While the Biden administration is quick to praise its own response to the Ukraine crisis and claims that it has united the globe against Russian aggression, these claims appear completely divorced from reality. While Europe has been united by Putin’s actions because they directly threaten their own security, the Biden administration has struggled to secure the support of Brazil, India, and the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia, to do anything about Russia’s invasion, as all have maintained varying degrees of neutrality. What is particularly striking about these failures is that while the administration is eager to dismiss them as consequences of local factors, all three countries have leaders who were particularly close allies to the United States under Donald Trump. In turn, it is possible to tie their neutrality, and the consequent failure to isolate Russia diplomatically, directly to the decision of the Biden administration to alienate each of them.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in the case of Brazil. While one might expect left-wing governments in Latin America to hesitate when it comes to taking the side of the distrusted Yankees, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro is a right-winger with close ties to the United States. He was a friend of former President Donald Trump, and this relationship extended to their families, with Bolsonaro’s sons making regular appearances at CPAC and other events with Trump’s children. Yet in Brazil, Bolsonaro has been a key figure preventing a close alignment with the Biden administration. Why? It cannot be sympathy for the territorial ambitions of ex-KGB spook Vladimir Putin.
Far more likely, the answer lies in the hostility Bolsonaro has been shown by the Biden administration, which seems determined to throw its weight behind the Brazilian leader’s rivals in this year’s election. In fact, the Biden administration seems prepared to do more than that. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan traveled to Brazil earlier this year where he stepped into a dispute between Bolsonaro and the Brazilian Supreme Court over electronic voting, warning Bolsonaro not to “undermine democracy.” Then, if there was any doubt, Sullivan publicly met with the Brazilian Defense Minister and a leading general with a clear implication that if there was an electoral dispute, the U.S. would expect the army to desert Bolsonaro. Why would Bolsonaro rush to support a U.S. administration that seems to be eagerly awaiting his removal from office, either electorally or by other means if the results are disputed?
Bolsonaro is not the only leader keeping his options open. Saudi Crown Prince Muhamad Bin Sultan faced nearly a year of Joe Biden refusing to take his calls. Saudi Arabia was the destination of Donald Trump’s first foreign trip, and played a key role in making possible the Abraham Accords, helping to end the conflict between Israel and much of the Arab world. Since January 2021, however, Riyadh has been placed in purgatory, with Biden blaming the Saudi Crown prince personally for the death of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018. One of Biden’s first moves was to freeze billions in arms sales to Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Biden’s pettiness, which has manifested both in a lack of support for Saudi Arabia’s war against Iranian proxies in Yemen and enthusiasm for a new nuclear deal with Tehran, has left the Saudi leadership convinced that Biden seeks their overthrow or at least the removal of the current crown prince. It is hardly surprising that the Saudis refused to increase oil production in response to high prices last fall unless Biden agreed to call them first. Now when Biden needs them, rather than the other way around, it is even less shocking that they will not even take his calls. Nor will the UAE, one of the parties to the Abraham Accords, and among Donald Trump’s closest allies who refused to vote to condemn Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
India’s neutrality, while more longstanding given the historical Russo-India and U.S.-Pakistan partnerships, is nevertheless a reversal. Narendra Modi is arguably the most pro-American leader in Indian History. He is an enthusiastic proponent of the free market, has close ties to the Indian diaspora in the West, and was close to Donald Trump. Together with Trump, Modi attracted a crowd in the tens of thousands at a “Howdy Modi” event in Texas, and when President and Mrs. Trump visited India, the favor was returned as they traveled the country as the Prime Minister’s guests. India seemed to be moving rapidly toward an alliance with the United States to counter China’s rising influence.
All of this ended with the arrival of the Biden administration. Not only did Biden ignore Modi himself, but the United States began to attack him domestically. During the campaign, Biden attacked Modi’s exercise of direct rule in Kashmir, while in early 2021, Biden both refused to sell advanced U.S. weapons to India and threatened to sanction India if it bought Russian weapons instead. On February 12th, less than two weeks before Russia invaded Ukraine, the U.S. State Department waded into a legal case in the Indian state of Karnataka, which allowed for a ban on girls wearing Hjabs in state funded secular schools. “Religious freedom includes the ability to choose one’s religious attire. The Indian state of Karnataka should not determine permissibility of religious clothing,” tweeted U.S. Ambassador at Large for Religious Freedom Rashid Hussein, setting off a firestorm. Indian media was quick to point out that the U.S. Constitution establishes a strict separation of Church and state which the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled allows states to ban prayer and the Ten Commandments from state schools. France and Quebec in Canada have similar bans on Hijabs. But somehow religious freedom does not exist in India if girls were not subject to an Islamic dress code in secular state schools?
The anger had barely subsided when Russia invaded Ukraine, and it fed a perception that under Biden, the U.S. looks at India not as an ally or equal partner, but as an inferior to be patronized and lectured to. Threats by the Biden administration to sanction India for failing to sanction Russia, when as noted, the U.S. refuses to sell them weapons, only encouraged the backlash among the Indian public. Biden’s problem in India is not merely Modi. It is the entire nation.
Far from rebuilding America’s alliances, the Biden administration spent more than a year alienating the allies Donald Trump worked hard to make. When Biden needed them, they were no longer there. Europe may have rallied to Ukraine’s assistance, but that has more to do with historical familiarity with the Russian threat than any persuasion on the part of Joe Biden. Where U.S. persuasion really mattered, Biden is batting almost a perfect zero.
Daniel Roman is the pen name of a frequent commentator and lecturer on foreign policy and political affairs, both nationally and internationally. He holds a Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics.