Joanna Slater, Gerry Shih, Robyn Dixon
As Americans cast their votes to choose the president for the next four years, the whole world is watching closely, especially allies in Europe and rivals like Russia, China and Iran which could all expect a very different US foreign policy depending on who wins on Tuesday.
Commentators in China hope for a respite with a Democratic administration under Joe Biden but fear that whoever wins, the new US-China rivalry started by President Donald Trump might persist.
Pro-Kremlin media warn elections could lead to chaos and street fighting, predicting that Trump will be forced to retreat to his bunker after the vote.
Many European leaders are watching anxiously, fearing Trump would weaken or destroy NATO if re-elected.
In Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made much of his close ties with Trump, analysts wonder if a Democratic win might weaken the Israeli leader’s long hold on power.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, mocked Trump for predicting fraud in his own country’s election, calling it the “ugly face of liberal democracy.”
The choice of a US president is always a matter of global importance – to allies, rivals, trading partners, and the web of treaties and institutions that bind countries together. This time, however, the stakes are exceedingly high.
Over the past four years, Trump has upended the principles that have guided US foreign policy for decades, preferring a transactional, personality-driven approach to world affairs that has at times angered and unnerved some of America’s closest allies.
He has withdrawn the United States from multilateral agreements, including the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal, and started several trade wars. He has restricted legal immigration to the United States and severely curtailed the number of refugees allowed into the country. He has expressed his admiration for strongmen leaders from North Korea to Russia to Turkey.
Trump knows the world is watching as he attempts to win a second term. “China wants me out, Iran wants me out, Germany wants me out, they all want me out,” he said at a campaign rally Saturday. “But here we are, right?”
If Joe Biden wins, the election will mark a crucial pivot for US policy. He has promised to restore a more traditional strategy to foreign policy. He has said that one of his first acts as president would be to “get on the phone with the heads of state and say, ‘America’s back, you can count on us.’ “
Russian hopes for a Trump victory was reflected in the commentaries of pro-Kremlin media after the ruble fell through the psychological barrier of 80 rubles to the dollar Monday on fears that a Biden presidency could inflict more sanctions on Russia.
The prevailing theme in election coverage by pro-Kremlin outlets was that American democracy is fraying, facing likely post-election violence, conflict and even civil war. State-owned Vesti television focused on the construction of a fence around the White House and reported that President Trump would likely spend the night after elections “in a bunker.”
Dmitry Kiselyov speaking on the flagship weekly political program on state TV Sunday, called Biden a crime “godfather.” He said the situation was “explosive” and the struggle for power in Washington no longer followed any rules.
In Europe, where Trump is deeply unpopular in most countries, citizens and leaders are watching breathlessly. Many here worry that Trump could pull out of NATO if he is reelected, setting off a security revolution that would transform European societies with the need to rearm.
German leaders, mindful of their own historical experience of state-sanctioned violence, appear especially unsettled.
“In the #USA we see that it is no longer just about competition. Hatred has found its way into the political system. There is no longer a center, only polarization,” tweeted the chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, Norbert Röttgen.
In private, European leaders say that they are bracing for days of uncertainty. One senior European official sent a “fingers crossed” emoji when asked about the election on Tuesday. The official emojied on condition of anonymity for fear that public emojis would bring down Trump’s wrath on the official’s country.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan took to Twitter to endorse Biden and wish him good luck, adding that the world could not strive for a better future without America. “We’re rooting for you,” he wrote. Khan’s backing of Biden follows years of very public clashes with Trump, who has branded London’s first Muslim mayor as “incompetent.”
Best-selling British novelist Matt Haig, was worried about the impact four more years of Trump may have on global action on climate change. “In all seriousness by 2024 it will be too late to start acting on the environment. That action needs to happen now, led by the U.S. Biden wants clean energy. He has an aggressive unapologetic 2 trillion dollar plan. It’s no exaggeration to say the future of the planet is at stake,” he tweeted.
A mood of cautious expectation draped over the Asia Pacific, a region that has been heavily shaped the last two years by the Trump administration’s all-out confrontation with China.
