In the hours and days after American news networks declared him the victor on November 7, President-elect Joe Biden received congratulatory tweets and statements from American allies around the world. Even Fox News sounded excited by the list of well-wishers, who, the channel noted, included “British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin, and Spanish President Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón.” Biden himself made a point, on November 9, of calling the leaders of Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, and Great Britain to thank them in return. A few days later, he spoke with the leaders of Australia, Japan, and South Korea too.
Had it not been for the intervening four years, the tweeted congratulations would have seemed entirely unremarkable, nothing more than the predictable pleasantries so common to global diplomacy in the era before Donald Trump. Readouts published by Biden’s transition team noted, for example, that “the President-elect underscored that the United States and Australia share both values and history”—boilerplate cliché, unless you remember that President Trump’s first call with the then–Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, ended in a nutty argument about refugees. According to the readout of a call with South Korea’s leader, Moon Jae-in, America’s president-elect “thanked President Moon for his congratulations, expressing his desire to strengthen the [two countries’] alliance as the linchpin of security and prosperity in the Indo-Pacific region.” This was also pretty boring, unless you remember that Trump publicly mused about withdrawing U.S. troops from South Korea—a move that would have left the country vulnerable to invasion from the North.