What the World Thinks: International Perspectives on the 2016 Election


GU Politics and the Walsh School of Foreign Service co-hosted an event on international perspectives on the 2016 Election. From left to right: Anthony Clark Arend, Irfan Nooruddin, Richard McGregor, Adhijit Iyer-Mitra, Cynthia Schneider, and Ebrahim Rasool.

by Margaux Fontaine

This article has been updated to reflect the 2016 Election results.

On Election Day (November 8, 2016), the Georgetown Institute of Politics and Public Service and the Walsh School of Foreign Service co-hosted “What The World Thinks,” a panel providing international perspectives on the 2016 U.S. Elections. The conversation, which took place before election results were announced, was moderated by Anthony Clark Arend, Senior Associate Dean for Graduate and Faculty Affairs and Professor in the Walsh School of Foreign Service.

One of the panelists, Ebrahim Rasool, Former South African Ambassador to the United States, focused on the possible impacts on growth and opportunities in Africa if now-President-elect Donald Trump is to pursue his protectionist trade policies.

“I think that Africa may justifiably be very wary of a Trump presidency that wants to isolate the United States, that wants to close trade deals that exist between the United States and the world, because this would really be the death knell of the kind of revival that we have seen on the African continent over the last while,” Rasool said.

“I think that it is, in a sense, a way of spitting into the wind of globalization that I think that people are calling for on the Trump side of the election.”

Cynthia Schneider, Former U.S. Ambassador to the Netherlands, related Trump’s brand of populism to nationalist movements in Europe. She also expressed a sense of shock and dread held by many Europeans over the prospective of a Trump presidency.

“When the United States is seriously looking at electing someone crazy and dangerous, that makes us all afraid, and makes us all doubt about the United States,” Schneider said. “What kind of country is this, that could let someone like Donald Trump get this far? [They’re] wondering, do we, the Americans, have any sense of how incredibly serious this is for the rest of the world?”

She also provided a unique perspective from one of her friends in Timbuktu, who expressed his disappointment and surprise in the success of Donald Trump who, in his view, has contradicted many long-standing American values.

“In case we have forgotten what we stand for, the people in Timbuktu remember,” Schneider said.

Overall, she expressed that the angst found in the United States surrounding this election could be found overseas as well.

“[The rest of the world feels] a kind of reliance on the United States as a stable force for peace in the world,” Schneider said. “Literally, another [international] friend said, ‘I feel so… stressed about this election, because if Hillary Clinton doesn’t win it will have such a devastating effect on global peace.’”

img_9655Dr. Adhijit Iyer-Mitra, a Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace & Conflict Studies with expertise in the defense and security implications of the U.S. election for South Asia, also contributed to the conversation, providing a perspective from India’s people and government.

“If you look at the economic side of things, there are clear signs of panic beginning to set in,” Iyer-Mitra said.

However, he also thinks that the anxiety surrounding this election might be overstated.

“I find it strange that Americans are so alarmed by a Trump presidency, because for me that shows that deep down they don’t believe in the checks and balances that the American system provides,” Iyer-Mitra said. “And for me, I feel those checks and balances will come out to play big time once Trump becomes president.”

Richard McGregor, author and former Beijing and Washington bureau chief for the Financial Times, looked at the contrasting views on the election within China.

“On the one hand, I think obviously the ruling Chinese Communist Party… has hugely enjoyed a Donald Trump [candidature],” McGregor said. “One of the pillars of the propaganda department in China is to really rubbish U.S. democracy… and, of course, this time around, the U.S. has basically done their job for them.”

img_9659But does that translate, then, into China supporting a Trump victory?

“I think absolutely not,” McGregor said.

“China does not want the U.S. to fall apart,” he explained. “The most important thing for China as a rising power… is to have a basically stable external environment. China doesn’t want the world to collapse around them. China is utterly locked into the global economy, it’s locked into foreign markets for exports, it’s a very open economy, in many respects.”

China wouldn’t mind U.S. democracy symbolically “getting a bloody nose,” McGregor noted, but they wouldn’t have actually wanted Trump to win.

“It’s destabilizing, and particularly from what Trump has said during the election campaign, it’s destabilizing for the region as well,” he explained.

“He’s talked about forcing South Korea and Japan to pay a lot more money for the U.S. troops in their countries, he doesn’t care if South Korea or Japan go nuclear – and of course, China does not want that.”

Dr. Irfan Nooruddin, SFS Faculty Chair and Hamid bin Khalifa Professor of Indian Politics in the Walsh School of Foreign Service, talked about the effects of this election more broadly, focusing on the impact it will have on democratization around the world.

“I think the real damage is to democracy promoters in the developing world, who I think now go to developing countries talking about how elections should work [with] a much less credible a package to offer,” he said.

“But I don’t think it’s just because of Mr. Trump,” he continued. “I think we do ourselves a danger when we make this only about Trump, instead of an institutional process that has made primaries a place in which you want to run to the extremes as opposed to the center.”

img_9667Nooruddin went on to identify a few other structural issues within the American democracy, such as the Electoral College, gerrymandering and the influence of money in politics, which all have served to weaken its perception abroad.

“The real cost of the last 15 years of American politics… is essentially that America’s brand of democracy, which has been a very stellar brand, has lost currency in ways that are not… going to be recoverable,” he said. “I suspect that we are in a moment for the foreseeable future, [where] democracy and democratization, those who are working for democracy promotion in the developing world, are running uphill.”

The panel’s discussion of the Electoral College was highly relevant as election results came in throughout the evening showing that Secretary Clinton won the popular vote, but lost the Electoral College. Rasool expressed that the Electoral College might contribute to a disconnect between candidates and the voters.

“In the U.S., you can win the popular vote, but it is all mediated through winner-takes-all systems at Electoral College level, and therefore every vote does not count,” Rasool said.

“I wonder whether part of the weakness of the system is that you don’t have to go and persuade all the people, because we know already what Massachusetts will do, and we know what Texas will do.”

“It really calls into question what democracy means, and if in fact the most stable system is a democracy which is going to be mediated in this fashion,” Arend added.

Nooruddin noted that while many aspects of American democracy have been adopted by other countries, the Electoral College is notably one that has not diffused. He offered some insight as to why this might be the case.

img_9677“Anecdotally, including conversations with the electoral commission in India, I think the short answer is that they see it as anti-democratic,” he said. “It is understood as an American thing, because of America’s sort of obsession with the Constitution that can never be amended in its fundamental ways – like, ‘they did it like this in 1789, they should do it like this forever’ kind of thing. But it is not seen as something to be emulated at all.”

McGregor disagreed in part with the criticism of the Electoral College, however, noting problems that would exist in other systems.

“If we didn’t have an Electoral College, then people would only campaign in Texas and California, places like that, and they would ignore the smaller states,” McGregor said. “Votes are going to be weighed differently whatever system you choose. … You adapt your campaign to whatever the system is.”

Rasool pointed out that this election was more than its electoral system – it was framed by fundamental questions surrounding American identity.

“I think it’s an existential crisis for the U.S., rather than an electoral crisis,” Rasool said. “I often describe this election to friends not as an election, but as a referendum on what and who the United States of America is.”

“This is what this election is about: you can’t have mobility of goods, mobility of capital, mobility of information, and shut the borders for mobility of people, their religions, their cultures, their colors, and their hair types,” Rasool said. “And that’s the first-world existential crisis: unless the world comes to terms with the full gamut of what globalization means, we are not going to have a system that can respond to it.”

UPDATE: Hours after this discussion, the American electorate voted in Donald Trump as the new President of the United States.