In China, the U.S. election dominated social media chatter with many Chinese analysts predicting a Biden win could usher in a welcome diplomatic respite. But some are also gloomy about the long-term prospects in China-U.S. relations: even if Trump lost, analysts say, he will have left his mark by positioning Washington and Beijing as long-term rivals.
“We hope after Biden comes back we can at least resume high-level dialogue,” said Ding Yifan, senior fellow at the Tianhe Institute and a former adviser to China’s cabinet. “America has been ruining itself with suicidal behavior. Biden wants to compete with China but also collaborate, and that’s how we frame the relationship too. To see the democratic system in the world’s most powerful country go off the rails is not a good thing, it’s actually a terrible thing.”
Other Chinese voices, including authoritative state media, have been quick to poke at the U.S. political system and highlight the possibility of election-related violence.
“One of China’s greatest political advantages is that it does not subject itself to every four years of political turmoil and chaos in the country,” a commentator said in a China Daily video Tuesday.
For some pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, Trump has become a symbol for how to stand up to Chinese oppression. In Taiwan, there are worries that a Biden administration – in a bid to dial down such tensions – would go too far down the path of conciliating China.
The U.S. relationship with the Middle East is also hanging in balance after Trump overturned a nuclear agreement the Obama administration negotiated with Iran, kicking off a harsh sanctions regimen to exert “maximum pressure” on the Iranian government.
How the next administration deals with Iran has been one of the top considerations for the Arab World, according to recent polls. Yousef al-Otaiba, the UAE’s influential ambassador in Washington, said in a recent interview that different approaches to Iran is the main distinguishing feature between the two candidates. “The biggest fault line right now is how to deal with Iran … There’s a disagreement,” he told the Abu Dhabi based The National.
Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said the results of the election would make no difference to the country, and mocked Trump for predicting fraud in his country’s own election.
“This shows the ugly face of liberal democracy within American society,” he said in a televised speech where he described the United States as in decline.
In Israel, observers said a Biden win – after four years of close partnership between Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – could accelerate the end of the current compromise government in Jerusalem and lead to elections in a matter of months.
“Netanyahu has made his relationship with President Trump a key selling point to the Israeli electorate,” said Jason Pearlman, a communications strategist. “If Biden wins, it will be seen as a real dent in Netanyahu’s influence.”
Israeli settlers in the West Bank gathered to pray for his reelection on the eve of the American vote. Settler leaders have expressed concern that a Trump loss could mean a backpedaling of recent foreign policy decisions that include moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem and reducing U.S. criticism of Jewish settlement in the West Bank.
“What we’ve done until now, I want it to stick,” said Yishai Fleisher, a spokesman for Jewish settlers in Hebron.
For some world leaders, the Trump years have proved to be a window of opportunity, particularly for like-minded right-leaning nationalists. Several such politicians have already expressed their hope that Trump will be reelected, including the leaders of Hungary, Brazil, the Philippines and Slovenia.
“We root for Donald Trump’s victory, because we know well American Democratic governments’ diplomacy, built on moral imperialism,” wrote Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán in a recent essay. “We have been forced to sample it before, we did not like it, we do not want seconds.”
It is not just leaders and diplomats around the world who are watching the election with intense interest, but also regular people. Some have ties to the United States, while others think the next American president will have a direct impact on their lives.
In some ways, “it’s the world’s election,” said Shivshankar Menon, India’s former national security adviser. Menon said his 94-year-old mother in New Delhi – who had never showed any interest in a prior US presidential election – told him Monday that she was anxious about the outcome of the vote.
In Iran, a musical outfit called the Dasandaz Band posted a bouncy song on Twitter urging average Americans to remember that their votes have global repercussions. “Know that who you vote for changes our lives,” they sang. “We don’t really know why it affects us more than it does you.”
Others fretted for America. In Egypt, where Trump has called President Abdel Fatah al-Sissi his “favorite dictator,” a commentator in the state-owned Al Ahram Weekly expressed fear that no matter what the outcome, the United States could descend into unrest and lamented its diminished status on the world stage.
“The world always looked upon the US as the melting pot where races blend and live harmoniously,” wrote Azza Radwan Sedky. “It is where millions immigrate to achieve the unachievable elsewhere to realize the American ideals of democracy, equality, and human rights. This portrait is quickly eroding.”