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A Tougher Road With Biden: The World Leaders Who Banked On Trump

Russian President Vladimir Putin hands President Trump a World Cup soccer ball during a joint news conference after their summit on July 16, 2018, in Helsinki.
Chris McGrath
Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin hands President Trump a World Cup soccer ball during a joint news conference after their summit on July 16, 2018, in Helsinki.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had no greater friend in the White House than him. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán was the only European Union leader to endorse him for president in 2016. And Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro said he admires him greatly. President Trump has counted several world leaders as his fans, many of them authoritarians, nationalists or populists. But they might have trouble keeping their relationship with the United States as friendly and their growing authoritarian tendencies unchecked if Joe Biden wins the presidency.

Besides the various torn-up international accords, the retreat of traditional American leadership from the global stage and the cementing of the "America First" doctrine, there has been perhaps no more glaring consequence of Trump's tenure than his embrace of strongmen who largely eschewed the Western-based human rights and rules of law agenda. By figuring out relatively early how to win favor with Trump, these leaders often leveraged their close relationship with him to cement their own power at home. Some borrowed his rhetoric such as decrying "fake news" to crack down on dissent, some appealed to his sense of pomp by throwing lavish ceremonies and others adopted his brazenly transactional approach to geopolitical dealmaking.

None of these Trump "bromances," whether forged for pragmatic or ideological reasons, are likely to continue with the same fervor with Biden. The 77-year-old former vice president, who has made clear his distaste for Trump's embrace of strongmen, is nevertheless the product of a traditional Democratic establishment that has also tolerated unsavory rulers in the name of preserving U.S. strategic interests. Still, if Biden wins, we can expect he'll seek to bring human rights and the rule of law as important pillars of U.S. foreign policy.

Over the last few weeks, our correspondents explored Trump's close relationships with some world leaders and how they might change under a Biden presidency.

The relationship with Russia's Vladimir Putin

As candidate, Trump made clear his admiration for Russian President Vladimir Putin. And throughout his presidency — the Robert Mueller investigation and the ongoing Russian attempts to interfere with the election notwithstanding — Trump has mostly refrained from severely criticizing Putin. (The Trump administration and Congress have called out Russia's aggressive behavior and have imposed several rounds of sanctions on Moscow.)

Case in point: the Helsinki summit in 2018 in which Trump refused to unequivocally back his own intelligence agencies' assessment that Russia had interfered in the 2016 U.S. election. Putin, Trump said, was "extremely strong" in his denials. Fast-forward to 2020 and U.S. intelligence agencies believe Russia is still engaging in "malign foreign influence" — including the use of social media and propaganda — that, they say, primarily goes after Biden. (The Kremlin denies any interference in U.S. elections.) The drumbeat of interference assertions was a major reason U.S.-Russian relations never really had a chance to improve.

How it might change under Biden

"I think the very fact that Biden was Obama's vice president already makes him not a friendly figure in Russia," says Moscow-based political analyst Masha Lipman. Biden, who repeatedly highlights the importance of preserving NATO, is likely to adopt a tougher line against Russia.

The only thing that helps the Kremlin, Lipman says, is more polarization and turmoil in the United States. "Turmoil means the United States [is] weakened," she says. "This is what the Kremlin can actually benefit from, not an improvement in relations."

The relationship with China's Xi Jinping

On the campaign trail and throughout his presidency, Trump has railed against China but has also voiced admiration for Chinese leader Xi Jinping as he tried to secure trade deals beneficial to the United States. Who could forget his January tweet praising Xi over his handling of the novel coronavirus? As the virus ravaged the West, Trump changed course, using China as a punching bag and saying his relationship with Xi has since frayed. Putting aside the leaders' relationship, the two countries are probably experiencing the worst ties in years. The Trump administration has sanctioned Chinese officials, targeted Chinese tech companies, arrested alleged Chinese spies and regularly challenges the country's claims in the South China Sea.

How it might change under Biden

Biden regularly touts the tough line he took as vice president against Xi. Biden says he would force China to "play by the international rules." He frames the issue as bringing together democracies to counter "abusive economic practices." Tony Blinken, the Democrat's top foreign policy adviser, told NPR that Biden would focus on "our competitiveness, on revitalizing our democracy, on strengthening our alliances and partnerships, on reasserting our values. That's how you engage China from a position of strength." China, for its part, sees the U.S. as a declining power. In its recently revealed five-year plan, Beijing signaled it expects more American-led tariffs on its exports and more sanctions on its tech firms but that it's also confident to meet those challenges.

