'Clear but unspoken preference': As America votes, the world watches with bated breath

LONDON – As Americans contemplate the possibility of a nail-biter of a U.S. presidential vote Tuesday, another cohort of people watch 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. 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. 

On the ballot for American allies and foes alike is whether they will again deal with a Trump administration that has upended traditional diplomatic protocols and overturned treaties. In Biden, observers said, 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 United States has championed for decades.

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A person in the Seoul Railway Station in Seoul, South Korea, watches a live broadcast of U.S. President Donald Trump and Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden during the final presidential debate.

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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," analysts at Rabobank, a Dutch financial services firm, wrote in a note for investors.

Rabobank singled out a less combative U.S. stance on trade, more 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. 

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 say the incumbent distinguished himself as president on his handling of the coronavirus outbreak, immigration and other topics. In Denmark, 82% of those surveyed – a high – say Trump has been a "poor" or "terrible" American commander in chief. The lowest figure, in Italy, was 61%. 

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 Germany on Monday, Chancellor Angela Merkel declined Monday to comment directly on the U.S. election but said "because of my education as a physicist I naturally attribute great weight to scientific advice, and make use of it myself." This followed Trump's comments against Anthony Fauci, the nation's leader on infectious diseases, who warns that the U.S. is entering a grim period for coronavirus deaths and cases, counter to Trump's attempts to paint the U.S. as rounding the corner on the pandemic.

Andris Banka, a Latvian-born professor of international politics at the University of Greifswald in Germany, said: "In the Baltics, there is a clear but unspoken preference for Biden."

Regarding Trump's threats to pull out of the NATO military alliance that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania view as integral to their security in the face of military and territorial adventurism from Russia, Banka noted that "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."

A mural depicts President Donald Trump blowing marijuana smoke into the mouth of Russian President Vladimir Putin on the wall of restaurant in Vilnius, Lithuania, on Nov. 23, 2016.

North Korea's Kim Jong Un is 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, though the meetings did not yield concrete results. North Korea's leader called Biden, who vowed to hold North Korea accountable for its gross human rights abuses, a "rabid dog."

Analysts said North Korea is going to be a handful for whichever candidate wins the election, but in Trump, Pyongyang has a sparring partner open to the idea of more talks. An analysis from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace think tank said the "Trump administration’s foreign policy toward the (Korean) Peninsula ... could produce outcomes unimaginable just a few years ago." 

Kim wished Trump a speedy recovery after he tested positive for coronavirus in early October.

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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's close relationship with Trump helped engineer long-cherished policy prizes that 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 the United States. He noted Israel is in a "much better place" as a result of Trump's policies. 

"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," said Yoram Ettinger, a former diplomat and expert on U.S.-Israeli 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 after the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) trade deal was enacted.

Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, commonly called AMLO,  said the U.S. president shows "respect" for Mexico. Trump called López Obrador a "great guy" and toned down his 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."   

Analysts suspect a nationalist such as 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 security, human rights, media freedom, climate change and labor 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 said Justin Trudeau's administration will "manage" the relationship with the White House regardless of whether Trump or Biden is elected.

One side may be trickier for Trudeau to deal with, considering that Trump has called Trudeau "two-faced" and the president's economics and trade adviser Peter Navarro said in 2018 that there was a "special place in hell" for Trudeau after he and Trump clashed at a Group of Seven economic summit over potential tariffs on hundreds of billions of dollars of cross-border trade.

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In India, preparations are underway for both outcomes, according to Vivek Mishra, a political scientist at the Indian Council of World Affairs, a think tank in New Delhi.

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 legislation that discriminates against Muslims and has led to major declines in civil and political liberties. 

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Indians, Mishra said, warmed to Trump because they see a U.S. leader prepared to stand up to China – India's regional rival. Trump has overlooked India's human rights transgressions in Kashmir, a disputed territory.

Mishra said Biden's running mate, Kamala Harris, whose mother is from India, has not boosted enthusiasm for the Democratic challenger.   

"Trump's birthday is even celebrated by right-wing groups in India," Mishra said. "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 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 said in a 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 drew 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, deputy director of the Afghanistan Research and Evaluation Unit think tank in Kabul, said Trump's stewardship of a peace deal signed by the Taliban (but not the Afghan government) and his withdrawal of more U.S. forces led to a sense of "despair, despondence and feeling abandoned" that gives 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.  

Tim Bale, a professor of politics at Queen Mary, University of London, said, "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 Russian 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 linked to Kremlin operatives and Putin's inner circle.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson has barely acknowledged the vote. 

Russia itself is 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 political scientists close to the Kremlin have portrayed a Trump victory as useful for 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."

Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg speaks with President Donald Trump after a group photo at a NATO leaders meeting at the Grove hotel and resort in England on Dec. 4, 2019.

Among younger generations, Dubnov said, Trump is not well-liked because he is viewed as a "defender of conservative values, a homophobe and a cynic," and Biden has been given short shrift.

In faraway Australia, according to Salvatore Babones, an American-born political scientist at the University of Sydney, many people like that Trump has been tough on China and are "happy to have U.S. Marines in Darwin" as a symbol of steadfast American commitment to the defense of Australia, but most "everyone is pulling for a Biden victory, though no one seems quite sure why."

Babones said, "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 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 wrought harm on ordinary Iranians through successive waves of crippling economic sanctions. He said Trump's predecessor, Barack Obama, who brokered the nuclear accord, was also guilty of "signing hard sanctions on Iran."

In a poll, about half of Iranians surveyed claim 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 citizens, perennially fearful of an escalating conflict with Russia, were "grateful" for Trump's decision to authorize the sale to Ukraine of a Javelin, a shoulder-mounted anti-tank missile system. Trump faced an impeachment inquiry after he was accused of explicitly linking this purchase, during a phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, to a demand that Ukraine investigate Biden and his son over corruption claims. 

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Haran said Ukrainians recognize 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 said that whatever the outcome of the vote Nov. 3, Ukrainians want to see an end to their country being associated with corruption and foreign scandals that most Ukrainians view as originating with pro-Russian oligarchs. 

Andy Mok, a fellow at the Center for China and Globalization, a public policy think tank based in Beijing, said the perception among China's foreign policy establishment is that despite Trump's harsh line on coronavirus and trade, 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 such distractions limit Trump's effectiveness, and a constant drumbeat of negative reaction to his words and actions plays into China's hands as it pursues its "unstoppable economic rise."

He said 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 about their effectiveness, as well as 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 said. Chinese President Xi Jinping is a relatively youthful 67. 

Elsewhere, the U.S. election takes a back seat to more pressing concerns. 

"COVID-19, and Sweden’s high international profile regarding its approach to it, takes precedence," said David Crouch, the Sweden-based author of "Almost Perfekt," a book that explains the Scandinavian nation's governance model that has long attracted many admirers and critics, including Trump, who has  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 said. "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