LONDON – As Americans contemplate the possibility of a nail-biter of a U.S. presidential vote Tuesday, there’s another cohort of people who are watching closely with nerves on edge as the race enters its final stretch: the rest of the world.
U.S. elections have long been the subject of intense international focus because of the outsize influence of America’s economy, culture and military. But the stark choice between giving President Donald Trump a second term or allowing former Vice President Joe Biden a shot at the job has drawn additional scrutiny in 2020.
On the ballot this time for American allies and foes alike is whether they will again be dealing with, in Trump, an administration that has upended traditional diplomatic protocols, overturned treaties and appeared to pursue a scorched-earth approach to alliances. In Biden, experts say, there is a potential return to a form of American foreign policy that expresses concern for human rights, global cooperation and aspects of the collective world order that the U.S. has championed for decades.
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“A Biden victory could pave the way for a more constructive international collaboration on a broad range of topics between the U.S. and Europe,” wrote analysts at Rabobank, a Dutch financial services firm, in a recent note for investors.
Rabobank singled out a less combative U.S. stance on trade, more constructive talks on shared defense spending and increased global teamwork on how to deal with an economically and militarily ascendant China as likely outcomes of a Biden presidency.
In fact, a poll published in mid-October by YouGov, a British online market research company, found that European countries overwhelmingly want Biden to beat Trump and few national populations in the region believe the incumbent has distinguished himself as president, whether on his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, immigration, in terms of engendering trust or any number of other topics that have dogged Trump’s presidency. In Denmark, 82% of those surveyed – a high – think Trump has been a “poor” or “terrible” American commander in chief. The lowest figure, in Italy, was 61%.
Still, some countries are watching the vote more closely than others, even if for political reasons it can sometimes be difficult to admit it for fear of backing the wrong horse.
“In the Baltics, there is a clear but unspoken preference for Biden,” said Andris Banka, a Latvian-born professor of international politics at the University of Greifswald, in Germany. “A façade of normalcy has been maintained while he has been in office, but there is a clear notion that something fundamental has been broken in transatlantic relations,” Banka added, referring to Trump’s threats to pull the U.S. out of the NATO military alliance that countries such as Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania view as integral to their security in the face of military and territorial adventurism from Russia.
North Korea‘s Kim Jong Un is also considering what the result could mean for his reclusive nation after he took part with Trump in a series of showy summits aimed at persuading North Korea to give up its nuclear arsenal. While the summits have not yielded concrete results, North Korea’s leader recently called Biden, who has vowed to hold North Korea accountable for its gross human rights abuses, a “rabid dog.”
Analysts say North Korea is going to be a handful for whichever candidate wins the election, but in Trump, Pyongyang has a sparring partner who has shown he’s open to the idea of more talks and experts at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank wrote in a recent analysis the “Trump administration’s foreign policy toward the (Korean) Peninsula … could produce outcomes unimaginable just a few years ago.”
Kim Jong Un wished Trump a speedy recovery after he tested positive for coronavirus in early October. He has otherwise refrained from weighing in on the U.S. election.
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The stakes are also high for Israel‘s leader, whose close relationship with Trump has helped engineer a number of long cherished policy prizes for Benjamin Netanyahu that have undercut Washington’s traditional bipartisan approach to Israel.
Among them: recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, devising a Middle East peace plan that heavily favors Israel over the Palestinians, starving the Iran nuclear accord of oxygen and the establishment of diplomatic ties between Israel and some Arab nations.
“We will wait and see whether the election will mean a continuation or a disruption of U.S. policy toward Israel,” said Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli Ambassador to U.S., in a recent Zoom call with reporters, noting he believes Israel is in a “much better place” as a result of Trump’s policies, including the decision to exit the Iran deal.
“This is the first U.S. administration that has broken away from the simplistic view that solving the Palestinian issue is the key to solving the region’s other problems,” added Yoram Ettinger, on the same Zoom call with Ayalon and reporters. Ettinger is a former diplomat and expert on U.S.-Israel relations and Middle Eastern affairs.
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Closer to home, Trump’s rise to power in 2016 triggered unease in Mexico as he badmouthed the country and threatened to upend its export-driven economy by ripping up the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
Four years later, Mexicans express fewer worries over a possible second Trump term, especially with the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal enacted.
