Leaders around the world cautiously watched former Vice President Joe Biden strengthen his path to the White House on Friday after taking the lead in Georgia and Pennsylvania – two states that are critical for any chance of President Donald Trump winning a second term.
But Trump’s unsubstantiated attacks on the vote count continued to overshadow the election. Officials and newspapers around the world lamented the polarization and dysfunction in the world’s oldest Western democracy.
With Trump vowing to fight the results possibly all the way to the Supreme Court, many world leaders chose to keep their distance from the fray. Comments were cautious and nuanced.
“We can’t issue a statement, we shouldn’t talk about the elections in the United States, because the process isn’t over yet and we have to be very cautious,” Mexico’s president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador, told journalists. “We will only make a declaration once the U.S. authorities decide” on the winner.
But some, like Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, were indirect but clear in their meaning. After Biden pulled ahead in Pennsylvania, Sturgeon tweeted, “The world can be a dark place at times just now – but today we are seeing a wee break in the clouds.”
Italy’s former prime minister Matteo Renzi wrote on Twitter that Biden “will be a great President of the United States.”
“He is a wise and balanced person: he knows how to lead the strongest nation in the world in these difficult times,” Renzi added.
Still, few government officials appeared ready to congratulate a presumptive winner – nervous over Trump’s pledge to challenge some state results in court.
“If I were a voter in America I don’t think I’d want anybody in another government commenting on my election,” British Prime Minister Boris Johnson told Sky News. “I think while the votes are being counted we should wait and see.”
There was also the lingering sting from the drawn-out battle to decide the U.S. election in 2000 when some messages of congratulation were sent, rescinded and eventually sent again.
“Those who are congratulating the president-elect want to be sure that is the president-elect,” said a senior European Union diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic issue.
Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, speaking to reporters in Ottawa, said Canada will be “very cautious” about how and when to offer congratulations to an eventual winner and expressed “faith in the American people and the American institutions to have elections take place properly.”
The disruptions in normal protocols were another blow to the global image of America and its flawed, but nevertheless admired, model of democracy. The country’s retreat into nationalism and break from global institutions and norms under Trump will also not be soon forgotten in many capitals and could saddle Biden with the task of rebuilding trust.
In Germany, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas criticized Trump’s reluctance to accept the election results and said the United States is not a “one-man show.”
“Anyone who continues to pour oil on the fire in a situation like this is acting irresponsibly,” he said in an interview with Germany’s Funke media group. “Decent losers are more important for the functioning of a democracy than radiant winners.”
Even Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro – sometimes called the “Trump of the tropics” for his similar style – said Trump “is not the most important person in the world, as he himself says. The most important person is God.” Bolsonaro noted the need for “humility.”
Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said on Twitter that “Trump is disregarding the foundations of democracy with his behavior.” He added: “Should he lose, he will not remain in the White House, but he also will not accept defeat. He cares about public opinion – he is ready to poison everything for that.”
Former Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, who struck a close friendship with Trump, expressed concern over the wider fallout of U.S. “turmoil and confusion because of the election.”
“A minus for its allies and like-minded countries,” Abe said in an interview with the Yukan Fuji newspaper.
London Mayor Sadiq Khan, who has frequently clashed with Trump in the past, reiterated his support for Biden on Friday.
“Clearly I’m rooting for Joe Biden because I’m hoping that the next President of the USA is somebody who’s not obsessed by hate-filled policies,” Khan told BBC Radio London.
News outlets abroad were similarly alarmed. Britain’s Economist weekly said Trump’s “populism will live on in America.” Even if a Biden administration were to restore alliances, it said, “everyone will know that it could all revert again in 2024.”
The left-leaning Guardian reflected in an editorial on the “deep weaknesses” in American democracy and how it painted a bleak picture ahead, suggesting that the possibility of a Democratic-controlled White House and a Republican-majority Senate spelled more gridlock and acrimony.
