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The Biden Administration: A Day-One Geopolitical Tour

Will Biden guarantee warmer relations with historic allies and tougher stances on human rights? A region-by-region wrap up by Le Monde.

The next president on the move...
The next president on the move...
Piotr Smolar

PARIS — For several days, diplomatic time had seemed suspended in the face of the complicated spectacle of the vote count in the United States. Finally, the announcement of Joe Biden's victory arrived, prompting expected resistance from Donald Trump and a shower of congratulations from world leaders. Change, indeed, is coming.Le Monde"s Piotr Smolar unpacks the unpredictable transfer of power in Washington and the global chessboard ahead of a new U.S. administration that has a very different world view:

New protocol Heads of state did not wait for the loser, Donald Trump, to concede defeat, abandoning the traditional custom.

  • On Saturday, Chancellor Angela Merkel congratulated Joe Biden: "Our transatlantic friendship is irreplaceable if we are to master the great challenges of our time."
  • France's Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian laid out the joint roadmap on Twitter: "We will have much to do together in this rebalanced relationship: collective security, the fight against terrorism, public health, climate, trade, digital regulation. We will defend our values, our interests, the search for shared solutions and multilateralism."

Rebalancing special relationships The relief and willingness to make a fresh start is evident among Europeans. Despite Merkel stepping down in a few months, Macron will not have to claim the rank of sole herald of multilateralism with Trump out of office.

  • The arrival of a Democratic president, well versed in international issues and transatlantic dialogue, must not, above all, slow down Europe's growing awareness of its own strategic, economic and military interests.
  • Their central hope is the revitalization of the transatlantic relationship, in a context that is inevitably different from the Obama era. The Europeans want to assert their sovereignty and not let themselves be trampled by the Chinese-American clash. Will these resolutions hold once Donald Trump is out of sight?
  • Europeans are aware of the immense difficulties awaiting Joe Biden: a country fractured and devastated by COVID-19, the loss of American credibility on the world stage and a Senate that could remain controlled by Republicans.

The populism question at home Europeans observed the American election as a historic test for a democracy under high pressure, which could provide important lessons in the fight against populist demagogic movements. The turnout is "historically high in the U.S — unfortunately, so was polarization," the head of German diplomacy, Heiko Maas, shared on Twitter on Nov. 5.

Biden has been deeply involved in U.S. foreign policy for decades. — Photo: Chatham House

Renewing commitments Joe Biden claims he will "restore the soul of America." On the level of international relations, this will require that he keeps his word and renews the country's commitment to multilateral frameworks (World Health Organization, UNESCO, the agreement on Iran's nuclear program, etc.), abandoned by the Trump administration.

  • Europeans are expecting initial symbolic gestures, such as an immediate return to the Paris climate agreement, or messages of solidarity toward allies in NATO. The restoration of a certain transatlantic normality will first be formal.
  • This counts in diplomacy. Healthy relations imply seeing each other on a regular basis — if COVID-19 allows it — and regaining a standard of predictability. No more scornful words or cookie-cutter talk, but more substantive work.
  • However, Europeans will have to do this work in advance in order to present the new administration with possible areas of convergence and to take charge, alone, of certain political and security issues on the periphery of the EU.

Chinese and Russian perspectives The American pivot toward Asia, the desire to close the chapter of "endless wars' (Afghanistan, Iraq), the attachment to a hard line toward China: All these points have become common ground in Washington between Republicans and Democrats.

  • On the Chinese side, Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng expressed the wish, a few days ago, that the next American administration would meet Beijing "halfway," in a spirit of mutual respect. But there is no indication at this stage that a Biden administration would become more conciliatory — just more polite and less erratic.
  • In Moscow, great caution was also called for in the initial response from government officials. The spokesperson for Russian diplomacy, Maria Zakharova, did not, however, refrain during the count from noting "the archaic nature of the relevant legislation" and the "obvious shortcomings of the American electoral system."
  • In reality, however, ambivalent feelings dominate in the Kremlin. The Trump era was marked by regular suspicions of collusion between the Kremlin and the entrepreneur. Nothing positive has taken place in bilateral relations, particularly in the revision of the structure of disarmament treaties, which are in the middle of breaking down.
  • An ambitious reset, like the one Barack Obama tried in vain at the beginning of his presidency, seems unlikely under Joe Biden. For the Democrats, it is more a question of neutralizing Moscow, a second-tier actor, than of fuelling a diplomatic process that leads to nothing concrete.

How it looks in the Middle EastDonald Trump considered his record on the international scene to be among his greatest achievements. This included initiating the U.S. military withdrawal from the Middle East, particularly from Iraq, and holding tough positions vis-à-vis China, a systemic rival.

  • In addition, the signing of the Abraham Accords on Sept. 15 between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain reinforced the White House's entire regional strategy. For the past four years, the Trump adminisrtration has helped facilitate a rapprochement between Israel and the Sunni Arab countries, in the name of a common mistrust against Iran and at the cost of burying the Palestinian cause.
  • What seemed implausible has taken place, through a purely transactional approach, in defiance of history and the commitments of the past. Joe Biden is likely to rebalance American rhetoric, but not go back on unilateral initiatives such as the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital.
  • On the other hand, his willingness to reenter the Iranian nuclear agreement, if Tehran agreed to go back to the drawing board, could provoke tensions with a possible Republican-controlled Senate and also with Israel. Tzachi Hanegbi, the minister of settlement affairs and a close ally of Benyamin Netanyahu, said this could lead to a "confrontation between Israel and Iran."
  • The Israeli Prime Minister must make intricate political calculations, so much so that he owes it to Trump. He did not join in the congratulations on Saturday evening, waiting until Sunday to talk about his "warm personal relationship for nearly 40 years'with the new American president-elect.
  • In Iran, on the other hand, it is hoped that the policy of "maximum pressure" exerted by the U.S. will be reversed.
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How India’s Women Are Fighting Air Pollution — And The Patriarchy

India is one of the world's worst countries for air pollution, with women more likely to be affected by the problem than men. Now, experts and activists are fighting to reframe pollution as a gendered health crisis.

A woman walking through dense fog in New Delhi

*Saumya Kalia

MUMBAI In New Delhi, a city that has topped urban air-pollution charts in recent years, Shakuntala describes a discomfort that has become too familiar. Surrounded by bricks and austere buildings, she tells an interviewer: "The eyes burn and it becomes difficult to breathe". She is referring to the noxious fumes she routinely breathes as a construction worker.

Like Shakuntala, women’s experiences of polluted air fill every corner of their lives – inside homes, in parks and markets, on the way to work. Ambient air in most districts in India has never been worse than it is today. As many as 1.67 million people in the country die prematurely due to polluted air. It is India’s second largest health risk after malnutrition.

This risk of exposure to air pollution is compounded for women. Their experiences of toxic air are more frequent and often more hazardous. Yet “policies around air quality have not yet adequately taken into account gender or other factors that might influence people’s health,” Pallavi Pant, a senior scientist at the Health Effects Institute, a nonprofit in the U.S., told The Wire Science.

“It’s unacceptable that the biggest burden [rests on] those who can least bear it,” Sherebanu Frosh, an activist, added. People like her are building a unique resistance within India.

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Central to the tragic absurdity of this war is the question of language. Vladimir Putin has repeated that protecting ethnic Russians and the Russian-speaking populations of Ukraine was a driving motivation for his invasion.

Yet one month on, a quick look at the map shows that many of the worst-hit cities are those where Russian is the predominant language: Kharkiv, Odesa, Kherson.

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