There may be some slight overselling in this Washington Post story on Joe Biden “snubbing” the autocratic leaders that Donald Trump was so enamored of. It’s not likely that there’s any conscious White House decision-making going on here, or any lengthy staff debates on whether or not to nurture relationships with the hard-right, often murderous autocrats Trump clung to. Trump was the outlier here, and his praise for and attempts to woo authoritarians were so gratuitously self-serving that even his own compliant staff could not often come up with justifications.
Biden not going out of his way to invite input from the world’s hard-right nationalist strongmen and their democracy-hostile underlings, in the first months of his administration, is a return to a long-running status quo. It would be weirder if he did look to keep U.S. policies aligned with Trump’s (mostly) second-tier autocracies.
There’s no snubbing involved here, just a return to standard diplomatic priorities. In standard diplomacy, United States presidents do not seek out the murderous assholes of the world and shower them with admiration, because standard diplomacy does not revolve around filling the day-to-day emotional needs of the world’s most fragile short-fingered narcissist.
There are two particular leaders singled out among the “snubbed,” however, that are special cases.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin is an opposition-snuffing, whistleblower-murdering thug whose aggressive attempts to undermine world democracies as means of expanding his own world power cannot be ignored. Rather than snubbing him, Biden has singled his government out for particular attention. Given Trump’s still-(cough)-unexplained eagerness to polish Putin’s boots at every available opportunity, it’s likely that Russian leaders are indeed reeling from the switch from owning a U.S. president outright to facing the more typical version.
Still-indicted hard-right Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is hardly a Putin, but has been aggressive in recent years in inserting himself into U.S. political battles on behalf of America’s own hard-right, allying with even a Donald Trump if it would help boost the fortunes of American hawks who, like Netanyahu, believe the best Middle East policy is for U.S. forces to bomb the entire region into submission. Netanyahu is not dim, and assuredly expected that his open alliance with the American hard right would result in stiff treatment from the U.S. politicians he sought to undermine, if those politicians pulled off wins anyway; whatever Trumpian whines he might offer up now about rudeness or unfairness are purely performative.
Yes, the relationship between a reeling-from-insurrection United States and an Israeli leader that openly aligned himself with the militant propagandists that caused it will result in some cold shoulders. That’s the danger posed when a nation chooses sides in another nation’s internal conflicts. Always has been. This specific problem may solve itself, however, due to the still indicted bit.
As for the myriad random world strongmen who were suddenly catapulted into front-row relationships with the United States president during the Trump years, none of it amounted to diplomacy to begin with. There’s nothing there for Biden to do. Trump’s admiration for violent leaders who elevated themselves above whichever of their nation’s laws they didn’t like was his own personal obsession, not a strategic plan. The man has long attempted to cozy up to those he perceived to have power he did not, and taken great pleasure in abusing all those around him who his own power allowed him to abuse. ‘Brutal strongman’ remains the man’s personal ambition.
It had nothing to do with diplomacy, and in almost all cases ran in parallel to and apart from whatever the stumbling officials he had tasked with actual diplomacy thought they were doing.
Historians, behavioral experts, and others have had Trump’s number on this from the very beginning. Authoritarianism is a personality. Trump’s attempts to ingratiate himself into authoritarian company were both aspirational and based on the man’s own deep psychological needs. He liked people who could murder journalists and whistleblowers, and seeks, still, to join their ranks. When it came to lavishing praise on those people he simply can’t help it, even if his own top diplomatic appointees were attempting to pursue other policies in the background.
Among the non-fascists of the world, Biden’s abrupt return to diplomacy as normal—especially, one imagines, the bit where he does not gratuitously insult every ally in some sort of pathetic buffoon’s version of a corporate power move—is already resulting in a steep rise in polled opinions of the United States abroad. A very large chunk of this is probably due to international relief at Trump’s departure, in much the same way as President Barack Obama was near-immediately given Nobel honors simply for not being the two-war aspirational colonialist George W. Bush. Another chunk of it is probably that Biden is, as expected, using his time to patch up relationships with Trump-scorned international allies rather than wasting it sucking up to Trump-allied crooks.
Is Biden abandoning Trump’s prior obsequiousness towards leaders of North Korea, Turkey, the Philippines, and other autocracies and aspiring autocracies? Well, yes. But that was a given, and there’s probably nobody on the list who expected differently. Autocrats know their only allies are other autocrats. That’s why Trump wanted to join the club, and why Biden appears not to be shunning them so much as tossing it back to a (hopefully) rebuilding State Department and normal diplomatic channels. Business as usual tends to be boring. Good boring—the kind where you can go a whole week without a new international crisis. Let’s not pretend that Trump’s spasming id counted as diplomacy, or something that the next president should have to follow up on with gift baskets or phone calls. The insurrection-backing fascist lost, and his club of favored murderers and democracy-thwarters will have to go on without him.