The relationship with Israel's Netanyahu

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with President Trump prior to the President's departure from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv on May 23, 2017, in Jerusalem. The visit was part of Trump's first Middle East trip after taking office.
Kobi Gideon / Israel Government Press Office/Getty Images
Israel Government Press Office/Getty Images
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks with Trump before the president's departure from Ben-Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv in May 2017. The visit was part of Trump's first Middle East trip after taking office.

The Israeli prime minister is one of Trump's closest allies. Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the U.S. Embassy there — even though Palestinians seek part of the city for their future capital. He recognized Israeli claims to sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Netanyahu has touted his friendship with Trump in his campaigns. Trump has tweeted his support for Netanyahu and hosted him at the White House. Just a week ago, the Trump administration lifted a ban on U.S. taxpayer funding for Israeli scientific research carried out in Jewish settlements in Israeli-occupied territory. Netanyahu says, "Israel has never had a better friend."

How it might change under Biden

Danny Danon, who most recently served as Israel's ambassador to the United Nations, says Biden would also be "good with Israel." Nevertheless, Biden was vice president during Obama and Netanyahu's famously frosty relationship, and it's hard to see the two leaders sharing as close a relationship as Trump and Netanyahu.

Mitchell Barak, a pollster in Jerusalem, says that a Biden administration would probably want to take a more evenhanded approach with Israel. Under Trump, ties with the Palestinian leadership broke down. "They're going to start to try and make it a little more evenhanded or to look more evenhanded. And the free lunches that we've been getting up until now — we're going to have to pay for some of those things," Barak says. "And then Netanyahu does not have the advantage because it's going to be more of an antagonistic relationship."

The relationship with India's Narendra Modi

The two leaders have had each other's backs even as they've both faced criticism for discriminating against minorities. When he was pressed to question Prime Minister Narendra Modi about anti-Muslim riots in India, Trump gave him a pass. "And I will say that the prime minister was incredible on what he told me. He wants people to have religious freedom," Trump said during his visit to India earlier this year.

How it might change under Biden

A Biden-Harris administration is likely to voice stronger rhetoric on Modi's record on human rights, the environment and Kashmir. Still, India is seen as an important counterweight to China in the region, and Biden will not want to upset that.

"Since the George W. Bush administration, the United States has recognized India's potential as a natural balancer to China. It's been a proponent of the U.S.-India relationship due to India's strategic location, its potential as a market," says Akriti Vasudeva at the Stimson Center, a think tank in Washington, D.C.

The relationship with Mexico's Andrés Manuel López Obrador

When he launched his campaign for president in 2015, Trump vilified Mexicans: "They're bringing drugs. They're bringing crime. They're rapists. And some, I assume, are good people." He also repeatedly threatened tariffs on Mexican exports. But over the years, and especially as he worked to secure the U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement, Trump and Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador's relationship has grown closer. Critics of López Obrador say that he caved in to Trump by adopting harsher policies toward Central American migrants. But analysts say the Mexican leader didn't have much choice, particularly as he faced Trump's threats of tariffs and forcing Mexico to pay for a border wall.

"It would be very costly for López Obrador to get in a fight with Donald Trump," says Carlos Bravo Regidor, a political analyst and professor at Mexico's Center for Research and Teaching in Economics.

How it might change under Biden

Then-Vice President Joe Biden (left) shakes hands with then-Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador, during a meeting on March 5, 2012, in Mexico City.
Yuri Cortez / AFP via Getty Images
AFP via Getty Images
Then-Vice President Joe Biden meets with then-Mexican presidential candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador in March 2012 in Mexico City.

Every president since Franklin Roosevelt has visited Mexico — except for Trump. In fact, Biden even visited then-candidate López Obrador in 2012. Biden made more trips just to Guatemala in his two terms as vice president than Trump has made to all of Latin America as president, and would likely look to work with López Obrador on immigration. As vice president, he promoted aid to Central American countries and pressured their leaders to curb corruption.

The relationship with Brazil's Bolsonaro

Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro horse-riding during a demonstration in favor of his government amid the coronavirus pandemic in front of Planalto Palace on May 31, in Brasilia.
Andressa Anholete / Getty Images
Getty Images
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro rides a horse during a May demonstration in favor of his government amid the coronavirus pandemic in front of Planalto Palace in Brasilia.

It's no surprise that the "Trump of the Tropics," as Bolsonaro has come to be known, has a close relationship with the U.S. president. They're both brash nationalists who share similar views on the coronavirus pandemic — belittling the science, pooh-poohing the need for masks and saying the whole thing is just exaggerated. They both got COVID-19 and recovered. And they both believe shutting down the economy through lockdowns is more harmful than the virus. Bolsonaro's first international trip was to Washington, and he's since visited Trump three more times, including at Mar-a-Lago.

