Allies Look to ‘Strategic Autonomy’ as Support for Trump Proves Resilient
The world, like the United States, is in limbo. But one thing is clear: 2016 was not an aberration.
This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.
Americans may have rendered their final verdict in the 2020 election, but the maddeningly uncertain outcome as votes continue to be counted, combined with President Donald Trump’s premature victory dance, has left much of the world awaiting the results with anticipation bordering on anxiety, wondering whether they will face a future marked by increasing U.S. authoritarianism and isolationism, or a pathway back to restoring one of the world’s most admired democracies.
“Dear American friends … the reputation of democracy is at stake and the world is watching,” the United Kingdom’s former Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt warned on Twitter as the election stalled in a deadlock. “Please proceed carefully.”
As of Wednesday morning, neither candidate had secured the 270 Electoral College votes needed for victory, though Joe Biden’s gains in key battleground states gave his campaign hope of ultimately prevailing. But the final result likely won’t be known until later in the week—and legal challenges from Republicans loom.
The electoral deadlock put many of Western allies on edge, fearful that four more years of Trump’s “America first” foreign policy will further erode critical security alliances and leave them increasingly exposed to threats from rising powers, principally China. But it also offered encouragement to a new generation of nationalist leaders from Brazil to Hungary, who see Trump’s norm-breaking presidency as an affirmation of their own policies.
In a major breach of protocol, Slovenia’s nationalist Prime Minister Janez Jansa weighed in on behalf of Trump on Twitter, following the president’s claim to have already won the election: “It’s pretty clear that American people have elected @realDonaldTrump @Mike_Pence for #4moreyears. More delays and facts denying from #MSM, bigger the final triumph for #POTUS. Congratulations @GOP for strong results across the #US @idualliance.”
Still, most world leaders responded cautiously to the early election night results, which may not be fully tabulated for days, mindful that a hasty decision to pick the wrong horse in the race could backfire, undermining their relationship with the next American president.
Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has cultivated a close personal relationship with Trump, tried to steer clear of the fray, saying, “Of course, we don’t comment as a U.K. government on the democratic processes of our friends and allies.”
“We need to be patient and wait and see who wins the US election,” Britain’s Foreign Minister Dominic Raab tweeted. “Important the process is given sufficient time to reach a conclusion. We have full confidence in the checks and balances of the US system to produce a result.”
The European Union’s foreign-policy chief, Josep Borrell, made it clear that the final outcome is not yet known. “The American people have spoken,” he tweeted. “While we wait for the election result, the EU remains ready to continue building a strong transatlantic partnership, based on our shared values and history.”
The unexpectedly strong showing by Trump sent a powerful message to Washington’s European partners that the president’s isolationist tendencies are deeply rooted in the American heartland, forcing them to rethink their own security alliances with the United States at a time when Russia has become increasingly assertive on its European flank.
“Even if Biden ekes out a win, Trump’s strong showing will convince a lot of foreign observers that they can’t put much faith in the U.S. in the long term,” said Richard Gowan, an expert on multilateralism with the International Crisis Group. “It’s hard to see foreign powers sealing complex bargains with the U.S. if they suspect that another nationalist will win in 2024.”
“The big question is what China will do next,” Gowan added. “If Biden wins, will Beijing rein in its assertive tendencies and realize that it needs to be more careful or cooperative with Washington? Or has Beijing now concluded that the only way to deal with the U.S. is all-out competition, whoever is in office? If Beijing miscalculates, the world gets quite dangerous quite quickly.”
The official response from Beijing and Moscow was largely muted. China’s foreign ministry spokespeople, who have publicly lambasted the United States over its COVID-19 response, were largely silent on Twitter on Wednesday.
‘But Hu Xijin, the editor in chief of the Global Times, an English-language newspaper published by the Chinese Communist Party’s People’s Daily, highlighted the preelection tension in the United States, posting a video on Twitter on Wednesday of businesses being boarded up in anticipation of post-election violence. “Ahead of the election, some businesses in the US are boarding up their store windows fearing post-election unrest,” he tweeted. “The US is in [a state of] degradation.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin spent the day commemorating Russia’s national unity day, laying flowers at a national ceremony in Red Square. Leonid Slutsky, the chairman of the Russian parliament’s foreign relations committee, wrote on Facebook, “The show called the ‘U.S. presidential election’ isn’t over,” but added that, “as for Russian-American relations, we can’t expect any changes for the better if any of the candidates wins. That’s very unfortunate.”
Even before the election, Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas told the German newspaper Tagesspiegel am Sonntag that Berlin will want to reset European relations with the United States, no matter who wins: “We will approach Washington with proposals promptly after the election—and propose a trans-Atlantic ‘New Deal.’”
Earlier this year, Maas suggested that underlying shifts in U.S. and European interests would persist, even after Trump leaves the scene. “Everyone who thinks everything in the trans-Atlantic partnership will be as it once was with a Democratic president underestimates the structural changes,” Maas told the German press agency DPA in June. “The trans-Atlantic relations are extraordinarily important, they remain important, and we are working to ensure they have a future. … But with the way they are now, they are no longer fulfilling the demands both sides have for them.”
Michel Duclos, a former French ambassador to Syria, said European policymakers “worry about the risk of a chaotic outcome, which would be very damaging to the United States of course, but also for democracy in the West.”
“If Trump is elected of course it will give a push to the populists and also authoritarian regimes in Hungary, Poland, and in Turkey,” he said. And yet, the specter of growing authoritarianism has done little to rally European solidarity around shared democratic values, he said. “I don’t believe for one second that it could help the Europeans to get their act together and be more autonomous,” said Duclos, now a senior fellow at the Institut Montaigne. “I think Europeans would be more divided than ever in front of an elected Trump.”
In the weeks leading up to the election, autocratic leaders from Hungary to Poland to Turkey registered their support for Trump’s reelection.
“We root for Donald Trump’s victory, because we know well American Democratic governments’ diplomacy, built on moral imperialism,” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban wrote in late September, according to Reuters. “We have been forced to sample it before, we did not like it, we do not want seconds.”
But Orban’s chief of staff told reporters at a press conference on Wednesday that he is “pessimistic” that Trump could win a second term, putting that odds at about between 30 and 40 percent.
On Wednesday, Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro stopped short of endorsing Trump’s victory claim, but he made it clear he’d like Trump to win. “You know my position, it is clear. I have a good policy with Trump, I hope he will be reelected,” he told backers in Brasília, Reuters reported. “The Democratic candidate on two occasions talked about the Amazon. Is that what you want for Brazil? Interference from outside?”
But foreign leaders made it clear that the United States shouldn’t expect a return to the world before Trump, when American leadership was taken for granted.
“What is at stake for the rest of the world is the quality of American global leadership, how it wields power, and the future of its diplomacy,” said one Asian diplomat, noting that the fate of the world now rests in the hands of a few American battleground states. “Will we live with the ugly American or see the return of the quiet and decent American?”
“Whatever the final outcome,” the diplomat added, “the world will have to deal with Trumpism more than any form of Bidenism, and in effect a transactional Trumpian America.”
But pro-democracy advocates in countries like Russia, where election results are pre-baked, found reason to cheer the uncertainty. Alexei Navalny, the Russian opposition leader who was apparently poisoned for challenging Putin, tweeted: “Woke up and went on Twitter to see who won. Still unclear. Now that’s what I call an election.”
Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch