It was the kind of boilerplate proclamation that US diplomats issue all the time regarding elections around the world, particularly those parts of it where democracy is not completely secure. But it was undermined somewhat by comments from the US President just hours earlier.
In a news conference a few hours after midnight at the White House, Donald Trump had railed against his rival, Joe Biden, saying that “all voting must stop” and baselessly accusing the Democrats of fraud. He continued to hit these points on Twitter, leading the social media platform to label several of his posts as “disputed” or “misleading.”
Chaotic debates and a ugly campaign had already marred the standing of the US democratic system overseas this year, but the sight of the American leader openly seeking to delegitimize the vote was still a shock for many. Trump’s comments were greeted with horror in many countries, and some glee in others, where critics of the US have long accused Washington of hypocrisy regarding democratic rights.
Speaking Wednesday, German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said the US faced a “very explosive situation” and a possible crisis, telling public broadcaster ZDF that “this election has not been decided … votes are still being counted (but) the battle over the legitimacy of the result, however it turns out, has begun.”
In the United Kingdom, Prime Minister Boris Johnson refused to comment on the election, though former foreign minister and Conservative Party lawmaker Jeremy Hunt told the BBC a “huge argument about process” would “put a smile on the face of people like President Putin and President Xi who will look at their own people and say, ‘Are you not pleased we have not got any of this mess?’ and that would be an absolute disaster.”
“We must remember that the reputation of democracy across the world is at stake here,” Hunt added.
For years, the US has held itself up as an arbiter of sorts for the democratic process around the world, sending monitors to polls, propping up democratic opposition and criticizing countries for rigging or undermining elections.
Just this week, the US State Department condemned China’s ongoing crackdown on democratic freedoms in the semi-autonomous city of Hong Kong. In Belarus — a close ally of Moscow — the US no longer recognizes Alexander Lukashenko as the “legitimately elected leader,” after hotly contested elections in the former Soviet state.
This sense of moral authority is now likely to be called into question in some parts of the world.
After Tuesday’s vote, Russian state-run broadcaster RT described the US as “battered and divided,” while a number of its columnists highlighted the potential chaos that could be unleashed by Trump’s comments, with one writing that “the affair paints a grim picture for American democracy.”
In China, alleged flaws in American democracy have long been used to prop up Beijing’s own authoritarian model, and the confusion and concern over Tuesday’s voting is no different.
While Chinese diplomats and official government mouthpieces have stayed largely quiet on the results and ongoing contest, state-backed media was quick to highlight the discrepancy between Washington’s long-held position as the standard-bearer of international democracy and Trump’s own comments.
The Global Times, a nationalist state-owned tabloid, published a piece Wednesday noting that “deep-seated divisions in US contradict democratic values.”
“Democracy is exercised in a civilized and graceful manner. The one who loses in elections is supposed to stay cool, accept the result, and call for bridging differences to move the country forward. But it seems that this does not exist in the US nowadays,” writer Wang Wenwen added.
Meanwhile, the Beijing News, a Communist Party-controlled paper, said that “no matter who wins the 2020 election, American society will not be able to return to the state it used to be in,” having been “torn apart” by the recent contest and Trump’s time in office.
President Ronald Reagan once spoke of the US being a “beacon” for those who sought freedom and democratic rights, and while that claim has long faced criticism — especially given Reagan’s own support for dictators during his time in office — it has remained a powerful and uplifting message to many.
This year’s election, however, may yet cause lasting damage to that message, and with it Washington’s credibility when telling others how democracy should function.