How it might change under Biden

"It would be a sort of earthquake," says Rubens Ricupero, a former Brazilian ambassador to the United States. Biden would likely pressure Bolsonaro on the erosion of human rights protections, including for Indigenous people, but it's the Brazilian leader's positions on the Amazon that would really be scrutinized. Biden wants to join forces with other counties to create a $20 billion fund for Brazil as part of an effort to press Bolsonaro to end rising deforestation. Still, Biden would need Brazil's cooperation on Venezuela and containing China, Brazil's biggest trading partner.

The relationship with Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan

The two leaders have had a bumpy relationship, but Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan also understood the benefit of a good rapport with Trump and preying on his instincts — particularly one that has to do with Trump's anathema of having U.S. troops in the "endless wars." With one phone call last year, Erdogan got Trump to move U.S. troops in Syria out of the way so that Turkish soldiers could attack Kurdish forces, which were U.S. allies in the fight against ISIS. Still, though Trump has called Erdogan a "good friend," he also at one point threatened to "totally destroy and obliterate" the Turkish economy.

How it might change under Biden

For one thing, it might become more predictable. Turkey might find it has to rein in the adventurous foreign policy it enjoyed under Trump.

Biden would also most likely pressure Turkey on its human rights record — particularly its jailing of journalists and other critics. Significant issues also divide Ankara and Washington, including Turkey's purchase of Russian missiles.

The relationship with the Saudi crown prince

Mohammed bin Salman, Saudi Arabia's crown prince (left), smiles as President Trump holds a chart displaying military hardware sales during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C., on March 20, 2018.
Kevin Dietsch / Pool via Bloomberg via Getty Images
Pool via Bloomberg via Getty Images
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (left) meets with Trump, who holds a chart displaying military hardware sales, in the Oval Office of the White House in March 2018.

Breaking with decades of U.S. tradition, Trump chose Saudi Arabia as his first international trip as president. In Riyadh, the Saudi royal family lavished Trump and his family with an extravagant ceremony. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has since been reaping the rewards. The Trump administration has barely pressured him — over the kingdom's air campaign in Yemen, which has killed thousands of civilians, or his crackdown on dissent. And following the 2018 killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Trump stood by the crown prince's side even as U.S. intelligence agencies assessed that the Saudi royal had approved the killing and as bipartisan lawmakers condemned him.

How it might change under Biden

The former vice president has cast the kingdom as a "pariah" — making it clear Salman would likely have a tougher time making inroads with a potential Biden administration. Biden has also threatened to stop selling arms to Saudi Arabia, a top buyer of U.S. weaponry.

"So there might be some cuts in terms of particular arms sales. There might be symbolic punishments. But the Biden administration is going to want a good relationship with Saudi Arabia despite the many problems," says Daniel Byman, a Middle East specialist at Georgetown University.

The relationship with Hungary's Orbán

Europe's populists, often shunned by Brussels, have found a natural ally in Trump, who shares their disdain for migrants, the media and dissent. But it's Hungary's prime minister, Orbán, who leads the pack. He was the only EU leader to endorse Trump in 2016. Four years and a White House visit later, Orbán calls Trump a friend and predicts he will win reelection. The populist leaders of Slovenia (Melania Trump's native country) and Serbia have also endorsed the president.

Previous U.S. administrations shunned Hungary, and the EU is investigating Hungary and Poland, run by another Trump-friendly government,for rule of law violations. Ivan Krastev, a political scientist who leads the Center for Liberal Strategies in Sofia, Bulgaria, says the two countries have used their alliance with Trump to make it clear "that they have an alternative" to Brussels.

How it might change under Biden

Biden mentioned Poland and Hungary when slamming Trump's foreign policy during a town hall last month, adding, "This president embraces all the thugs in the world." The remark angered Hungary's government, but Orbán is already casting Biden as part of the international liberal elite. "We know well American Democratic governments' diplomacy, built on moral imperialism," Orbán wrote in a recent essay in the pro-government newspaper Magyar Nemzet.

"He knows he has a lot to lose, so he's already positioned himself for the world without Trump," says Krastev, the political scientist.

Lucian Kim, John Ruwitch, Emily Feng, Daniel Estrin, Lauren Frayer, Carrie Kahn, Philip Reeves, Peter Kenyon, Jackie Northam and Joanna Kakissis contributed to this report.

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Yara Bayoumy