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The Financial Express

Democracy has returned to the United States


Democracy has returned to the United States

On a cold but sunny day, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were sworn in to their respective elected Office-- Biden as the 46th President of the United States and Kamala Harris as the Vice President of the great country. Biden also became the second US President from the Roman Catholic community- the first having been John F. Kennedy. Harris, the daughter of Indian and Jamaican immigrants, became the first black person, first woman and first Asian-American to serve as the nation's number Two. Her husband Doug Emhoff has become America's first-ever "second gentleman".

The official constitutional ceremony took place at the very Capitol building that was assaulted on January 6 by followers of former President Donald Trump who represented the extreme rightist, racist and fascist communities within the US.

The ceremony will be part of history because of the singular approach on the part of Biden and his team-- who all called for unity. Biden through his statement exemplified his belief that civility was an essential component of good and inclusive governance. Biden called for unity and vowed to end strains of the current 'uncivil war' in his first speech as President. Delivered before former Presidents Clinton, George Bush and Obama and former Vice President Pence, his speech called for all to rise above disagreement.

The ceremony unfortunately saw the absence of the outgoing President Donald Trump which broke 152 years of tradition.  Trump refused to be present because he claimed that he had been cheated out of a second term. In one of his last acts before departing the White House, Trump also undertook the controversial task of pardoning or commuting the sentences of 73 people including allies.

Biden has vowed to bridge deep divides and defeat domestic extremism. In this context, he also mentioned "democracy is precious, democracy is fragile and at this hour, my friends, democracy has prevailed." Biden also appealed to Trump's supporters, pledging to listen to all sides after four years of deep polarisation in which Trump belittled minority groups and tried to cast doubts on basic facts. In this regard he remarked- "I will be a President for all Americans." This was his way of assuring Americans that he will confront the rise of domestic extremism.

At 78, the oldest President in US history, Biden also pointed out that the United States faces a rise of political extremism based on white supremacy and that he will confront and defeat this paradigm.  He also drew attention to another detail- "our history has been a constant struggle between the American ideal that we are all created equal and the harsh ugly reality that racism, nativism, fear and demonisation have long torn us apart."

However, faced with so many domestic challenges, Biden delved little in his inaugural address into foreign policy, a longtime passion for the former Senator. Nevertheless, he remarked that- "we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again."

This last comment has brought encouragement among world leaders and different institutions, many of whom have suffered in the recent past because of selfish and non-practical decisions of Trump. This led many overseas leaders to breathe a sigh of relief with the end of Trump's hawkish, go-it-alone presidency. They included Heads of Government of Australia, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Japan, Italy, France, Canada, Israel and Spain.

Russia has hinted that President Putin is in favour of preserving the Arms Control Treaty and would welcome re-start of negotiations by the US under Biden's leadership. Iran has also noted that it is looking forward to changes in the bilateral relations with the USA.  The leaders of the European Union, the WHO, the NATO and those associated with the tackling of Climate Change have also expressed their satisfaction with Biden's arrival on the international stage.

In fact, after the inauguration and ratification of the appointment of Anthony Blinken as the new US Secretary of State, European Union Foreign Policy Chief Josep Borrell has indicated that he was looking forward to Blinken being present in the informal meeting of EU Foreign Ministers on March 4-5 in Lisbon to restart EU cooperation with the USA after four years. Trump sought to sideline the 27-nation bloc. Apparently the EU feels that the USA needs to take on the global leadership of not only fighting the Covid Virus but also to be present in the discussion on how to shape future digital regulatory measures.

It is generally agreed that Joe Biden's Administration will usher in a distinct shift in the United States' approach to diplomacy and world affairs. Biden has long supported multilateralism and has promised to restore key political, security and trade alliances when he takes office, while also bolstering the US's engagement with international treaties and organisations. That will be a change from the "America First" policy of President Donald Trump, who eschewed multilateralism from his first days in the White House and withdrew from a series of multilateral agreements, including the Paris climate accord, the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Iran nuclear deal.