And Mexico’s populist President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly called AMLO, has developed an unlikely relationship with Trump – to the point he says the U.S. president now shows “respect” for Mexico. For his part, Trump calls López Obrador a “great guy” and has toned down his discourteous discourse – gestures interpreted by some AMLO supporters as the Mexican president having tamed Trump.
“It’s in our interest that Donald Trump wins,” said Guadalupe Vargas González, 62, a junior high school teacher and AMLO supporter. “It’s better to have someone we already know than the other candidate,” he added, referring to Biden.
Analysts meanwhile suspect a nationalist like AMLO would prefer a second Trump term rather than taking his chances on a Biden administration, which would be more likely to voice concerns over issues in Mexico such as security, human rights, press freedom, climate change and labour clauses in the USMCA deal.
“The U.S. has been keeping quiet about these topics – suspiciously quiet,” said Brenda Estefan, a former security attaché at the Mexican Embassy in Washington.
North of the border, in Canada, Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland has said Justin Trudeau’s administration will continue to “manage” the relationship with the White House regardless of whether Trump or Biden is elected.
But one side may be trickier for Trudeau to deal with than the other considering that Trump has called Trudeau “two-faced” and the U.S. president’s economics and trade advisor Peter Navarro said of Canada’s leader in 2018 that there was a “special place in hell” for him after Trudeau and Trump clashed at a Group of Seven economic summit that year over potential tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of cross-border trade.
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In India, preparations are also underway for both outcomes, according to Vivek Mishra, a political scientist at the Indian Council of World Affairs, a think tank in New Delhi.
But Mishra noted that Trump is by far the favored candidate in a country that has overwhelmingly backed, in Narendra Modi, a controversial nationalist leader whose signature domestic policies include passing legislation that nakedly discriminates against India’s Muslims and has led to major declines in civil and political liberties.
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Indians, Mishra said, have warmed to Trump because they see in him a U.S. leader who is prepared to stand up to China – India’s regional rival. Trump has also overlooked India’s human rights transgressions in Kashmir, a disputed territory.
Mishra said Biden’s decision to select as running mate Kamala Harris, whose mother is from India, has not boosted nationwide enthusiasm for the Democratic challenger.
“Trump’s birthday is even celebrated by right-wing groups in India,” added Mishra. “That’s very unusual here, and certainly not something we’ve seen for Biden.”
Half a world away, in Africa, an English-language monthly magazine and website that focuses on African politics and economics, noted “Africa has not figured in any of the presidential and vice-presidential debates, or in much of the campaigning.”
Yet the editors of The Africa Report argued in a recent news and opinion roundup that the continent has “a serious stake in the outcome as shown by a clutch of Trump administration actions in the last few months.” The publication cited a dispute between Ethiopia and Egypt over a huge hydropower dam that has drawn Trump’s attention and his brokering of a peace deal between Sudan and Israel, among other issues.
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In conflict-plagued Afghanistan, Nishank Motwani, the deputy director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit think tank in Kabul, said despite Trump’s stewardship of a peace deal signed by the Taliban (but not the Afghan government), and his withdrawal of more U.S. forces, there is a sense of “despair, despondence and feeling abandoned” that has given Afghans little reason to want to see another Trump term.
“Trump’s deal has, if anything, constructed a bridge for the Taliban to push for total power and delegitimized the Afghan government,” Motwani said.
In Britain, Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London said there is, as is to be expected from one of the U.S.’s historically and culturally closest international partners, quite a lot of interest in who next wins America’s highest office.
Yet Prime Minister Boris Johnson has barely acknowledged the vote.
And Bale said he thought “few people in Britain actually know much about Trump’s policies on the international stage other than that they are quite controversial,” that he has stood up to China and supported Britain’s exit from the European Union, and that he appears to have an amicable relationship with Russia’s President Vladimir Putin – “Public Enemy No. 1 to most Brits,” according to Bale, not least because of a raft of poisonings and assassinations of Russian nationals on British soil that successive British governments have linked to Kremlin operatives and Putin’s inner circle.
Russia itself is also paying close attention, according to Arkady Dubnov, an analyst with the Carnegie Moscow Center, a foreign affairs think tank based in Russia’s capital.
But perhaps not in the way some might expect.
Dubnov said Russian political scientists close to the Kremlin have portrayed a Trump victory as useful for Russia’s national security because of Trump’s threats to withdraw from NATO. But he said few in Russia’s political establishment believe this will happen and “most ordinary Russians are only interested in the election as a kind of entertaining show involving two elderly participants, neither of whom they have much sympathy for.”
