Biden was right and Trump was wrong, but the more important thing was that both sides acted like foreign affairs barely mattered in the race. The subject rarely came up during the two presidential debates. According to my Washington Post colleagues, in October Trump was furious when GOP chairwoman Ronna McDaniel “mentioned a TV ad [to Trump] she had seen at her home about the peace deal that he helped broker between Israel and the United Arab Emirates. McDaniel was skeptical the ad would help Trump win a single vote in Michigan, and told him as much.”
None of this is surprising. Tip O’Neill’s famous aphorism is “all politics is local,” and in presidential elections that means that politics ain’t international.
What is surprising, however, is how much international actors conferred recognition on Biden’s victory over the weekend.
Weirdly, it was Trump who unintentionally empowered foreign actors. The tradition in the United States is that once the Associated Press and news networks call the election for one of the candidates, the losing candidate concedes the race to the winning candidate. The loser then proffers brief, gracious public remarks and paves the way for the president-elect’s victory speech. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton did this for Trump. Twelve years ago, John McCain did this for Barack Obama. You get the idea.
None of this is necessary, of course — the only things that are legally necessary involve the certification of votes, the awarding of electors and Congress recognizing the vote. But as Julia Azari and Jennifer Smith have noted, in established democracies a raft of informal institutions exist in parallel to the formal institutions. Some of these confer legitimacy on the transfer of power.
Trump has never been interested in any of these norms, however, unless they suit him. Because his staff treats him like a toddler, they are unable to coax Trump into more presidential behavior. So even after the AP and the networks called the race for Biden, the 45th president pouted like a toddler and refused to acknowledge the existence of the 46th president.
Indeed, Vox’s Ezra Klein goes further, accusing Trump of attempting, “a coup in plain sight,” adding, “The Trump’s administration’s current strategy is to go to court to try and get votes for Biden ruled illegitimate, and that strategy explicitly resists on Trump’s appointees honoring a debt the administration, at least, believes they owe.” Axios’s Alayna Treene confirmed that legal strategy in her reporting.
This is where the rest of the world made its cameo appearance into the U.S. drama. Traditionally, other world leaders wait for the loser to concede before congratulating the winner. Since Trump violated one norm, however, the rest of the world decided to violate the other norm.
Fox News’ Audrey Conklin reported: “Cities across Europe on Saturday celebrated President-Elect Joe Biden’s 2020 win with fireworks, church bells and messages of congratulations from foreign leaders on social media.” That’s not surprising — Trump was an unpopular and untrusted leader to the rest of the world.
Conklin’s report, however, continues: “World leaders including British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, French President Emmanuel Macron, Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte, Irish Prime Minister Micheál Martin and Spanish President Pedro Sánchez Pérez-Castejón congratulated Biden and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris on social media.”
Similarly, the New York Times’ Mark Landler reported:
As news of Mr. Biden’s victory reverberated from Europe and the Middle East to Asia and Latin America on Saturday, foreign leaders showered him with congratulations. Diplomats and commentators expressed gratitude, satisfaction and even jubilation that a new president would bring a much-needed return to normalcy — something that vanished alarmingly the day Mr. Trump took office....Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, hailing Canada’s historic friendship with the United States, said, “I’m really looking forward to working together.” President Emmanuel Macron of France said, “We have a lot to do to overcome today’s challenges. Let’s work together!” Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany declared, “Our trans-Atlantic friendship is irreplaceable, if we want to overcome the great challenges of our time.”
Even Trump’s closer allies in the world, such as Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu, recognized the inevitable:
The Atlantic’s Anne Applebaum tweeted, “I didn’t think it could matter, in a US election, what the outside world thinks or whether foreign leaders recognize the result. But seeing [Netanyahu’s tweet], I think it will.”
She is correct. On its own, congratulations from foreign leaders are a small part of a larger process of conferring political legitimacy on the president-elect. With an incumbent president who does not want to admit that he is the loser this time, however, this process carries greater weight than usual. It plays a supporting role in undermining Trump’s weak, badly-organized efforts to contest the legitimacy of this election. As one Trump adviser noted to Axios’s Treene: “There’s only so much you can do now once a big part of the country has decided to move on.”
For four years, Trump has tried his darnedest to disrupt world politics to suit his own ends. There is some karma in foreign leaders returning the favor to put the exclamation point onto his loss.