Morning Brief

Allies and Adversaries React to Biden Inauguration

Iran’s president has promised a fresh start, while Canada gave Biden’s first executive orders a mixed response.

U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural speech after being sworn-in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, D.C.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers his inaugural speech after being sworn-in on the West Front of the U.S. Capitol on January 20, 2021 in Washington, D.C. Jonathan Ernst-Pool/Getty Images

Here is today’s Foreign Policy brief: Global leaders welcome President Joe Biden, the Indian government offers to temporarily suspend agriculture reforms, and South African scientists warn a new coronavirus variant may resist some treatments.

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The World Reacts To President Biden

“For four years the world had held its breath,” Jonathan Freedland wrote in the Guardian on Wednesday, “but at last came the moment to exhale.”

In current circumstances, the powerful sighs of relief heard around the world on Wednesday could be considered a health hazard.

Various world leaders are now lining up to make their cases to President Joe Biden—presumably via videoconference if the Biden transition team’s strict COVID-19 protocols are any indication. For U.S. adversaries, it’s a chance to start anew.

Venezuela has already appealed to the Biden administration to repeal “cruel” sanctions while Iranian President Hassan Rouhani made a simple pledge to Biden regarding the nuclear agreement Donald Trump withdrew from. “The ball is in the U.S. court now. If Washington returns to Iran’s 2015 nuclear deal, we will also fully respect our commitments under the pact,” Rouhani said at a televised cabinet meeting.

China sanctions Trump officials. Drawing a line under the last four years, China issued sanctions against 28 Trump administration officials. As FP’s James Palmer writes in this week’s China Brief, the sanctions “may be a way of trying to gauge the Biden administration’s positioning toward China. A fierce response on behalf of political opponents could indicate a more hawkish position for the Biden team.”

Canada’s climate policy gymnastics. Canada had to engage in diplomatic gymnastics during Biden’s first day. In a string of executive orders, Biden paved the way for a U.S. return to the Paris climate agreement while revoking a permit for the Keystone XL oil pipeline, which would speed the transport of Canadian tar sands oil to refineries in the United States. In a statement, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau expressed disappointment at the pipeline decision, while welcoming Biden’s decision to once again lead on climate change.

Roadblocks at home. While the world lays out the red carpet for Biden, at home his agenda is already facing trouble from the kinds of Republican leaders he had hoped to court. Senator Mitt Romney, when asked on Wednesday whether he would back the president’s $1.9 trillion coronavirus recovery plan, demurred. “We just passed a $900 billion plus package, let’s give that some time to be able to influence the economy,” he said.

The climate challenge. Biden’s climate executive orders can only go so far, of course, and without congressional support his agenda is unlikely to make lasting progress. Writing in Foreign Policy, Senator Chris Murphy outlined five ways the new administration can undo Trump’s policies and begin taking action on climate issues.

A fresh start? Foreign Policy’s Michael Hirsh sets the scene for the next 100 days as another impeachment trial now looms over a divided America.

What We’re Following Today

Indian government offers delay on agricultural reforms. The Indian government has offered to suspend proposed agricultural reforms for 18 months after the new laws sparked a wave of protests from farmers across the country. The proposal comes as the government plans to meet with farmers unions for a fresh round of talks on Friday. Union leaders have yet to indicate whether they would accept the government’s offer and suspend protests, which include a tractor rally scheduled for Jan. 26 in New Delhi.

House votes on Austin waiver. The U.S. House of Representatives will vote today on whether to grant a waiver to retired Gen. Lloyd Austin to serve as Joe Biden’s Secretary of Defense. Under U.S. law, former military officers must have been out of the service for at least seven years before they can serve as defense secretary unless a majority of House and Senate members approve a waiver. In a sign that Austin’s confirmation is likely, the influential Senator Jack Reed—who said his decision to grant former Gen. James Mattis a waiver was a one-off—has indicated he will again support a waiver.

Europe meets on COVID-19 response. European Union heads of state and government will meet today via videoconference to discuss a joint response to the coronavirus pandemic including a bloc-wide vaccine strategy. Delays in vaccine distribution have angered some EU states. After Pfizer announced it would be reducing the number of doses it would deliver because of changes to its production processes, Italian pandemic czar Domenico Arcuri promised to press “civil and criminal, where possible” charges against the company.

Keep an Eye On

South Africa issues variant warning. Scientists in South Africa have warned that the new COVID-19 variant found in the country is resistant to one kind of treatment, and may make vaccines less effective. In a paper published in the bioRxiv journal, the scientists found that the virus evaded plasma taken from convalescent patients—an emerging treatment given emergency approval in many countries. The virus’s resistance “may foreshadow reduced efficacy of current spike-based vaccines,” the scientists said.

Thailand’s newest party. Thai politician Warong Dechgitvigrom has formed a new pro-monarchy party, promising to take on the “the three-fingers mob,” referring to mass youth-led protests that have rocked the country since August. The new party, Thai Pakdee or Loyal Thai, formalizes the group of ultra-royalist protesters of the same name that had formed to counter the pro-democracy protests.

Greece-Turkey tensions. Greece’s parliament voted to extend its territorial waters in the Ionian sea by six nautical miles on Wednesday, following negotiations with Albania and Italy. The move comes as Turkey and Greece prepare to meet in Istanbul on Monday to discuss their competing claims in the Aegean Sea, a situation made more tense by Turkish survey vessels testing territorial boundaries in recent months. In Foreign Policy, Zenonas Tziarras and Jalel Harchaoui explore what Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan really wants in the Eastern Mediterranean.

Odds and Ends

Lotus posers. The government of Gujarat, the home state of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, is to change the name of dragon fruit in an attempt to remove any associations with China amid simmering tensions between the two countries. “The Gujarat government has decided … the word dragon fruit is not appropriate, and is associated with China. The fruit’s shape is like a lotus, and hence we have given it a new Sanskrit name, kamalam,” Gujarat chief minister Vijay Rupani said on Tuesday. “There is nothing political about it,” he added.

The lotus also happens to be the symbol of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The opposition Congress party derided the move as a distraction because “the government has nothing worthwhile to show as achievements.”

Sell high. London’s financial district was discovered to be an unusual site for entrepreneurial agriculture after police found 826 marijuana plants growing in a building close to the Bank of England. London police said they were tipped off by the strong smell emanating from the building and blamed the reduced footfall during COVID-19 lockdowns for not finding it sooner.

Speaking at an event on Wednesday, Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey took the news in stride. “We are now going to be the subject of endless jokes about ‘now we know what the Bank of England has been on,’” he said.

That’s it for today. 

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Colm Quinn is the newsletter writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @colmfquinn

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