Global Leaders Always Watch the U.S. Election Closely. 

What’s In It For Them This Time Around?



Published: Washington Post, 21 October 2020


The world has a clear stake in the upcoming U.S. presidential election, and even in the midst of a devastating pandemic, the possibility of dealing with a reelected, emboldened President Trump is already generating a lot of fear and uncertainty.

In Europe, the prospect of four more years with Trump fills many political and business leaders with sheer horror. The links across the Atlantic on issues such as trade, security and environmental policy have barely survived these four years. Sure, a serious trade war across the Atlantic has so far been averted, but a victorious Trump might want to double down on his reported threat to cut down on the number of German cars on the streets of New York. He might want to open new trade conflicts with the European Union, which he at times seems to see as an even more hostile trade partner than China. Any prospect of the United States and Europe working together to reform the World Trade Organization to balance China will fade away very fast.

Then there’s NATO. In a recent interview, Trump’s former national security adviser John Bolton said there was a “very real risk” of the United States withdrawing from the alliance if Trump wins a second term.

To be sure, some see potential advantages in a Trump reelection. Paris will want to continue its push for “strategic autonomy” for Europe, while Downing Street will be comfortable with keeping around an influential supporter of Brexit.

Some in Warsaw and Budapest are surely not looking forward to having words such as rule of law come back to the White House vocabulary.

But overall, we can be sure a Joe Biden presidency would certainly be greeted with deep relief.

There is little doubt that Vladimir Putin would cast his vote for Trump. But despite the American president’s soft spot for Putin, the U.S.-Russia relationship has been going distinctly downhill these past four years. A Biden presidency that strengthens alliances, supports Ukraine and talks loudly about human rights is certainly something the Kremlin can do without, although a more constructive approach to strategic arms control would be welcome.

China might be expecting a fairly adversarial relationship under either Trump or Biden. There has been a clear strategic shift in the United States.

But at the end of the day, Xi Jinping might be more comfortable with Trump, whom he can outmaneuver in private on some key issues and who lacks the leadership to muster a united front against Beijing. On trade, Trump has shown that he ultimately can be bought off with some soybeans. And while Congress might want to be more vocal on China’s numerous human rights abuses, Trump is not likely to complain.

Many nationalists will certainly feel lonely if Trump went away. Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, despite his run-ins with Trump, speak the same strongman language. Biden is not likely to muster the same level of personal admiration.

The same can be said for Saudi Arabia, which is deeply thankful to Trump for protecting it from the consequences of both the miserable war in Yemen and the horrible murder of journalist and Post contributing columnist Jamal Khashoggi. Trump’s departure is the last thing the despotic Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman needs.

In Tehran, views are likely to be divided. There is a reformist wing that would like to go back to negotiations with the United States and the Europeans to avoid a further escalation of tensions. But there are also the more conservative forces that have been in ascendancy recently. For them, Trump is solid proof that they have been right all along about the evil and unreliable nature of the United States. Trump’s reelection will cement their position within the power structure.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also has a clear favorite. Trump’s backing for Israel’s embattled leader and his positions has made support for Israel a much more polarized issue in the United States, so much is personally at stake for Netanyahu, even at the expense of the bilateral relationship in the long term.

In New Delhi, Prime Minister Narendra Modi obviously feels comfortable with Trump and his nationalist style, but his administration can be sure that a Biden presidency would continue to strengthen the ties between the countries.

North Korea’s Kim Jong Un has a personal affinity for Trump even as he has continued to defy the United States and the world by continuing to develop his nuclear program. But who knows? Trump could follow through on his recent musing that he would “leave the country” if he loses, and perhaps go develop resorts in North Korea, his main pitch for peace to the North Korean dictator.

Alas, strongmen, prime ministers, presidents and the rest of the world are just forced to watch. It’s not up to any of us, even if it will affect us directly or indirectly.