Donald Trump still refuses to admit he lost the presidential election, on-brand for him but off-brand for American democracy. The US is about to enter an unprecedented few months of political dysfunction as the presidential transition gets under way. Which US adversaries will attempt to take advantage of the domestic chaos?
Not China. Chinese leaders are well aware that anti-China hawkishness is one of the few things uniting politicians in Washington these days, but some Chinese policymakers harbor hope that Beijing will be able to work more constructively with a President Joe Biden. And while there will be areas for collaboration going forward – climate change chief among them – that doesn’t change the fact that the overall trajectory between the US and China will remain negative as the two economic superpowers continue to compete in trade and technology, even under a Biden administration. But China is too strategic to unnecessarily stir the pot so early; for the time being, China will stand pat.
So too Russia, which played such an outsized role in the 2016 US elections but has barely made a ripple this time around. That’s not by accident – these last four years have taught Russia that having a genuine fan in the Oval Office doesn’t necessarily translate into favorable US policy towards the Kremlin. That means Moscow had even less incentive to meddle this time around; factor in that the Kremlin is also currently involved to varying degrees in Belarus, Ukraine, Syria, Libya and a recently brokered truce between Armenia and Azerbaijan, and the last thing Moscow needs to do is tick off an incoming US administration for few concrete gains.
Then there is Iran; aside from the US itself, Iran had the most directly at stake in the outcome of this most recent presidential election. It also had a clear preference for a winner in Joe Biden given how desperately it needs economic relief these days. It’s no guarantee that it will get that relief from a Biden administration, as re-entering the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) remains a tricky proposition for both sides at this point given their respective political calculations at home. But you better believe that Tehran is hoping for a more constructive relationship with the US, which means they won’t ruffle US feathers at this point.
But while there are some US adversaries waiting to see what the next administration will bring, a few of them may be tempted to try their luck. North Korea is a prime candidate – Pyongyang typically tends to launch provocative moves to improve its negotiating position while everyone is distracted… including US elections. After four years of Trumpian promises and little concrete gains to show for them, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un may figure that the next few months are the perfect time to showcase his leverage, reset the playing field and remind Washington that his country deserves a prime spot on the upcoming US foreign policy agenda. Don’t be surprised if we see a major weapons test of some kind out of North Korea over the next few months, especially if Kim worries that Biden won’t give him enough love and attention.
Another country that may figure it has little time to waste waiting for a Biden administration is Turkey. As the country’s economy continues to deteriorate – highlighted by the recent sidelining of both the central bank governor and finance minister – Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has grown increasingly aggressive abroad, including in the Eastern Mediterranean and in the Caucasus, to say nothing of Turkey’s long-standing involvement in Syria and Libya. All these moves and their spillover potential have unnerved the European Union, much to Erdogan’s delight and Trump’s seeming indifference. President Joe Biden, however, would be much more likely to side with Brussels once in office, and take a harder line against Turkey. That prospect may make Erdogan even more desperate, and risk-acceptant, in the short term.
The Trump years forced many countries to rethink their approaches to both the US and the world; some handled the challenge better than others. The dawning Joe Biden era will similarly force countries to adapt to a new reality… provided they (and the US) get through the next three months first. Let’s see how it goes.
Ian Bremmer is the president of Eurasia Group and GZERO Media and author of “Us vs Them: The Failure of Globalism.” His Twitter handle is @ianbremmer and he is on Facebook as Ian Bremmer.