A chaotic U.S. election season could end with President Trump casting doubt on the legitimacy of the result, like-minded observers around the world fear.
“Democratic processes should be respected,” Australian lawmaker Anthony Albanese said Tuesday. “Our partnership between the United States is an alliance between our peoples based upon our common democratic values, and I am concerned of any questioning that occurs about democratic values and democratic processes.”
Foreign officials avoid commenting on elections in another democratic country, as a rule, but a pair of former Australian prime ministers went further in suggesting that this campaign might prove the exception. The source of their concerns have found a voice at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe, an intergovernmental organization that monitors elections for fairness, including in the United States — in part due to American feedback.
“Interlocutors have expressed grave concerns about the risk of legitimacy of the elections being questioned due to the incumbent President’s repeated allegations of a fraudulent election process, and postal vote in particular,” OSCE officials wrote in a recent interim report on the election. “Concerns by election stakeholders were also raised over the level of preparedness of election officials with little previous experience of handling postal votes.”
Trump’s recent comments about the “danger” of counting mail-in ballots after Election Day have attracted attention abroad.
“If people wanted to get their ballots in, they should have gotten their ballots in long before that, a long time,” he said Monday night. “You know that puts our country in danger? You know what can happen during that long period of time? No. 1, cheating can happen. This is their dream. And they are known for it. The Philadelphia area is known for it. What can happen is just a disgrace.”
That’s perilous rhetoric from an American president, according to former Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull. “Once you start challenging the legitimacy of your democratic processes, then you’re basically undermining the legitimacy of your country, of your democracy,” Turnbull told the Sydney Morning Herald.
These misgivings in foreign democracies may be exacerbated by the political disagreements between Trump and the political classes of other countries. An analyst at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute equates a Trump victory with “the American gothic of racism, authoritarian conspiracism and violent extremism.” The Western European foreign policy elite agree that “the contemporary ‘spiritual disunity of the West’ is due to the rise of an illiberal and nationalist camp within the Western world,” as the 2020 Munich Security Conference report put it, one year after Biden told that gathering that Trump is “an embarrassment” to the U.S.
Temperament may account for the longing for Biden’s victory on display in some capitals.
“Every reasonable person hopes for Biden’s victory on November 3,” said former German government official Johannes Kindler, who advised German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her two post-Cold War predecessors.
German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas was more diplomatic but couldn’t utterly avoid implying that he has a preference.
“Joe Biden stands in a tradition that sees multilateral cooperation as America’s strength,” Maas said this week while pledging to seek unity with either administration. “We had to listen to Trump describing China, Russia and the EU in one breath as the USA’s greatest enemies. This has to come to an end.”
That’s a common sentiment in the European Union, according to former Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski. “President Trump famously called us, the European Union, a foe,” Sikorski, who thinks Trump “sees alliances with democracies as encumbrances,” said in a German media interview published Sunday. “I think it would be easier for us to deal with an America run by Joe Biden than if Trump wins again and serves a second term.”
Results may vary for some individual countries, Sikorski allowed, noting that “it will be quite hard for” the current Polish government “to build a relationship with Joe Biden” after partnering closely with Trump.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seemed to hedge his bets last month when Trump invited him to opine over speakerphone that Biden couldn’t have brokered the latest normalization deal between Israel and Sudan.
“Well, Mr. President, one thing I can tell you is we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America,” Netanyahu dodged. “And we appreciate what you’ve done enormously.”
In London, British officials are bracing for the possibility that a Trump defeat weakens a post-Brexit United Kingdom.
“We will be on our own, somewhere offshore [from] the European Union and somewhere in the mid-Atlantic and creating something called ‘Global Britain,’” former British Ambassador Peter Westmacott predicted.
A senior British lawmaker hopes that the U.K.’s hosting of the next major international climate conference will create an opportunity to cooperate with a Biden administration.
“The reality is, I think is that environmentalism offers the U.K. a way back towards a closer relationship with the Biden White House,” British Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Tugendhat said. “If we’re sensible, we will see the U.K. offering the Biden White House a very generous share of the COP26 talks in order to bring them in.”
Those preparations reflect the expectation that Trump will lose and signal the skepticism that might greet his reelection.
“If he loses the election, I’m certain the president will transfer power over,” White House National Security adviser Robert O’Brien said last month. “We’ve got to make sure there’s no fraud in the election, and we need to make sure it’s a free and fair election, just like we demand of other countries overseas, we need to make the demand of ourselves.”
The perception of Trump’s putative illiberalism may make it hard for European allies to find a legitimate explanation for an outcome that returns Trump to office.
“I have to tell you, for the first time, I will be reading the OSCE observers reports about U.S. elections,” Sikorski said.
Photo Caption:Benjamin Graff, center, and his son Jacob Graff, 19, drop off their mail-in ballots for the Pennsylvania primary election, in Philadelphia, Tuesday, June 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)