The Day After: Foreign Policy Implications of the Electoral Season

David Hamburger, Johns Hopkins University:

It’s not just the result of the elections that count. The day after, we’ll need to answer for the content of this election season as well.

Across the spectrum of political affiliation, at least one point of consensus has arisen – this election is far from ideal. Nearly fifty percent of voters view the election as a source of stress, according to a recent poll, with large percentages indicating that they would vote on the basis of opposition to the other candidate rather than primarily in support for the candidate of their choice.[1] But if this election is understandably troubling to domestic voters, it is disturbing as well to a great portion of the international community that has watched the slow devolution to discord the process has become. Come November 9th, then, the task for US diplomacy will be not only to reorient US policy in the direction of the president-elect’s choosing, but also to address the effects of the election season itself.

These effects have been reflected in articles and on streets around the world. “Scandal-riven U.S. presidential election shames Uncle Sam abroad,” declared the headline of a recent article in Xinhuanet, an arm of official Chinese state media.[2] Indeed, Secretary of State John Kerry himself remarked last week at an event in London that the election was “difficult for our country’s perception abroad.”[3] “There are moments when it’s downright embarrassing,” he continued, in remarks picked up and distributed by Chinese and Iranian state media, among others.[4] In Europe, the success of populism in both major US parties this election season has spurred comparisons to the growing front of pro-Putin, Eurosceptic parties across the Atlantic. In post-Brexit-vote Britain, concerns over the ascendance of “forces of disgruntlement, nationalism, populism and anti-globalisation”[5] have been strengthened in light of the US election cycle, and, as one of our closest allies, the UK now faces the prospect of a US president the House of Commons once debated barring from British shores.[6] (In the same debate, at least one British lawmaker felt it necessary to appeal to the “land of Barack Obama, of Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln” in distinguishing the Republican nominee from US democracy itself.[7]) Perhaps most damagingly, our vituperative election season has been taken in some quarters as a sign of a failure of the ‘gold standard’ of modern democracy, tarnishing the image of the democratic process in the international arena.[8]

The divisive and indecorous rhetoric coming from the campaign trail – on foreign leaders, long-standing global alliances, and the most pressing geopolitical flashpoints of the day – has introduced uncertainty in the sincerity of our dealings with other nations and a diminished confidence in US presence abroad. In the eyes of the world, the most lasting legacy of this election abroad may be the same one that pollster Nate Silver identified at home – the realization that “we kind of knew less about America than we thought we did.”[9]

Such uncertainty is more than passing uncertainty about a potential leader. It is an uncertainty about the US in the world more broadly – an uncertainty inspiring doubt for US allies and fodder for US adversaries at home and abroad. The US has invested too much in the promotion of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law abroad to have its message undermined at home. It’s not just that this election cycle has brought up questions about our seriousness, credibility, and leadership on the international stage. It has dealt a blow to the idea of democratic elections and freely-elected leaders at a time when the US – and the world – can ill afford it.





[4] See, for example, CCTV’s coverage of the event [] and PressTV’s article on the same []

[5] Katty Kay,


[7] Paul Flynn,

[8] See, for example, international relations and American studies professor at Fudan Univeristy Shen Dingli’s recent piece in Global Times, “Election a chance to evaluate US democracy” (Oct. 18, 2016).



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