Depending on next week’s outcome, there will be shrieks of joy or horror from Manila to Berlin.
At a bustling Nicaraguan market some years ago, I was asking people which candidate they favored in their upcoming presidential election. A poultry vendor who figured out that I am American answered my question with a pointed complaint. “It doesn’t matter who wins,” she told me. “The president of the United States has more power over my life than the president of my own country. So I don’t want to vote in my election. I want to vote in your election instead.”
She made a trenchant point. For the last 70 years, the United States has sought to shape events in much of the world. We reward countries we favor with aid and other largesse. Those we dislike are isolated, sanctioned, and sometimes made to suffer. That’s why foreign governments and entire populations watch our elections with shifting combinations of hope and trepidation. As Americans head to the polls, who in the wider world is rooting for President Trump? Who hopes for Joe Biden?
Perhaps the only country from which there is reliable polling data on this question is Israel. A recent opinion survey showed more than 60 percent of Israelis favoring Trump, with less than 20 percent for Biden. That makes sense. Trump has made Israel’s security agenda his own, abandoning the Iran nuclear deal and moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Biden has insisted, as is expected of presidential candidates, that he too supports Israel without reservation. It’s not enough. No one could please Israel’s nationalist majority better than Trump.
Saudi Arabia is also solidly in the Trump camp, and with just as much reason. Trump is endlessly generous and forgiving to the Saudis. Biden, on the other hand, has sharply criticized their autocratic rule. Relations between the two countries could turn frosty if he reaches the White House. The Saudis correctly see Trump as better for their interests. Yemenis who are victims of Saudi Arabia’s US-backed bombing of their country, on the other hand, would hope for a Biden victory because he might push to end that war.
Three avatars of the world’s “new authoritarianism” have publicly endorsed Trump. “We are rooting — at least me personally — for him to win the election,” the anti-immigration prime minister of Hungary, Viktor Orban, told an interviewer. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines called Trump “a good president” who “deserves to be reelected.” President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, whose eagerness to ravage the Amazon rain forest fits Trump’s idea of environmentalism, imagined Trump’s second inauguration: “God willing, I will be able to attend.”
Which countries are most strongly anti-Trump? Germany is at or near the top of the list. Germans value order and predictability and are appalled by Trump’s crude recklessness. Almost the entire German political class, along with much of the population, hopes desperately to be rid of him. The same is true in Spain, France, and Scandinavia.
Biden may have quiet supporters in another, far different country: Cuba. His association with Obama suggests that he might support a loosening of Trump’s sanctions and better relations with Havana. He dares not say it now for fear of losing votes in Florida, but a second Caribbean thaw could come if he is elected.
What about our big rivals on the geopolitical block, Russia and China? With his relentless sanctioning of Russia and support for military maneuvers close to Russia’s borders, Trump had reason to assert, “Nobody’s been tougher on Russia than I have.” Biden, however, might be. He is a strong supporter of the American military presence in Europe and believes that the United States must systematically confront Russia. In a nightmare scenario for the Kremlin, he might even try to bring Ukraine or Georgia into the US-dominated NATO alliance. For Russia, it’s best to stick with the devil you know.
Figuring out China’s position is more difficult. Trump relentlessly denounces, threatens, and sanctions China. Nonetheless, if I were sitting on Beijing’s central committee, I’d be rooting for him. He is methodically wrecking America’s global image, and thereby sapping American power. Four more years of this self-destructive rampage could lead people around the world to begin seeing China as a preferable partner. What more could the Chinese ask?
Some peoples’ national hopes seem bleak no matter which candidate wins, among them Venezuelans and Palestinians. Then there are countries where the leadership is sharply divided. Iran is the most striking example. Reformists root for Biden in the hope that he will restart diplomacy. Hard-liners favor Trump because they agree with him that compromise between Iran and the United States is unthinkable.
No one should dare to guess what most people in the world think about anything. It is safe to say, however, that many feel disconcerted when the United States shakes. People on every continent admire what Americans have accomplished and take inspiration from our example. They wish us well, because our success suggests that democratic life is a realistic aspiration. Today they lament our decline toward instability. Trump has his quota of admirers abroad, but I suspect that if given the chance, the world would vote him out.
A few billion people around our planet are watching this election. There will be shrieks of joy or horror from Manila to Berlin.
Stephen Kinzer is a senior fellow at the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs at Brown University.