By Tania F. Cohen
Peaceful political transition and acceptance of defeat are hallmarks of American democracy. As one of the world's oldest democracies and a global superpower, the United States has long strived to set an international example for good governance. Faith in the electoral process is crucial to setting this example and maintaining America's stature as an international leader. This is especially true considering the U.S. government's prioritization of promoting democracy in countries around the world. Whether one agrees with this tendency or not in light of America's successes and failures, our role in international politics has the potential to be far more impactful and successful if we uphold the ideals we promote to others at home first.
Since Donald Trump has begun questioning the integrity of the 2016 election, however, other countries have started questioning the strength of American values and democracy within the United States, as well as its ability to promote them abroad. Chinese media outlets are describing the election as a "race to the bottom" and saying that "forgetting serious issues" in presidential debates is "undermining the strength of Western democracy." These comments not only demonstrate how American elections impact international opinions of the United States and its domestic and foreign policy; they also bolster anti-Western democracy narratives perpetuated by other countries, as with China. Likewise, Russian media outlets are also using Trump's comments to stoke anti-democratic sentiments among the Russian populace.
Furthermore, public opinion of democracy and respect for its rules is decreasing both within the United States and internationally. As noted in Foreign Policy: "If people believe that legal systems and public institutions work for them, rather than against them, it gives them a stake in the system and a greater willingness to tolerate the inevitable turbulence of a transition." Much of Trump's success, particularly during the primary elections, stemmed from his emotional appeals to voters' fears and feelings of disenfranchisement as American demographics change. Trump's rigged election claims may resonate with such voters because they provide an explanation for why the voters perceive the political system as working against them. In turn, this may translate into a decreased value placed on democracy. Domestic discontent with American democracy is not itself a reason for other countries to doubt its stability, but when a significant political figure uses his or her platform to claim an electoral result might be illegitimate in this context, there is little incentive to hold that democracy, or American efforts to promote it abroad, in high regard. The Chinese and Russian narratives based on Trump's comments exemplify this pattern.
The negative impact of Trump's "rigged election" narrative is also reflected in the number of election observers that international organizations are sending to polling locations across the United States on Election Day. As a member of the United Nations, Organization of American States (OAS), and Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the United States frequently observes elections in other countries, particularly those where democracy is new or threatened. Members from other countries also come to observe American elections, but the delegations are often small and focused more on learning from an example of successful free elections than monitoring for wrongdoing.
This year, however, is the first time ever that the OAS is sending observers to the United States, and the OSCE, which sent 44 observers during the 2012 election, hopes to send 500 this year. Although the delegations emphasize that these are learning missions, they also note a confluence of conditions, notably "a candidate actively encouraging people to go to polls to challenge voters," that make the 2016 election particularly ripe for potential mishaps. While no country that is truly committed to transparency and democracy would refuse election observers or view them as an insult, the drastic increase in the number of observers this year indicates unusual international concern about this election.
It is important to note that international and domestic responses to Trump's comments should not necessarily raise fears that American democracy will collapse, as might be expected if similar comments were made by a leader in a new democracy; rather, the concerns emphasize the symbolic impact of such rhetoric. It is clear from the domestic and international concerns that have been voiced in response to Trump's claims that symbolism matters when cultivating America's image abroad, and the symbolism that Trump evokes has already done damage. These events remind us that, just as in other countries, our democracy and ability to promote democratic values are only as strong as the support provided by our own citizens and leaders.
Tania F. Cohen is employed by the American Society of International Law and is a Campaigns Fellow at Young Professionals in Foreign Policy. Her interests include domestic civic engagement, refugee and migration policy, and the influence of history on contemporary policy development and foreign relations. Any views expressed are those of the author and not those of the American Society of International Law.