After most U.S. elections, foreign officials have a set procedure: They watch as one candidate concedes defeat and the other declares victory, and then they congratulate the victor. This year is more complicated.
There may be no projected result on Tuesday evening in the race between President Donald Trump and Democratic nominee Joe Biden. Trump has suggested he won’t concede even if he’s projected to be the loser on election night. He may even declare victory without a clear lead. A legal battle over the result is likely. That leaves governments worldwide in the awkward position of dealing with a president who may say he’s the winner but isn’t.
The International Crisis Group, a peace-building organization that’s become increasingly worried about the U.S., offered foreign leaders a piece of advice in a note last week.
“Foreign heads of state should refrain from offering their congratulations until the institutional process has run its course, regardless of any potential pressure from the U.S. to do otherwise,” the ICG recommended. “If events take an ugly turn, both domestic political and foreign leaders with easy access to Trump and his inner circles should tell them privately and publicly that they will have no support if they try to interfere with tabulation of results or, should they lose, the peaceful transfer of power.”
For many officials abroad, particularly those running America’s powerful allies, remaining publicly neutral is a no-brainer, no matter how much anger it prompts. But that isn’t easy ― or advantageous ― for every foreign power. Some leaders may be tempted to overtly endorse a Trump power grab, whether for their own benefit or out of fear. After all, should he succeed, they’ll need to work with him for the next four years.
Experts said such thinking is highly unlikely among the most important figures in Europe, such as German Chancellor Angela Merkel, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.
“Merkel, Macron, Conte, von der Leyen ― I cannot imagine a European leader of that stature being flustered by President Trump screaming down the line,” said Nathalie Tocci, the director of the Instituto Affari Internazionali think tank in Rome and an adviser to the European Union’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borell. “For some, in fact for most, it is also because they obviously don’t support a Trump victory, but, more importantly, it is because of respect for the democratic process.”
Officials and analysts in South Korea are paying “close attention and observing capricious polling numbers,” said Walter Paik, a former Korean diplomat who is now a senior associate at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank in Washington, D.C.
Despite the uncertainty, ”we have deep faith in the American democracy,” he added in an email.
Trump has more leverage over smaller and less-influential countries, which he could threaten with withdrawals of U.S. support, the way he did with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in the scheme that led to his impeachment. He could also entice them with promises of gifts if he is reelected.
Still, the Trump era has offered reminders that American foreign policy is not just a matter for the president, with Congress resisting Trump’s attempts to slash foreign aid and hurt longstanding relationships abroad. And foreign officials whom Trump targets for a quid pro quo will also know that he could lose even if they support him ― leaving them with a harder battle to court a President Joe Biden.
“The man’s said many things… when push comes to shove, what is it that substantively he’s done, not just in Europe but elsewhere in the world?” Tocci said, noting that pressure from Congress and other players limited the U.S. troop drawdowns Trump sought from Europe and that the president hasn’t been able to pull out of the NATO alliance despite all his anger toward it.
Paik noted that the U.S.-South Korea partnership has lasted seven decades, with support from national security experts and decision-makers across the political spectrum in both countries. “Even with what some refer to as the peculiar character of President Trump, the foundation of our alliance is strong,” Paik wrote.
The top concern for many officials and other observers from countries with close ties to the U.S. will probably be their own anxiety, particularly widely shared concerns about the serious cracks in American democracy that the past few months have exposed and how close the country appears to be to a breaking point.
For those who are stateside, there’s an added layer of fear: the sense that things could go badly, even violently, wrong. One Washington-based diplomat from a Western country told HuffPost that friends and family back home had repeatedly begged them to try to get out of the U.S. for the period around the election. Some embassies are stockpiling food and water, and the chief election observer from the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe sees the situation as akin to “a Hitchcock thriller,” Time reported.
The Pro-Trump Chorus
There’s also the global contingent that would be happy to see the outcome Trump has planned ― and could loudly echo him if he declares victory prematurely. The president has made his outreach to autocrats from Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro to Russia’s Vladimir Putin a hallmark of his foreign policy; such figures are both loath to lose his support and wary of any signs of a worldwide turn against authoritarian tactics.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has forged an especially close personal bond with Trump and in a scenario in which Trump seems on the ropes would likely see parallels to challenges he has faced to his own power.
“Especially if Trump blames the media, I can see him coming to Trump’s defense, in the way Putin came to [Erdogan’s defense] on the night of the coup” that tried to change the Turkish leadership in 2016, said Merve Tahiroglu, the Turkey program coordinator at the Project on Middle East Democracy.
As with some other aspiring strongmen, Erdogan has hewed so closely to Trump that he has effectively severed most ties to Trump’s opponents, from Biden on down, she noted. That makes it easier to publicly cheer Trump’s alleged win and more important to help him make it a reality.
Even Erdogan critics who ostensibly stand for liberal values seem convinced their country has no choice but to hope for a second Trump term for the sake of a mutually beneficial U.S.-Turkish relationship, Tahiroglu said, offering a warning about the kind of politics that leaders such as these two presidents foster. “People in these regimes have already been exposed by their leaders to the notion enough that they are the country, so Erdogan equals the state,” she added.
Whether international support comes from a leader at the level of Erdogan or a lower-ranking official, expect the Trump campaign to play it up loudly and with little context, the way it has spent the past few months amplifying a longshot bid to get Trump the Nobel Peace Prize through a nomination by a Norwegian parliamentarian known for anti-Muslim comments.
The Appearance Of Integrity
Whatever foreign powers say, they can’t change the election result. Gina Abercrombie-Winstanley, a State Department veteran and former ambassador, noted that even when the U.S. offers its take in instances of questionable elections, it can’t force the outcome it wants ― with Venezuela as a prime recent example. Few nations have the leverage over America that Washington has with many other states through programs like foreign aid.
She and Tocci predicted that even in a tense situation over the next week or so, American officials and most counterparts will rely on standard diplomatic-speak, emphasizing the importance of the voters’ choice, a possible peaceful transfer of power and avoiding interference in the internal workings of a democracy ― the kind of language the U.S. often deploys in speaking about other countries.
“It’s so important to be seen to have every vote counted because this is what we advocate overseas. We take governments to task… when they’re seen to be undermining democracy in their countries, so it is absolutely [vital] that we not be seen to be doing that here. That level of hypocrisy would damage us for generations,” Abercrombie-Winstanley said.
But there’s also the possibility of a far less visible and more worrying international role behind the scenes. Senior intelligence officials believe that Russia, which is thought to prefer Trump to a less friendly Biden, or other hostile countries could add to any postelection confusion by interfering in election systems or secretly promoting violence and discord online, according to The New York Times. “A breach or an appearance of a breach, in any state’s machinery, would, in a chaotic flow of events, be a well-timed gift to Mr. Trump,” the article says.
Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, tweeted a warning Monday for Americans to be cautious about disinformation and attempts to question the election’s integrity in the “uniquely volatile” period after Tuesday.
Abercrombie-Winstanley is optimistic that ultimately the U.S. “will draw back from the brink” and avoid full-on chaos. But the way the country struggles to get there won’t be forgotten.
“For those who love the ideals that we espouse, there will be heartbreak, and for those who have long recognized our hubris, our arrogance, our hypocrisy, there will be satisfaction,” she said.