Among younger generations of Russians, said Dubnov, Trump is not well liked because he is viewed as a “defender of conservative values, a homophobe and a cynic.”
As for Biden, he has been given short shrift.
Although not, it seems, in far away Australia, according to Salvatore Babones, an American-born political scientist at the University of Sydney.
Babones said that while many people in Australia appear to like that Trump has been tough on China and are especially “happy to have U.S. Marines in Darwin” as a symbol of a steadfast American commitment to the defense of Australia, most “everyone is pulling for a Biden victory, though no one seems quite sure why.”
Babones said that “strangely, their greatest hope is that a Biden administration presages no change in American foreign policy in the region. As a result, no matter which way the election goes, the majority of Australians are likely to be disappointed.”
Not taking sides
Iran, too, has been reluctant to publicly pick a side, partly because it doesn’t see a side.
“It doesn’t matter whether Trump or Biden or anyone else is the U.S. president,” said Mohammad Farahani, editor-in-chief of a Tehran-based news agency linked to Iran’s judiciary. “U.S. strategy toward Iran may change; the policy is always the same.”
Farahani described Trump’s decision to abandon a nuclear deal between Iran and world powers as a “cruel action” that has wrought harm on ordinary Iranians through successive waves of crippling economic sanctions, but he said former President Obama, who brokered the nuclear accord, was also guilty of “signing hard sanctions on Iran.”
In a recent poll, about half of Iranians surveyed claimed to be impartial on who wins.
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In Ukraine, Olexiy Haran, a political scientist at the National University of Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, said Ukrainians, perennially fearful of an escalating conflict with Russia, were “grateful” for Trump’s eventual decision to authorize the sale to Ukraine of a Javelin, shoulder-mounted anti-tank missile system. It was an allegation that Trump, during a phone call with Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelensky, explicitly linked this purchase to a demand that Ukraine investigate Biden and his son over unsubstantiated corruption claims that formed the basis of the impeachment inquiry into Trump.
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However, Haran said Ukrainians also recognized that Biden would be a more “predictable” leader for their government to deal with. “The important thing for Ukraine is, we can’t take sides in who should be the next U.S. president,” he said.
Haran added that, whatever the outcome of the vote on Nov. 3, Ukrainians wanted to see an end to their country’s name constantly being associated with corruption and foreign scandals that most Ukrainians view as originating with pro-Russian oligarchs.
Also painstakingly, officially neutral: China.
But Andy Mok, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a public policy think tank based in Beijing, said the perception among the foreign policy establishment there is that while Trump may be worse for Beijing in the short-term because of the harsh line he has taken on it over, for example, coronavirus and trade, longer-term he’s probably better for China because of the “Trump derangement syndrome he elicits in the media and other parts of the U.S. government this just keeps him constantly on the defensive.”
Mok said a distracted Trump is viewed in China as ultimately limiting his effectiveness in other areas, and that a constant drumbeat of negative reaction to his words and actions plays into China’s hands as it pursues its own “unstoppable economic rise.”
He added there was “surprise and even puzzlement” in China that both U.S. presidential candidates are well into their advanced years. Mok said this has raised questions in China around what their ages could mean for the effectiveness of American leadership, as well as what it may say about the health of the political system that chose them.
“It’s not just Biden (77) and Trump (74), look at (House speaker) Nancy Pelosi (80), (Senate majority leader) Mitch McConnell (78),” Mok added, noting America’s aging leadership. China’s President Xi Jinping, by contrast, is a relatively youthful 67.
Still, elsewhere, the U.S. election takes a back seat to more pressing concerns.
In fact, not all leaders and populations appear to be shuddering at the thought of four more years of Trump or are wracked with consternation tied to his potential defeat.
“COVID-19, and Sweden’s high international profile regarding its approach to it, takes precedence,” said David Crouch, the Sweden-based author of “Almost Perfect,” a book that explains the Scandinavian nation’s governance model that has long attracted many admirers and critics, including Trump, who over the last four years has several times bashed Sweden over its immigration policies and generous welfare benefits.
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“There is no sense that we are holding our collective breath ahead of Nov. 3,” Crouch added. “The USA seems to have become a very foreign country to Swedes, who have strong historical, cultural and economic links with it. Neither of the two candidates are easy for Swedes to engage with. A quip on The Daily Show is more likely to be a conversation point than a development in the election campaign itself.”
Contributing: David Agren in Mexico City