria policy and Turkey’s purchase of advanced Russian missiles. But Trump also expressed repeated admiration for the Turkish president’s autocratic style, praising him as a “hell of a leader.”

Before and during the Trump administration, which began in January 2017, Erdogan concentrated on consolidating his own power base, both with constitutional moves and massive purges after a 2016 coup attempt against him.

Biden, who has called Erdogan an autocrat, has signaled that concerns over Turkey’s human rights abuses and anti-democratic practices will again come to the forefront. But some analysts have predicted a more conventional diplomatic relationship, unlikely to be marked by impulsive moves like Trump’s abrupt abandonment, at Erdogan’s behest, of Kurdish forces who were key U.S. allies in Syria.

SAUDI ARABIA

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For nearly two years, Trump has refused to accept the conclusion of U.S. intelligence that Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the oil-rich kingdom’s de facto leader, was probably culpable in the 2018 killing of U.S.-based journalist Jamal Khashoggi. There has been a warm relationship with Saudi Arabia from the earliest days of Trump’s presidency.

Saudi Arabia was Trump’s first foreign destination as U.S. leader. The Trump administration has backed the Saudi-led war in Yemen, widely condemned as a humanitarian catastrophe, and remained largely silent on the kingdom’s well-documented abuse of jailed dissidents.

On Sunday, the official Saudi Press Agency reported that King Salman and his son, the crown prince, had sent congratulatory messages to Biden and Harris. But Mohammed has said nothing more publicly.

The kingdom can probably expect cooler ties with Biden, who has vowed to curb lucrative arms sales to the Saudis and “make them the pariah that they are” over Khashoggi’s death, the Yemen war and harsh treatment of dissidents.

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ISRAEL

When facing his own country’s voters, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had giant images of himself and the friend he called “Donald” plastered on billboards in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. Trump showered Netanyahu with political favors, including the move of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights and a peace plan considered heavily skewed against Palestinians.

But Netanyahu distanced himself from Trump in the final weeks of a faltering U.S. campaign. On a White House phone call last month, on camera, Trump tried to goad Netanyahu into joining in a gibe at “Sleepy Joe” — his derogatory nickname for Biden. After an awkward pause, Netanyahu reiterated his gratitude to “anyone in America” who offered support to Israel.

The left-leaning Haaretz daily wrote in an editorial that Netanyahu “has to sober up from the intoxication of power” stemming from being aligned with Trump.

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That process has begun. After the projection of a Biden-Harris win Saturday, Netanyahu waited 24 hours to congratulate Biden — and coupled it with a separate communique praising Trump. By Tuesday, speaking to lawmakers at home, the prime minister was on the defensive, brushing aside an opposition leader’s criticism that he had eroded Israel’s longtime bipartisan ties in Congress by aligning himself so closely with the U.S. president.

Although the Israeli leader has touted what he calls decades of warm friendship with Biden, he went far out of his way to denigrate Biden’s former boss, President Obama, over the Iran nuclear deal, and many observers believe Biden, even as a close ally, is unlikely to forget that.

HUNGARY

Prime Minister Viktor Orban was never received in Obama’s White House, but was feted in Trump’s.

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The Hungarian leader, who was the only European Union head of government to back Trump’s 2016 campaign, declared this year that the U.S. president’s reelection was his “Plan A.”

With Hungary under heavy criticism from human rights groups and fellow European governments over Orban’s crackdown on the press and the independent judiciary, Trump described him as “respected all over Europe” and praised him for doing “a tremendous job.”

Biden has called Orban’s government an example of authoritarian rule on European soil.

Nonetheless, on Sunday, the state-run MTI news agency said Orban had extended congratulations to Biden on a “successful presidential campaign.”

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Biden appeared ready, at least for now, to wait for holdouts to come around. At a news conference in Wilmington, Del., on Tuesday, he was asked about Republicans at home who refuse to acknowledge his win, and gave an answer that could apply to the wider world as well: “They will.”


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