U.S. Allies in Asia and Europe Watch the Debate With a Question: What Now?

During Thursday night’s debate, President Biden told former President Donald J. Trump that the United States is the “envy of the world.”

After watching their performance, many of America’s friends might beg to differ.

In Europe and Asia, the back-and-forth between the blustering Mr. Trump and the faltering Mr. Biden set analysts fretting — and not just about who might win the election in November.

“That whole thing was an unmitigated disaster,” Simon Canning, a communications manager in Australia, wrote on social media. “A total shambles, from both the candidates and the moderators. America is in very, very deep trouble.”

Sergey Radchenko, a historian at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, posted, “This election is doing more to discredit American democracy than Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping could ever hope to,” referring to the presidents of Russia and China, America’s most powerful rivals for global leadership.

“I am worried about the image projected to the outside world,” he continued. “It is not an image of leadership. It is an image of terminal decline.”

Whoever becomes president, the United States faces major global challenges — in Asia, from a rising China and a nuclear North Korea recently bolstered by Mr. Putin; in Europe from Russia’s war against Ukraine; and in the Middle East, where Israel’s war against Hamas threatens to escalate to southern Lebanon and even Iran.

There was little of substance on foreign policy in the noisy debate. Mr. Trump continued to insist without explanation that he could have prevented Mr. Putin from invading Ukraine, or Hamas from invading Israel, and that he could bring a quick end to both conflicts, again without explaining how or at what cost and to whom.

Mr. Biden cited his efforts to bring allies together to aid Ukraine and confront Russia. “I’ve got 50 other nations around the world to support Ukraine, including Japan and South Korea,” he said.

For some, the debate made a Trump presidency, already considered a strong possibility, seem like a probability, said François Heisbourg, a French analyst. “So on all the issues, the debate is a confirmation of European worries, and some of it has already been integrated into people’s thinking.”

On Ukraine, people hear Trump saying he wants to cut back aid to Ukraine, so this will move to the center of the debate,” he said, along with Mr. Trump’s stated fondness for Mr. Putin as a strong leader.

On Israel and Gaza, however, “I’m not sure it will make much of a difference,” Mr. Heisbourg said. “You can’t move the embassy to Jerusalem twice.”

As for the state of American democracy, Mr. Heisbourg sighed. “This is not a new question,” he said. “It’s more a confirmation of what’s happening, including in France.”

Added to existing worries about the unpredictable Mr. Trump, which the debate only confirmed, is fresh anxiety about Mr. Biden’s capacity to govern. One of the harshest assessments came from Radoslaw Sikorski, the Polish foreign minister. In a social media post, he compared Mr. Biden to Marcus Aurelius, the Roman emperor who “screwed up his succession by passing the baton to his feckless son Commodus, whose disastrous rule started Rome’s decline.”

“It’s important to manage one’s ride into the sunset,” Mr. Sikorski added.

The headline in the French daily Le Monde read: “Joe Biden’s shipwreck in the televised debate against Donald Trump.” The president, the newspaper continued, is “a shadow of the Joe Biden who faced Donald Trump in the 2020 election.”

American presidents drive a very big truck with a large number of other countries pulled along behind, said Daniela Schwarzer, an executive board member of the Bertelsmann Foundation, a think tank in Washington, D.C. “And for the next four years, you need a strong American president and a reliable partner to Europe — someone who can stand his ground in a world where there will be more conflict all around,” she said.

In Ukraine, the clamor about the debate reverberated on Friday.

Referring to Mr. Biden, Bogdan Butkevych, a popular radio host, wrote on social media, “His main task was to convince the voters of his energy and readiness to rule.” But, he added, “He wasn’t able to do it. Accordingly, the chance of his replacement by another candidate from the Democrats increases.”

Some took a measure of solace in Mr. Trump’s saying that he did not find it acceptable for the Kremlin to keep occupied lands.

In that vein, The Kyiv Independent, a Ukrainian news outlet, ran a headline about the debate that read, “Trump rejects Putin’s peace terms while Biden unnerves Democrats.”

