'Is This American-Style Civilization?': World Reacts To Presidential Debate

Sep 30, 2020
Originally published on September 30, 2020 5:59 pm

The world was watching the U.S. presidential debate on Tuesday night, and what they saw was not pretty.

A "national humiliation," said the Guardian in the U.K. "Cacophonique," the Franceinfo news organization opined. The German public broadcaster DW assessed things far more bluntly. And Israel's leading TV anchor tweeted "condolences to America," writing, "It is hard to stoop lower than this."

Global reaction to the debate between President Trump and Democratic challenger Joe Biden was largely similar to reactions in the U.S. But to many international observers, Tuesday's spectacle wasn't just unseemly; it represented an America in decline, eliciting pity in some cases, and in others, leading some to question whether democracy is a political system worth embracing.

President Trump and Democrat Joe Biden participate in the much-maligned first presidential debate on Tuesday in Cleveland.
Olivier Douliery / AP

"This Trump-Biden face-to-face was like the year 2020, trying for the whole world but particularly difficult politically in the United States," said an editorial in the French newspaper Le Monde.

DW's chief international editor Richard Walker said the event would "be seen as another piece of evidence that American democracy is in a pretty tattered state."

Walker worried about how "non-democratic parts of the world" would perceive it. "China, for instance, is holding up its system of authoritarianism as the better way," he said. "They can pretty easily point to this debate and say, 'Is that what you want? Is democracy what you want? Or isn't our way better?' "

To many Chinese viewers, the chaos of the debate reflected that of the U.S. at large.

"Is this American-style civilization?" one person wrote on the Chinese Twitter-like app Weibo, the South China Morning Post reported. Another user said: "I would feel desperate if I was an American."

Chinese analysts noted the seeming futility of a debate that reflected entrenched beliefs without offering a way forward.

"Regrettably, from this debate, this is no sign that such confrontation and divergence could be bridged, no matter who takes the rein," Zhang Tengjun, who studies U.S. politics at the China Institute of International Studies, told the Global Times in a story headlined "Chaotic Trump-Biden debate shows 'recession of U.S. influence, national power.' "

At one point, Biden referred to Trump as "Putin's puppy" — reminiscent of a remark by Hillary Clinton in the 2016 debates, when she called Trump Putin's "puppet."

Asked for comment, Dmitry Peskov, Russian President Vladimir Putin's spokesman, told reporters in Moscow: "Of course we're witnessing a new trend in political culture and electoral culture in the United States. But we don't want to comment on it and make any assessments, because it would immediately be seen as an attempt at interference."

An announcer on Russian state TV said: "The candidates behaved like their voters — brawls on the streets of American cities have not let down for several months. America is divided and inflamed."

Makoto Watanabe, a professor of communications at Japan's Hokkaido Bunkyo University, told the South China Morning Post that his peers lamented that Americans are now in an "unfortunate" position.

"I thought it was pretty symbolic of how polarized American politics has become in the last decade or so, with the two leaders and their respective camps having no dialogue at all between them," he said.

Former British diplomat John Sawers told the The New York Times that the debate left him "despondent" about America: "The country we have looked to for leadership has descended into an ugly brawl."

Watching the debate was trying enough for English speakers; some international broadcasters had to scramble to interpret the cross-talk for their audiences as Trump, Biden and Fox News moderator Chris Wallace all spoke over one another.

Taiwan's Mandarin-speaking Yahoo News anchor Catherine Lu said she "couldn't recognize words, just voices all intertwined together," the South China Morning Post reported. "It is hard to make out what anyone's viewpoint is," she exclaimed during her live broadcast.

International reaction to the debate is in line with multiple Pew Research Center reports finding that America's international image has suffered during Trump's presidency. A report this month found that in nearly every country, a majority holds unfavorable views of America.

But as messy as the debate was, at least one observer noted that the tradition shouldn't be taken for granted.

"For all the talk about how bad this debate is, at least you have one," Hungarian journalist Andras Petho tweeted. "In Hungary, the last debate before parliamentary elections was in 2006."

NPR's Lucian Kim contributed to this report.

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