Leaders around the world cautiously watched former Vice President Joe Biden strengthen his path to the White House on Friday after taking the lead in Georgia and Pennsylvania — two states that are critical for any chance of President Trump winning a second term.
But Trump’s unsubstantiated attacks on the vote count continued to overshadow the election. Officials and newspapers around the world lamented the polarization and dysfunction in the world’s oldest Western democracy.
Amid the unease, though, some commentators also marveled at the strength and transparency of the US election system and efforts to count every vote — even as coronavirus cases spike.
Still, the image of American democracy has taken a battering, as has the country’s reputation as a dependable ally.
Expected legal challenges by Trump are leaving world leaders wary of offering congratulatory messages if Biden secures the electoral votes needed to claim the White House.
Germany’s foreign minister criticized Trump for ''pouring oil on the fire'' by issuing fraudulent claims against the voting process.
China struck a conciliatory note toward Washington, citing ''broad common interests and space for cooperation" while President Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, a Trump ally, called for ''humility'' as the election count neared its end.
With Trump vowing to fight the results possibly all the way to the Supreme Court, many world leaders chose to keep their distance from the fray. Comments were cautious and nuanced.
And some, like Scotland’s first minister, Nicola Sturgeon, were indirect but clear in their meaning. After Biden pulled ahead in Pennsylvania, Sturgeon tweeted: ''The world can be a dark place at times just now — but today we are seeing a wee break in the clouds.''
Former Danish Prime Minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen did not hold back, writing on Twitter: ''Congratulations President-elect @JoeBiden.''
Former prime minister Matteo Renzi of Italy wrote on Twitter that Biden ''will be a great President of the United States.''
''He is a wise and balanced person: he knows how to lead the strongest nation in the world in these difficult times,'' Renzi added.
But few government officials appeared ready to congratulate a presumptive winner — nervous over Trump’s pledge to challenge some state results in court. There was also the lingering sting from the drawn-out battle to decide the US election in 2000 when some messages of congratulation were sent, rescinded, and eventually sent again.
''Those who are congratulating the president-elect want to be sure that is the president-elect,'' said a senior European Union diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive diplomatic issue.
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada, speaking to reporters in Ottawa, said Canada will be ''very cautious'' about how and when to offer congratulations to an eventual winner and expressed ''faith in the American people and the American institutions to have elections take place properly.''
In Germany, Foreign Minister Heiko Maas criticized Trump’s reluctance to accept the election results and said the United States is not a ''one-man show.''
''Anyone who continues to pour oil on the fire in a situation like this is acting irresponsibly,'' he said in an interview with Germany’s Funke media group. ''Decent losers are more important for the functioning of a democracy than radiant winners.''
Even Bolsonaro — sometimes called the ''Trump of the tropics'' for his similar style — said Trump ''is not the most important person in the world, as he himself says. The most important person is God.'' Bolsonaro noted the need for ''humility.''
Norbert Röttgen, chairman of the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee, said on Twitter that ''Trump is disregarding the foundations of democracy with his behavior.'' He added: ''Should he lose, he will not remain in the White House, but he also will not accept defeat. He cares about public opinion — he is ready to poison everything for that.''
Former prime minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who struck up a close friendship with Trump, expressed concern over the wider fallout of US ''turmoil and confusion because of the election.''
''A minus for its allies and like-minded countries,'' Abe said in an interview with the Yukan Fuji newspaper.
London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, who has frequently clashed with Trump in the past, reiterated his support for Biden on Friday.
''Clearly I’m rooting for Joe Biden because I’m hoping that the next President of the USA is somebody who’s not obsessed by hate-filled policies,'' Khan told BBC Radio London.
''It’s not a game, it’s a democracy,'' Khan said, adding that Trump should do his best ''not to undermine the democratic process.''
News outlets abroad were similarly alarmed. Britain’s Economist weekly said Trump’s ''populism will live on in America.'' Even if a Biden administration were to restore alliances, it said, ''everyone will know that it could all revert again in 2024.''
The left-leaning Guardian reflected in an editorial on the ''deep weaknesses'' in American democracy and how it painted a bleak picture ahead, suggesting that the possibility of a Democratic-controlled White House and a Republican-majority Senate spelled more gridlock and acrimony.
In Germany, Donald Trump Jr.'s call on Twitter for a ''total war'' over the election struck with particular resonance. Bild, the country’s biggest tabloid, said the ''words brought back memories of the infamous speech by Hitler’s propaganda minister Josef Goebbels'' when he called for ''total war'' as Germany lost the upper hand in World War II.
While some around the world poked fun at the slow-moving US vote count, others appreciated the strength of the system. ''We can all joke about how painfully long America is taking to count its votes. But it also underlines that every vote actually counts in their system,'' said Nidhi Razdan, a journalist in India.
American media also drew praise in India from commentators for calling out Trump’s falsehoods about the election being stolen from him. ''A media with a spine telling truth to power! Salute!'' said journalist Rajdeep Sardesai.