In Germany, Donald Trump Jr.’s call on Twitter for a “total war” over the election struck with particular resonance. Bild, the country’s biggest tabloid, said the “words brought back memories of the infamous speech by Hitler’s propaganda minister Josef Goebbels” when he called for “total war” as Germany lost the upper hand in World War II.
While some around the world poked fun at the slow-moving U.S. vote count, others appreciated the strength of the system. “We can all joke about how painfully long America is taking to count its votes. But it also underlines that every vote actually counts in their system,” said Nidhi Razdan, a journalist in India.
American media also drew praise in India from commentators for calling out Trump’s falsehoods about the election being stolen from him. “A media with a spine telling truth to power! Salute!” said journalist Rajdeep Sardesai.
Meanwhile, government officials and citizens around the world pondered the implications of a potential Biden presidency.
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu broke his government’s silence on the election cliffhanger, saying the country’s relations with the United States are “above politics” and that NATO-ally Turkey has “worked with Democrats and Republicans.” But Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has developed a close personal relationship with Trump, could face a testier relationship with Biden, who has called Erdogan an “autocrat.”
A leader of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Yossi Dagan, said Friday that a Biden victory does not necessarily mean the end of efforts to annex the communities into Israel proper. Biden strongly opposed the annexation plan and is expected to take a much dimmer view than Trump of any expansion of the settlements.
More generally, some noted that even if elected, Biden would struggle to enact effective foreign policies with a Republican-controlled Senate. “He could rejoin the Paris accord on climate change. But he cannot force a Republican Senate to fund alternative energy,” wrote Edward Luce in the Financial Times on Friday. “He could rejoin the World Health Organization, but he would need (Senate Majority Leader Mitch) McConnell to authorise U.S. funding for the body. He could bring America back into the Iran nuclear deal but any changes would have to be approved by the U.S. Senate.”
Across the Middle East, people created entertaining memes and videos about the election, forwarded en masse to their contacts on WhatsApp. Various iterations of the same meme circulated: Arab men standing around, drably cracking sunflower seeds in an image overlaid with the text, “Arabs following the U.S. election drama knowing whoever gets elected is gonna bomb their region anyway.”
China’s government, which has largely remained silent about the election in recent days, struck a conciliatory note. Vice Foreign Minister Le Yucheng said he hoped the next U.S. administration would work with China on issues of mutual interest.
“Despite disagreements between the two countries, there are broad common interests and space for cooperation,” Le told reporters during an appearance at a Shanghai Cooperation Organization meeting in Beijing. “We hope the new American administration will meet the Chinese side halfway to focus on cooperation and manage differences.”
The remarks from Le, a Foreign Ministry official who has been an increasingly prominent Chinese voice on relations with the United States, were characterized by some Chinese state media as an olive branch to Washington.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam told a news conference that she hoped the United States could “come back to normalcy,” and she repeated criticism of Washington for “interfering” in Hong Kong and China’s affairs. Lam is among officials under U.S. sanctions for eroding the rights of Hong Kong people.
Denmark’s former prime minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, tweeted a picture of himself walking away from the office, a backpack slung over his shoulder, on his final day last year after his party lost parliamentary elections. “The way to leave office with honor,” he wrote. Later Friday, he tweeted “congratulations President-elect @JoeBiden.”
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Denyer reported from Tokyo, Khurshudyan from Moscow, Noack from Berlin and Berger from Washington. The Washington Post’s Jennifer Hassan in London, Gerry Shih in Taipei, Niha Masih in New Delhi, Loveday Morris in Berlin, Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo, Amar Nadhir and Adam Taylor in Washington, Sarah Dadouch in Beirut, Steve Hendrix in Jerusalem, Michael Birnbaum in Riga, Latvia, Mary Beth Sheridan in Mexico City, Kareem Fahim in Istanbul and Shibani Mahtani and David Crawshaw in Hong Kong contributed to this report.