Toru Hanai/Reuters
Employees of a foreign exchange trading company in Tokyo work near monitors displaying the first presidential debate between US Republican nominee Donald Trump and Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton.

Clinton or Trump? As US election nears, the globe watches (very) intently

America’s international influence means that its elections matter far beyond its borders. The Clinton-Trump debate this week was scrutinized for inklings of what a Trump presidency in particular might mean.

Yesterday morning the Mexican daily Reforma carried a cartoon of a man with a globe for a head watching television and sweating with anxiety. “Post-debate” read the caption.

From Mexico City to Johannesburg, from Berlin to Beijing and Tokyo, citizens and their governments are watching the US presidential election with almost universal concern and alarm. America’s global influence means that its elections matter far beyond its borders; for decades, US allies and rivals alike have counted on Washington to underpin international order.

Today, however, officials and citizens across the world worry they could face the prospect of the United States shrugging off that traditional responsibility. While Hillary Clinton is a well-known figure and widely regarded as a steady hand, few observers have any idea what is in store for their countries should Donald Trump win the White House.

“If [Hillary] Clinton wins, people are reassured that it would be a slightly modified continuation of existing policies,” says Thorsten Benner, head of the Global Public Policy Institute, a think tank in Berlin. “But with Trump there is just totally a randomness factor that is hard to prepare for.

"It seems so incalculable,” he adds.

“It’s almost unfair that we don’t get to vote,” says Nicole Bacharan, a French expert on US affairs, referring to other countries' stake in the outcome.

Behind the frustration lies a good deal of incomprehension.

"Trump says he wants to make America strong. But with the same utter conviction he says it should stay out of the world’s conflicts. I don't understand how one goes with the other," German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier said recently.

Viewed from abroad, Monday night’s debate was a clear and reassuring success for Mrs. Clinton. Her command of the issues, her calm demeanor, and her readiness to stand up to an often combative Mr. Trump led French daily Le Monde to conclude that “Hillary Clinton won this first duel hands down.”

But with US opinion polls showing a tight race, nobody is venturing any predictions about the vote.

US allies, in Europe and beyond, are fearful of an isolationist America withdrawing from a dangerous world, putting “America first,” in Trump’s words, and giving little weight to anybody else’s opinion.

Trump startled European policymakers when he suggested recently that he would not necessarily defend NATO member Estonia from attack – a NATO obligation – if the small Baltic state did not spend more on its own defense.

“Berlin worries a great deal about what a Trump presidency would mean for the reliability of the US as an ally and protector,” says Mr. Benner.

The Moscow perspective

In Moscow, the state media are reveling in the West’s discomfiture. Officials and analysts scoff at allegations by US national security officials that Kremlin-backed hackers are seeking to interfere in the Nov. 8 vote. But they do not deny that it makes a pleasant change to have a serious contender for the White House showing such sympathy for Moscow and for President Vladimir Putin personally.

Trump’s inconsistent approach to foreign policy “is a golden opportunity to show the deficiencies of Western democracy,” says Nikolai Petrov, an independent political analyst. “Trump personifies the confusion that seems to be afflicting the system.”

But his often whimsical policy pronouncements also give grounds for caution, argues Fyodor Lyukanov, editor of “Russia in Global Affairs,” a leading foreign policy journal.

“Trump doesn’t say much of substance, just that he’d make a better deal with Putin,” says Mr. Lyukanov. “But what if he failed to do that? He actually seems like a fairly unpredictable personality. Whatever he says in the election campaign, he could turn out to be pretty bad for us as president.”

In Western Europe, that uncertainty is strongly felt. “With a President Trump, you wouldn’t have a reliable partner; it would be very unpredictable. And of course it’s hard to work with someone when you don’t know what you’re expecting from him,” says Rieke Havertz, an analyst with Die Zeit online, a German weekly.

In Britain, just setting out on an uncertain path outside the European Union, the “special relationship” between London and Washington is more important than ever, suggests Ian Bond, foreign policy analyst at the Centre for European Reform in London.

“Having good, reliable, steady allies able to offer sensible advice is going to be enormously important to the UK in the coming years,” he says. “Trump is just not that man; his views are erratic and incoherent.”

A victory for Clinton would be a relief for European leaders at a personal level, too, says Ms. Bacharan, the French expert. “If she can win as the representative of an unpopular establishment, maybe that means they are not necessarily fried themselves. They don’t want to imagine a Trump victory, because that would augur badly for their own futures.”

