The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Foreign leaders rushed to congratulate George W. Bush in 2000. This time, they’re being extra cautious.

Vice President Al Gore waves as he escorts President-elect George W. Bush into his residence after Bush arrived for a meeting Dec. 19, 2000. (Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

When the winner is announced in a U.S. presidential election, foreign leaders often rush to offer their congratulations and ingratiate themselves with America’s next leader. This year, however, things look to be different.

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With little sign that the incumbent, President Trump, will concede a loss, even if news organizations call the election for his challenger Joe Biden, foreign governments are steeling themselves for weeks of uncertainty and legal battles.

“The last thing you want to do is congratulate someone when it turns out a week later they didn’t actually win,” one foreign official in the United States said this week, speaking on condition of anonymity as he was not authorized to speak about the election.

Countries may be trying to avoid some of the diplomatic awkwardness that followed the contested 2000 presidential election. In the hours after polls closed that Tuesday in November, U.S. media called the race for President George W. Bush. Many foreign leaders responded with customary calls of congratulations.

Political leaders from Russia, China, Germany, Britain, France, the Netherlands, the European Union, Turkey and Indonesia were among the first to reach out to the presumptive new U.S. leader, according to media reports from the time.

But while Democrat Al Gore conceded the Wednesday following the vote, he went on to retract his concession amid a recount of votes in Florida. The election dragged on for another five weeks amid a recount and legal battle. Left in limbo, some leaders either retracted their comments or simply remained mum.

‘Please don’t publicize’

Back in 2000 — pre-Twitter times — statements were phoned, faxed or emailed to news agencies so they could be publicized. German President Johannes Rau faxed a letter congratulating Bush on behalf of the German people. Forty minutes later, however, his office issued a follow-up: “Please don’t publicize the president’s congratulations to George W. Bush!!!!!″ the Associated Press reported.

“What can we do?” a spokesperson for Rau told journalists in response to the request. “It is complicated. One wants to be among the first sending congratulations and warm wishes.”

The Dutch government similarly was quick to recall its initial overture with a follow-up: “Given the fact that at this moment uncertainty exists about the outcome of the American presidential elections, the earlier statement … has been retracted,” ABC reported.

South Africa’s ruling party, the African National Congress, annulled its earlier note congratulating Bush with a nonpartisan addendum, reading "This is one incredible election in the history of the U.S.,” the New York Times reported.

As the news narrative continued to shift the day after the election, the chairman of Keidanren, Japan’s business federation, clarified its congratulatory message to Bush by shifting blame onto U.S. media

“It has become clear that the US presidential election results may not become final for some time, due to state of Florida turnout,” its statement said, according to an account from the Guardian. “However, trusting three major US television networks, namely ABC, CBS and NBC, as well as CNN, [we] issued [our] chairman Imai’s comment in Japanese based on once announced ‘final’ result.”

Leaders who had been more cautious looked better in hindsight. While Indian Foreign Minister Jaswant Singh similarly sent Bush well-wishes, he did so with a note of restraint.

“Of course we are delighted and would wish to congratulate Governor George Bush, president elect, but I would much rather wait until the formal announcement is made,” Singh told a news conference the day after the election, ABC reported.

Bertie Ahern, prime minister of the Republic of Ireland, was even more cautious, telling journalists the night of the election that there would be no formal remarks until an “official” declaration, the U.K’s Independent reported. But Sweden was an outlier in letting its negative feelings be known early.

“It’s a pity, but that is the wish of the American people and we have to work with their choice,” Prime Minister Goran Persson said after U.S. media first called the election.

Bush was ultimately confirmed the final winner of the election after an intervention by the Supreme Court ended the recount. Any disruption to foreign relations caused by the disputed election was soon overshadowed by the attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 and the subsequent “War on Terror.”

World leaders gave cautious statements on the presidential election Nov. 5, while Iran said that whoever wins, the U.S. "will surrender to the Iranian nation." (Video: Reuters)

2020 uncertainty

With a famously tempestuous incumbent this year and an exceptionally bitter presidential contest, foreign leaders and diplomats aren’t willing to take their chances.

“We wouldn’t get involved,” Irish Ambassador to Washington Daniel Mullhall said earlier this week. “If the results are being contested in that way, we would have to wait until the U.S. system decides who the winner is.”

Well, almost all foreign leaders. The prime minister of Slovenia, the birthplace of first lady Melania Trump, wrote on Twitter shortly after voting ended on Election Day that it was “pretty clear that American people have elected [Donald Trump],” Janez Janša wrote on Twitter.

The Slovenian Embassy in Washington declined to comment on whether the tweets represented an official message, but as more votes came in Janša’s call looked more and more like an outlier. “I expressed my opinion that he had won,” he tweeted Thursday evening. “I still think so.”