The Whole World is Watching – The International Reaction to the US Election

A protest exhibiting a banner that reads "The World is Watching"

Anas Adam

Anas is a second year LLB Law student at UCL. His interests lie in international and human rights issues, with a specific focus on international law and international relations. He draws ideas from his experience working with international organisations and NGOs, as well as his multicultural background. He is also a writer for the Flea Journal.

18th November 2020

Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

On Saturday, November 7th, Joseph R. Biden Jr. became President-Elect of the United States. When he did, the whole world was watching. In fact, the whole world was watching the entire week. From anxiously following the presidential race to celebrating or lamenting Saturday’s result, citizens and countries everywhere, no matter how far removed from White House politics, were invested in the outcome chosen by the American people. From students eagerly following the developments on social media to the elderly watching on their cable TV, everyone tuned in. The electoral college and, perhaps unexpectedly, Pennsylvania became global talking points for several days. The United States is no stranger to taking the spotlight on the world stage, but now, when the nation was reduced to its rawest, most fundamental process, there is something to be said for just how much everyone cared. Ultimately, the high level of international interest in the US elections shows not only the country’s importance, but also its influence on global affairs. As President-Elect Biden promised in his victory speech, America will lead “not only through the example of [its] power, but through the power of [its] example”. Here, both were on display.


“Our Most Important Ally”


Whatever rhetoric was used in the US and abroad, the bulk of the international community’s interest undoubtedly boils down to practical interest. For better or worse, the United States remains the “leader of the free world”. Countries are eager to know where they stand, be they friend or foe. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, in congratulating President-Elect Biden, called the US “our most important ally”. This is not untrue. The US has long been dominant in the world order, and other allies were similarly waiting to see where they stand. Once the results became clear, the congratulations flowed in. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referred to the USA and Canada’s “extraordinary relationship – one that is unique on the world stage”. President of the European Commission Ursula von der Leyen commented on the “deepest of links” shared by the citizens of the EU and USA. Other global leaders, ranging from Fiji’s Prime Minister Frank Bainimarama, to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, all expressed their eagerness to work with Joe Biden and affirmed the special place the US has in world affairs. France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, Sweden, NATO, Ukraine, Iraq, Pakistan, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia, and New Zealand all sent in similar congratulations.

Equally as interested, however, were rivals. China, a strong competitor to American global and economic dominance, offered ambivalent but conciliatory remarks when Vice Foreign Minister Le Yuchen mentioned that “despite disagreement” there are “common interests and space of cooperation”. Russia expressed concerns and criticism regarding the electoral process, with Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov weighing in on the “negative consequences” of any global affairs, and Foreign Ministry spokesperson Maria Zakharova claiming that the process revealed “obvious shortcomings of the American electoral system”. Most vocal was Iran, whose Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini repeatedly mocked the process and criticized American democracy. It is clear that both friendly and rival governments are waiting to see how to position themselves. The return of former-VP Biden as President will no doubt make this task easier; they have dealt with him before and know what to expect. For allies, the election determines what level of support and cooperation they can expect. For rivals, the election determines what level of competition and animosity they can expect. For the rest of the world, the outcome of this election represents, as least to some extent, a return to normalcy. For everyone, the election shows the practical impact that the US has.


“They Say the Next One Will Be Sent by a Democrat”


A region more interested than most in the outcome of the Presidential election is the Middle East, perhaps because its very future is at stake. It goes without saying that American foreign policy has for decades now played a key role in determining the state of the Middle East. While most of the world rejoices at the Biden-Harris victory, Arabs shudder at the memory of the Obama administration’s foreign policy in the region, defined by drone strikes, military intervention in Libya and Syria, and support of the Saudi-led coalition in Yemen. Given Biden’s involvement in these events as Vice-President, there is a very real fear in the region that more destruction is to follow. As with most modern sentiments, this one found its way to social media memes, where a variation of one political cartoon in particular depicted an Arab man and woman under an impending drone strike, with the former remarking “they say the next one will be sent by a democrat”. In some circles, this fear has actually led to an anti-Biden sentiment. Donald Trump’s presidency, though marked with internal strife and chaos, did not create any new large-scale conflict in the region. To some Arabs, it seems better that President Trump destroys his own country than theirs. Regardless, they remain invested in the election, anxious to see what the consequences will be for their home.


Farce on Washington


Some spectators, while being invested in the US elections, made a mockery of the chaos engulfing the country. The Trump administration, whatever it has done for America at home, has certainly impacted its image abroad. Perhaps as a result of this, many reactions to the presidential race were filled with ridicule. Such was the reaction of several government officials, including Russia’s Konstantin Kosachev, who announced that “it’s time for America to return to the politics of sanity”. Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of the Chinese state-media outlet Global Times, claimed that “the US is in degradation”. Iranian Supreme Leader was harshest, claiming that the current situation was indicative of the US’ “severe civil, political, and moral decline”. Admittedly, most of this mockery came from rivals with political interests in demeaning the US’ international standing. However, liberal Western allies importantly chimed in with a similar sentiment. Leader of the European People’s Party Manfred Weber noted that “the deep polarization of America should be a warning for Europe”. The international reaction to this election has made it clear that the Biden administration will need to work hard to restore USA’s reputation. 


Nothing False About Hope


On the other hand, certain moments of this election served to reaffirm our traditional idealistic view of America. In a 2008 speech fit to turn the greatest cynic into a patriot, Barack Obama famously remarked that “in the unlikely story that is America, there has never been anything false about hope”. This election season, between the tweets and the infighting, the world was reminded of this hope. Every now and again, the land of the free and the home of the brave shone through. One couldn’t help but become entranced with the “American dream” when Joe Biden said that “we can define America in one word: possibilities”. One couldn’t help but admire the “land of opportunity” when Senator Kamala Harris became the first woman and person of colour to be elected Vice-President. One couldn’t help but be reminded of the importance of individual freedom when the only thing separating the candidates in Georgia was 900 votes. It really is something to see the people of a country come together to choose their future. This election, the world saw the worst of America, but it was also reminded of its best, and the latter was inspiring. When Russia’s opposition leader Alexey Navalny woke up to see who won, the result was still unclear. “So, this is a real election”, he said. When pressed for comments, world leaders responded that they had “full faith” in US institutions. Maybe it’s just rhetoric, but this election season, there was certainly something true about hope. 


A Time to Heal


President-Elect Biden declared in his victory speech that “this is the time to heal”. That rings true not just for the United State of America, but for the whole world, united. When America elected its new President, the whole world was watching. Some out of practical interests, some out of fear, some out of mockery, some out of hope, but all out of recognition of the influence that America has on the world. For those who watched, let there be lessons learned. For all of us, let there be a sigh of relief that at least one thing, in one of the most important places, has returned to normal. And then let’s get to work on healing that normal. 


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