A global populist wave

Certainly, the populist, anti-establishment wave that Trump rides is cresting on the other side of the Atlantic, too, with right-wing, anti-immigrant parties drawing ever more votes in France, Germany, Holland, Austria, Italy, and Hungary.

As in the United States, “globalization, the undermining of the middle class, the hollowing out of the welfare state and the rising inequalities within European states have led to a distancing between the electorate and political elites,” points out Boris Vormann, politics professor at the Free University of Berlin.

Overall, though, Clinton fares much better than Trump among European and Asian publics. A Pew Foundation poll last June found that the Democratic presidential candidate enjoys the confidence of a majority of respondents in most of 15 countries surveyed. Less than a quarter of them expressed similar confidence in Trump’s ability to handle international affairs.

In China, Trump has made few friends with his repeated accusations that Beijing’s unfair trade practices have robbed America of millions of jobs. The Global Times, a daily run by the ruling Communist party, said the Republican candidate had been “particularly arrogant” when attacking China during Monday’s debate.

Clinton has in the past been forthright about Chinese human rights violations, and strongly supported President Obama’s “pivot to Asia,” which Beijing sees as a bid to hedge China in. But many Chinese foreign affairs experts are rooting for her anyway, says Jia Qingguo, an international studies professor at Peking University, because of Trump’s capriciousness.

“They prefer the incumbent party’s candidate” because that would “give the US-China relationship more stability,” he says.

Farther east, the prevalent view among politicians and pundits is even less nuanced in Japan and South Korea – US allies who Trump wants to make pay more for their defense and who he has suggested should develop nuclear weapons.

Koichi Nakano, a politics professor at Sofia University in Tokyo, says that many Japanese view Clinton as “a safe bet” and Trump as a long shot with “a very apparent lack of understanding of US-Japanese relations.”

In Seoul, observers are watching the spectacle of Trump’s campaign as “a big joke that Americans are providing for the world,” says Park Won-ho, who teaches politics at Seoul National University. “But we are starting to realize that it may become a nightmare.”

Arab world sees no good choice

Few in the Arab world put much faith in either candidate; both are strongly pro-Israel and “no matter who is elected, it is the same policy in the Middle East,” complains Ali al-Hussein, a Palestinian refugee living outside Amman. “Wars, interventions, occupation, and bloodshed.”

But Clinton has experience that Nabil al-Sharif, a former minister in the Jordanian government, values. “Trump, because he has not taken any real foreign policy decision, will need more time to study the file and the issues; and we know that issues in our region, such as Syria, do not allow for a leisurely analysis,” says Mr. Sharif.

Closer to the United States, Trump may be less liked in Mexico than anywhere else in the world: just 2.9 percent have a favorable view of him, according to a poll last week, making him the least popular US presidential candidate among Mexicans in history, according to pollster Roy Campos.

And with Mexico’s economy so tightly intertwined with the US market, the election is of vital importance to America’s southern neighbor. On Monday evening, as Clinton acquitted herself well in the debate, the Mexican currency clawed back 2 percent of what it had lost earlier with Trump’s climb in the US opinion polls.

“Mexico would be better off with Clinton,” says Dwight Dyer, former head of analysis at Mexico’s national intelligence agency. “She’s willing to listen; she may be a tough negotiator but she is willing to hear the other side. I don’t think Trump has that intention at all.”

Africa has hardly figured prominently in either candidate’s campaign, but the continent’s deepening ties with the United States means that the election is attracting attention from Cairo to Cape Town. The common view of Trump is that he is racist and isolationist, meaning that Clinton is typically an instinctive choice for Africans.

The Democratic candidate would be expected to maintain current US aid policies, while Trump has threatened to “stop sending foreign aid to countries that hate us.”

“I don’t know if the Republicans have a policy on Africa,” said former Kenyan president Raila Odinga recently. “If they have it I did not hear it,” he added, declaring his support for Clinton.

Brooks Spector, a former US diplomat now living in South Africa, says he finds most Africans to be vehemently anti-Trump rather than enthusiastically pro-Clinton. His observation might well encapsulate broader global opinion: “Most people seem to think there is something amiss with his way of thinking,” Mr. Spector says of Trump. “Hillary Clinton is the candidate whose ideas and behavior people understand; they can figure out what she is trying to do.”

This report included contributions from: Whitney Eulich in Mexico City; Michael Holtz in Beijing; Aislinn Laing in Johannesburg; Sara Miller Llana in Paris; Taylor Luck in Amman, Jordan; Rachel Stern in Berlin; and Fred Weir in Moscow.

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