A frazzled world holds its breath while the U.S. chooses its leader
JERUSALEM — If the world could vote in Tuesday’s presidential election, Israel would be one of the reddest places on the globe.
Israel’s right-wing government has been showered with political favors by the Trump White House and backed to the hilt, culminating in normalization deals with three Arab countries that made the Middle East suddenly feel a bit less hostile to the Jewish state.
A victory for former Vice President Joe Biden would be a substantial loss for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Sallai Meridor, a former ambassador to the United States, said there would be “more daylight” between the White House and Netanyahu than under President Donald Trump. “We may lose what we achieved, and we may not gain more,” he said.
American presidential elections always seize international attention, but this year is exceptional: Trump has dominated news cycles and frayed nerves in almost every corner of the earth like few leaders in history. Having lived through his impulsiveness, and his disdain for allies and dalliances with adversaries, the world is on tenterhooks waiting to see whether the United States will choose to stay that rocky course.
Germans are obsessing over the contest on newspaper front pages, in countless podcasts and in a string of documentaries with titles like “Crazy Trump and the American Catastrophe.” Australians are working out their worries by gambling on the outcome, with the odds tilting heavily in Biden’s favor.
And in Ukraine, where Trump’s demand for political dirt on Biden got him impeached, some are worrying that in a close election he could press President Volodymyr Zelenskiy for another favor, a congratulatory message to bestow legitimacy on a premature claim of victory.
“We are vulnerable because we are dependent on U.S. political support,” said Alyona Getmanchuk, director of the New Europe Center in Kyiv.
No country has watched the American election unfold with greater anger and grievance than China — and few have more at stake. Tensions over trade, technology and the coronavirus have brought relations to their worst level since Washington first recognized the People’s Republic in 1979.
Even so, few Chinese officials appear to harbor much hope that a defeat for Trump would usher in any improvement. Rather, given Biden’s increasingly hawkish “get tough on China” campaign rhetoric, they seem to be treating him as a more complicated challenge.
State media and ordinary Chinese online have portrayed the presidential campaign as an embarrassing battle between two geriatrics, with one magazine, Caijing, asking, “Why does the American presidential debate look like a quarrel in a wet market?”
But President Xi Jinping appeared to be taking a direct shot at Trump last week when he said, “In the contemporary world, any unilateralism, protectionism or extreme egoism will never work.”
In Russia, which the CIA accuses of mounting a clandestine effort to reelect Trump, pro-Kremlin news organizations have played up the possibility of violence and chaos, allowing commentators who depict American democracy as rotten to the core to declare the campaign an I-told-you-so moment.
“Is America one step away from civil war?” read a headline in Komsomolskaya Pravda, the country’s most popular tabloid.
But a majority of Russians say it makes no difference to them who wins. “Trump was a good president for Russia, but it didn’t matter,” said Arsen P. Arutyunyan, 25, a small-business owner in Moscow. “Let Putin be a good president for Russia.”
To the Europeans, a Trump reelection would confirm that the United States is giving up its leadership role in the western alliance.
Beyond questioning membership in NATO, Trump has labeled the European Union a competitor and rival, tried to drive wedges among European countries — supporting Brexit and wondering to German and French leaders when they intended to leave the bloc — and promoted right-wing populism.
Many Europeans fear a more radical and even less constrained Trump in a second term, freer to act on his instincts — like those that guided his response to the COVID-19 pandemic, in which he ignored epidemiologists, mocked mask wearers and insisted the virus would just go away.
A Biden presidency, by comparison, would be welcomed as “a return to civilization,” said François Heisbourg, a French defense analyst.
Attitudes among British officials are more ambivalent, given Trump’s staunch support of Brexit — Biden said he would have opposed it — and close relationship with Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
British officials worry that Biden would give short shrift to their top priority with Washington, an Anglo-American trade agreement. And Johnson may need to repair some scar tissue with Biden’s aides, dating back to disparaging remarks Johnson made about former President Barack Obama in 2016.
But ordinary Britons have far fewer misgivings. Trump was so unpopular that his visits had to be planned to avoid huge protests, and polls show Biden favored by a lopsided margin.
But Trump does have his partisans: Central and Eastern European leaders appreciate his bolstering the U.S. troop presence along Russia’s borders. The Bosnian Serb leader, Milorad Dodik, called Biden a “Serb hater” and urged Serbian-Americans to vote for Trump.
The stakes on Tuesday are personal for thousands of asylum-seekers stuck on Mexico’s northern border in hopes of applying for refuge in the United States.
Joel Fernández Cabrera, a Cuban who has been waiting for a year in Matamoros, Mexico, said his spirits were buoyed by Biden’s commanding lead in the polls. “Everyone is following it because it’s the only ray of hope that we have,” he said. “Our hope is very, very high. If Biden wins, we’re all going to celebrate.”
Venezuelans say they are counting on Trump to help opponents of President Nicolás Maduro’s flailing, authoritarian government. “Trump was the one who helped to make Venezuela’s problems visible — and that made the rest of the world care about what happens here,” said Julio Urribarrí, 66, a university professor in Maracaibo.
In Nigeria, where the population is split between Muslims and Christians, churches will echo with prayers for Trump on Sunday, said Rev. John Joseph Hayap, chairman of the Christian Association. “You have to go with Trump,” he said. “He has brought Christianity to the White House.”
And the South Korean president, Moon Jae-in, has vocally encouraged Trump’s diplomatic engagement with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong Un, saying it stands a better chance of reaching a breakthrough than the more painstaking lower-level talks that Biden is likely to resume.
But the public is weary of Trump’s flirtation “with a dictator who had his uncle executed, killed a South Korean citizen and blew away an inter-Korean liaison office,” said Cheon Seong-whun, former head of the Korea Institute for National Unification, a government-funded Seoul think tank. “Trump has shocked South Koreans repeatedly, putting them on a constant alert,” he said. Polls show they favor Biden by nearly four to one.
Trump has continued to antagonize other parts of the globe in the final weeks of the campaign, speculating that Egypt might “end up blowing up” a contentious $4.6 billion hydroelectric dam on the Nile that Ethiopia is building. The remarks worsened one of the most delicate disputes in Africa and further polarized opinions about the American election in both countries.
Many Ethiopians are backing Biden by default, analysts said. But Yasser Rezk, an Egyptian journalist close to President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi — whom Trump once called “my favorite dictator” — said Egyptians are rooting hard for a Trump victory. “Unfortunately, we don’t have a vote,” he said.
In the Middle East, where Trump’s foreign policy has had the biggest impact, a Democratic victory could leave the autocratic leaders of Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Turkey with few friends in Washington, said Hisham Melhem, a columnist for the Lebanese newspaper Annahar Al Arabi.
That could prod Saudi Arabia, which Biden has called a “pariah state,” into offering to normalize ties with Israel, if only to blunt calls to re-evaluate the Saudi-American relationship, he said.
Conversely, a Trump victory offers Israel no guarantees. A second-term President Trump, unfettered of his need to please pro-Israel evangelical voters, might rush into an overly forgiving new deal with Iran, many Israelis fret.
Meridor, the former ambassador, said that though there was no question that Trump had been good for Israel, Israelis were not blind to America’s diminishing leadership of the world over the last four years. “The most important concern for Israel,” he said, “is that America will be strong.”
Given China’s energy needs and Russia’s oil-price sensitivity, he said, “American presence and influence in the Middle East can be a check and a bargaining chip” on its rivals.
He added: “I don’t want my grandchildren to live in a world dominated by China or Russia.”
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