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International sighs of relief as Biden settles into White House

There were international sighs of relief when Trump lost in the fall. Those sighs were a little louder yesterday as Joe Biden took the oath of office.
President Joe Biden, first lady Jill Biden and family, walk in front of the White House during a Presidential Escort to the White House on Jan. 20, 2021.Doug Mills / The New York Times via AP, Pool

In his deeply unfortunate farewell address, Donald Trump told several lies, though one stood out in its brazenness: "The world respects us again." In an apparent message to his successor, the Republican added, "Please don't lose that respect."

The irony was breathtaking given the profound harm Trump did to the United States' international standing. Indeed, the day Joe Biden was declared the winner of the 2020 presidential election, "sighs of relief rippled through capitals" around the world. NBC News Chief Foreign Correspondent Richard Engel reported, "As the results came through tonight, I started to watch the reaction coming in around the world, and people were reacting like the United States had overthrown a dictator, that democracy has been saved, that America's reputation had been saved."

Those sighs of relief were a little louder yesterday.

With almost palpable relief, longstanding American allies welcomed Joe Biden as he was sworn in as the 46th president of the United States on Wednesday. Some signaled hopes for a radical change in the White House, particularly in its approach to climate change and the coronavirus pandemic. And a few took parting shots at Donald Trump and his nationalist, "America first" agenda. The European Union's top politician, Ursula von der Leyen, said that "after four long years, Europe has a friend in the White House."

Spain's prime minister, Pedro Sanchez, was more candid than most, declaring, "Five years ago, we thought Trump was a bad joke, but five years later we realized he jeopardized nothing less than the world's most powerful democracy."

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier acknowledged the extent to which he was "greatly relieved," but added a note of caution.

"Despite all the joy we feel today, we must not forget that even the most powerful democracy in the world has been seduced by populism," the German official said. "We must work resolutely to counter polarization, protect and strengthen the public square in our democracies, and shape our policies on the basis of reason and facts."

This has been a lingering concern in recent years: even if Americans removed Trump from office at the earliest possible opportunity, the United States did lasting harm to its international reputation by electing him in the first place. Observers the world over assumed our democracy and political system was too mature and responsible to elect an unhinged television personality to the world's most powerful office, but enough of us proved otherwise.

Four years later, many of those same international observers noticed that nearly 47% of American voters wanted four more years like the last four -- a slightly higher percentage of the popular vote than Trump received in 2016.

The resulting dynamic is straightforward: much of the planet may be relieved to see Joe Biden in the White House, but restoring trust and confidence is a process that will take time and effort. NBC News had a report along these lines in November:

America's partners around the world are mostly relieved that the end of Donald Trump's chaotic presidency is near, but they harbor lingering doubts about Washington's reliability and are wary of the country's polarized politics even under new leadership, former foreign and U.S. diplomats say. "There's a feeling that if it can happen once, it can happen again," said James Bindenagel, a retired career U.S. diplomat who is a senior professor at Bonn University in Germany.

Biden took several worthwhile steps yesterday to re-engage the world, including embracing the Paris climate accords, ending Trump's Muslim ban, and renewing ties with the World Health Organization.

It was a heartening foundation upon which to build.