Biden is expected to seek strengthening of ties with many leaders in Western Europe, particularly Germany and its evolving leadership. The relationship was strained during the Trump years. Biden's relationship with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who wooed Trump as the United Kingdom withdrew from the European Union, however may remain uncertain.

Biden delivered his speech before a National Mall that was virtually empty due to the ultra-tight security and a raging Covid-19 pandemic that he vowed to confront immediately. With the general public essentially barred from attending due to the pandemic, Biden's audience at the National Mall instead consisted of 200,000 flags planted to represent the absent crowds.

Subsequently Biden also showed his graciousness towards Donald Trump facing the prospect of impeachment, who had left behind a very generous letter for him consistent with tradition. However he refrained from telling the reporters what was in that letter "because it was private, I won't talk about it until I talk to him."

After assuming his Office, President Biden, has issued 15 important executive orders, memorandums and directives with the understanding that they will be implemented without delay. These 15 executive actions are aimed at undoing controversial policies put in place by Trump. They notably include his first moves on containing the dire effects of the pandemic, measures for combating climate change, advancing racial equity and support for other underserved communities. Interestingly, they include a mask mandate on federal property and for federal employees, an order to establish a new White House office for coordinating the response to the on-going coronavirus pandemic and halting the process of withdrawing from the World Health Organisation.

Biden has also signed a document to begin the process of re-entering the Paris climate accord and issued a sweeping order for tackling climate change, including revoking the presidential permit granted to the contentious Keystone XL oil pipeline.

This raft of orders also addresses immigration. Biden has revoked Trump's emergency declaration that helped fund the construction of a border wall and ended a travel ban on some majority-Muslim countries. Further actions also include revoking the ban on military service by transgender Americans, and reversing a policy that blocks US funding for programmes overseas linked to abortion.

On the economic front, Biden has asked the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to extend a moratorium on evictions until the end of March, and the Department of Education to suspend student loan payments until the end of September.

Such measures will certainly increase his popularity and acceptance within the United States. Drawing on almost five decades of political experience, Biden has also indicated that he is not afraid to talk-straight when needed.

Joe Biden with his long political experience is a tactical politician who served as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1997 to 2009. Analysts are consequently suggesting that the Biden Administration might take a harder line on human rights abusers, signaling a likely break from Trump's close ties with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, Brazil's far-right President Jair Bolsonaro, and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whom Trump called his "favourite dictator" at the G7 summit in 2019.

Political geo-strategists are also closely analysing Biden's potential relationship with Chinese President Xi Jinping-- following increased tensions between the two countries during the past four years. Biden spent considerable friendly time with Xi in his earlier role as US Vice President. However, this time, the Biden Administration may exert pressure with regard to China's alleged failure to measure up to human rights standards in Hong Kong and in "forcing of men, women and children into concentration camps; trying to, in effect, re-educate them to be adherents to the ideology of the Chinese Communist Party"- (in the words of the new Secretary of State Blinken). One has to wait and see what happens later. It has also been reported that the new US Administration will uphold its commitment to ensure that self-ruled Taiwan, which China sees as a wayward province, has the ability to defend itself.

The new US Administration will also have to resolve several other problems that have surfaced in different regions of the world -- in Europe, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East -- with particular reference to Palestine, South and South East Asia and the Far East. There is also the question of finding a solution regarding North Korea.

One needs to also draw attention to the thorn that has originated from Myanmar and resulted in Bangladesh having to look after more than 1.3 million Rohingya refugees who have fled the Rakhine State in Myanmar. Instead of being accountable, Myanmar has continued to stall efforts towards their repatriation to their homeland. There is presently a tri-partite process towards this end. Nevertheless, one believes that very little may happen without direct intervention of the USA, the EU, the UN and some other countries like Russia and Japan. Bangladesh will also wait and hope that the Biden Administration will resolve the ongoing absence of GSP facility for Bangladeshi products entering the USA. If need be, a Free Trade Agreement could be the right answer.

Right now, one can only wish Biden and Kamala Harris full success in their many ongoing efforts.

 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialised in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance.

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