Elsewhere, countries that have hoped the United States could balance a rising China and deter North Korea’s nuclear ambitions spent the past four years trying to rebuild ties with Washington after Mr. Trump’s first term deeply rattled alliances in the region. The debate on Thursday night immediately resurfaced serious questions about how U.S. politics might affect stability across Asia.

Chan Heng Chee, who served as Singapore’s ambassador to the United States from 1996 to 2012, said that the quality of the debates had deteriorated compared with previous ones. Mr. Biden’s disjointed performance and Mr. Trump’s repeated attacks and factual inaccuracies unsettled those who rely on the United States to act as a trusted global partner.

“Now everyone is watching for visuals,” Ms. Chan said. “Do the candidates look like they are able to do the job, or is age a problem? Facts do not matter now, and civility has totally gone out of the window.”

In Japan and South Korea, analysts detected a shift in the political winds toward Mr. Trump, and it prompted renewed questions about Mr. Biden’s age and ability to project strength.

“It was clearly a Trump win and a nail in the coffin for the Biden campaign,” said Lee Byong-chul, a professor at the Institute for Far Eastern Studies at Kyungnam University in Seoul.

“We must now brace ourselves for a second Trump administration,” he added.

In Japan, a major American ally in Asia, officials have almost always been assiduous about declaring that they are happy working with whomever the United States elects. But Mr. Trump’s comments during the debate about how he does not want to spend money on allies are likely to revive anxieties about how his approach to international relationships is transactional rather than enduring.

“My guess is that the Japanese policymakers are thinking, ‘OK, it’s going to be Trump quite likely, so we have to cement institutional ties as much as possible so he can’t undo them,’” said Koichi Nakano, a political scientist at Sophia University in Tokyo. “That is like tying yourself to a mast that may be sinking very soon, so it’s a false illusion of security.”

India, traditionally averse to sudden change and slow in any foreign policy shift, has worked in recent years to overcome a long history of mistrust to expand military and trade ties with Washington. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi enjoyed a close bond with Mr. Trump during his presidency, the Indian establishment has seen in Mr. Biden a steady hand that understands how alliances work and how geopolitical risk can be contained and mitigated.

Dr. Tara Kartha, a former senior official in the National Security Council of India, said that the state of America’s political leadership was worrying New Delhi. She pointed out that Mr. Trump is unpredictable and could easily shift positions — such as changing his current hard-line approach to China and patching things up if Beijing offers him better terms on a trade deal. That uncertainty makes calculations difficult for India, she added, which shares a border with China and a long rivalry with Beijing.

“We are now hedging with China, we are not going beyond a point precisely because of this,” she said. “Because you are not really sure what’s going to happen to the U.S.”

In China, the presidential debate was a top trending topic on the social media platform Weibo. Official Chinese media outlets largely played it straight, reporting each candidates’ remarks — and their lack of a handshake — without adding much commentary.

But in comments online, some users compared Mr. Trump’s red tie to a Communist red scarf, and some social media commentators jokingly called Trump “nation builder” because of how his leadership could accelerate China’s global rise.

Social media merriment aside, Shen Dingli, a Shanghai-based international relations scholar, said that the debate had only reinforced something the Chinese government had long thought: No matter who the next president is, U.S. policy toward China is only likely to harden.

“I believe Chinese leaders don’t have any illusions,” he said.

What was clear after Thursday’s debate was that few in the region felt optimistic about the electoral options in the United States.

Kasit Piromya, Thailand’s foreign minister from 2008 to 2011 and a former ambassador to the United States, lamented the state of American politics.

“Where are the good ones? Where are the brave ones?” Mr. Kasit said, adding that it was now incumbent on countries in Southeast Asia to have a foreign policy vision of their own.

“Why should I wait for Trump to be bad? I should be able to organize myself and maybe work with other friends,” he said.

Reporting was contributed by Damien Cave, Sui-Lee Wee, Choe Sang-Hun, Vivian Wang, Camille Elemia, Mujib Mashal, Ségolène Le Stradic and Marc Santora.

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