BRUSSELS — The unedifying spectacle of Tuesday night’s presidential debate produced some shock, some sadness and some weariness among American allies and rivals alike on Wednesday.
As President Donald Trump bellowed, blustered and shouted down both the moderator, Chris Wallace, and his opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, and as Biden responded by calling Trump a “clown,” many wondered if the chaos and tenor of the event said something more fundamental about the state of American democracy.
“Of course, the ultimate arbiter will be the American voter,” said Ulrich Speck, an analyst with the German Marshall Fund in Berlin. “But there is a consensus in Europe that this is getting out of hand, and this debate is an indicator of the bad shape of the American democracy.”
There was always a sense among allies that in America, despite political disagreement, “there is one republic, and conflict will be solved by debate and compromise,” and “that power was married to some kind of morality,” Speck said.
But that view is now being questioned, he said. “The debate was really no debate at all, but two people pursuing their strategies.”
Many, if not most, European analysts blamed Trump for the mess.
“The debate was a joke, a low point, a shame for the country,” Markus Feldenkirchen of the German newsmagazine Der Spiegel posted on Twitter. “Roaring, insults, two over-70s who interrupt each other like 5-year-olds — and a moderator who loses all control. The trigger, of course: Trump’s uncouth, undignified behavior.”
John Sawers, a former British diplomat and head of a risk analysis firm, said simply: “My own response is that it makes me despondent about America. The country we have looked to for leadership has descended into an ugly brawl.”
Jeremy Shapiro, a former American diplomat who is now research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations, said that foreigners would probably view the debate “as another sign of the degradation of American democracy,” as some Americans do. The debate will not change foreign opinions of Trump or Biden, he said, but underneath the spectacle is something more troubling.
Both allies and rivals “see Trump and the political culture that created him heralding the decline of American democracy and American culture,” Shapiro said. That judgment, he added, is “only heightened by the coronavirus response, not just American absence in global leadership but the striking incompetence in dealing with it at home.”
The coarseness of the debate will resonate abroad, Shapiro said. “Biden on that stage calling the president of the United States a clown and a liar is not something Biden would have done four years ago under any circumstances,” he said. “That he felt he has to do it is a sign to outsiders that American culture is in a cycle of decline.”
Thomas Gomart, director of the French Institute of International Relations, said that the debate strengthened the impression “that the United States has retreated from the global stage and withdrawn into itself.” Trump, he said, “has explicitly walked away from the position of a global leader, and Joe Biden may be implicitly doing so, too.”
Gomart said the debate showed the deep partisanship of today’s America, even in the face of the pandemic. “Those two men are from the same generation, from the same world,” he said. “And yet they are the two faces of a deeply polarized society.”
That view was shared by Nicole Bacharan, a French-American historian and political analyst who lives in France. She said she was “dismayed,” by what she saw in the debate, adding: “It sent a depressing image of the United States, of the American democracy and its role in the world.”
The events seem bound to heighten European anxieties, Bacharan said. “European leaders must have woken up this morning thinking, ‘The American leadership is over, and for a while, even if Biden is elected and tried to rebuild what Trump has destroyed,’” she said.
The damage that has been done to trans-Atlantic relations, will at best take years to repair, she added.
“The truth is, the European leaders feel alone because they know that what Trump has dismantled cannot be rebuilt so quickly and so easily,” she said. “As for the others, Putin, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, they must be telling themselves what we already knew: They can do everything, because the U.S. isn’t a leader anymore.”
That was certainly the quick view in China, where official reaction was careful but that of the Global Times, a Communist Party propaganda sheet, was gleeful.
Hu Xijin, the paper’s editor, said that Trump and Biden “obviously did not show an exemplary role to American people on how to engage in debates.” He added: “Such a chaos at the top of U.S. politics reflects division, anxiety of U.S. society and the accelerating loss of advantages of the U.S. political system.”
Foreign policy was barely mentioned in the debate, but China has been a regular target during the campaign on topics as varied as the coronavirus pandemic and trade. Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for the Chinese Foreign Ministry, said on Wednesday that the government “resolutely opposes” efforts to involve China in the U.S. election and that accusations leveled against Beijing during the debate were “groundless and untenable.”
Others weighed in on Chinese social media platforms, saying that the debate had left them puzzled and amused. One user said that Trump’s frequent interruptions of Biden lent a “comedic feel” to what should have been a serious discussion, while another compared the debate to a quarrel at a vegetable market.
In Singapore, which prides itself on technocratic governance and a careful form of democracy, Bilahari Kausikan, a former ambassador, dismissed the presidential debate as political theater.
“Debate? What debate?” he asked. “The event was not intended to change minds or elucidate issues. It was only a form of entertainment which did credit to neither the incumbent nor the challenger. It encapsulates all that has gone wrong with American politics.”
In Japan, a debate earlier this month among three candidates seeking the job of prime minister was a staid — if not downright sleepy — contrast to the fireworks of the Trump-Biden face-off.
The Japanese are sophisticated viewers of American politics, and Trump is a known quantity, but the tone of this debate still case as something of a shock. When Many were taken aback when Biden told Trump at one point to “shut up, man,” said Ichiro Fujisaki, a former Japanese ambassador to the United States. “If the president says that, everyone takes it as natural,” he added, “but for a decent man like Biden to say that is a bit of a surprise.”
Trump has fans in Japan. A tweet about the debate proclaiming that it “looks like Trump will get reelected, almost certainly” was liked about 9,000 times and retweeted 1,000 times. Another social media post questioned NHK, the public broadcaster, for cutting out “the bad scenes of Biden” and said the editors “intentionally mistranslated Trump’s remarks.”
Yujin Yaguchi, a professor of American Studies at the University of Tokyo, said that English-language students in Japan often watched presidential debates to study speech technique. “What we saw today is just not usable,” Yaguchi said politely. “Most people in Japan would be dismayed by the mudslinging style of the debate.”
Fujisaki said that the reaction of Japanese people would have to wait for the results. Invoking a diplomatic joke, he compared the election to a Christmas gift.
“You don’t say anything until Christmas Day, and when you open the box you cry out, ‘This is just what I wanted!’” he said. “If Mr. Trump is reelected, we say, ‘We are looking forward to working with you for four more years,’ and if it’s Mr. Biden we say, ‘Oh, we were waiting for you.’”
Get Boston.com's browser alerts:
Enable breaking news notifications straight to your internet browser.