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Campaign’s bitter barbs are costing US global prestige

The election slugfest between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has done damage to the United States’ reputation abroad.AFP/Getty Images photos/File

The world, too, is waiting anxiously for this election to be over:

In India, right-wing Hindus who pray at their temple for Donald Trump to defeat Islamic extremism. In Saudi Arabia, a crown prince engaged in a Twitter war with Trump. (“Dopey Prince,” Trump called him.) In Mexico, economists who predict that the peso will plummet if Trump wins. In Japan, a generation that has taken US military protection for granted, but worries that it might no longer be able to do so.

But regardless of who wins, after a presidential campaign marred by scandal, political violence, allegations of corruption and fears of voter fraud, America’s image stands tarnished in the eyes of its own people and the world.


The United States has always attracted its share of international criticism on foreign policy, especially during the Iraq War. But rarely has its political system been subjected to such widespread scorn and ridicule. Eight short years after the nation was lauded for overcoming its deepest prejudice by electing a black president, this campaign has laid bare an ugly underbelly of US politics. And it has exposed the capacity of a nation defined by its democratic ideals to fall victim to the same anti-democratic forces that have stymied Third World countries.

How much luster the US brand has lost is hard to quantify. Global polls, taken largely before the campaign’s worst moments, still find the United States the world’s most admired country. Tourism and foreign direct investment are down, but not shockingly so.

But the shift is clear nonetheless. In interviews, Americans who travel overseas and foreign observers say that tourists who once felt themselves the envy of the world now feel the sting of embarrassment. Businesses that once marketed their jeans and fleece jackets internationally as tiny pieces of the American dream are being advised to revamp their ad campaigns.


US diplomats more accustomed to mediating other countries’ disputes are now being called on to defend American democracy in the face of allegations that the election is “rigged.”

“I think it has affected the way that people see us,” said R. Nicholas Burns, a veteran diplomat who was undersecretary of state for political affairs under President George W. Bush. “They don’t expect that from the United States. We are the people who go and monitor other people’s elections.”

Across the planet, people are contemplating the possibility that the United States might not be so exceptional after all.

“Much of the world is no longer in awe of you,” said Lyall Mercer, managing director of a public relations company in Australia.

Mercer noted that state lawmakers in Sydney had recently adopted a resolution by unanimous accord that described Trump as a “revolting slug.”

“Of course I understand this is about the candidate and not the country,” Mercer said. “But the very fact that they were willing to do this, with not one MP speaking against it — despite knowing they were ridiculing someone who could be the next president of our most important ally — I think speaks to the diminishing awe, or even respect.”

In Lebanon, where the United States’ image had already been battered — first by the 2003 invasion of Iraq, then by President Obama’s disengagement from the region — its staunchest defenders have been quieted.

“Even during the worst days of anti-Americanism in the Middle East, there were always pockets of people who had studied in the US who still looked up to the United States,” said Hisham Melhem, a correspondent for An-Nahar, Lebanon’s leading daily newspaper. “Now, many of them have given up on the United States as a beacon of progress and enlightenment.”


Arabs skeptical of US efforts to promote democracy in the region have eaten up allegations of sexual misconduct and embarrassing email leaks in the campaign, Melhem said: “They are mocking the American democratic process in ways that I’ve never seen before, and I’ve been covering elections since the early 1980s.”

In Russia, which is accused of hacking into the emails that have dogged Hillary Clinton’s campaign, newscasters portray the United States as under the control of dark, secretive forces. Vesti, a nightly news program in Moscow, reported that the firebombing of a Trump campaign office in North Carolina was an example of “attempts to kill those who have different views.”

Then there is Europe, where 85 percent of people in a recent Pew Research Center poll reported having no confidence in Trump to “do the right thing regarding world affairs.” There, his very popularity has tarnished America’s image.

“The overwhelming question that you get about the presidential election is ‘What are you people thinking?’” said Jeremy Shapiro, the Boston-born research director of the European Council on Foreign Relations. Although Europeans have been troubled by their own right-wing populists, “they expect the United States to be a rock of stability, a safety net they can rely on,” he said.


And the scorn does not fall solely on Trump.

K. Riva Levinson, who leads a boutique international consulting firm in Washington, said that during a recent trip to Ghana, people expressed disillusionment with what they saw as the unfairness of the Democratic primary contest between Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont.

“America is not a monarchy,” she said people told her. “It is not an office you are entitled to, either by birth or by marriage.”

Others ask what has happened to the United States and its political talent pool, to result in two nominees so widely despised.

“These are the two best candidates they have to run the biggest economy and oldest democracy in the world?” asked Arvind Gupta, national head of digital and technology for India’s ruling party.

Perhaps the most important change in the image of the United States, however, is the one taking place within its own borders.

Americans’ trust in the political system has been shaken, whether because they believe Trump’s claims that it is rigged or because he has gotten so close to the presidency. Fifteen percent of voters have no confidence that their ballots will be properly counted, up from 6 percent in 2004, a New York Times/CBS News poll found.

“I believe, like Trump does, that the system is rigged,” said Ted Gregory, 79, of Camp Hill, Pa.

To Gregory, a retired business owner who travels abroad frequently, that loss of faith has gone hand in hand with what he sees as a decline in America’s stature, starting under Bush and continuing under Obama.


“I’m old enough to remember when you told someone that you were from the United States, they thought, ‘Lucky you,’” he said. “Now, I don’t know what they think.”

Simon Anholt, an independent policy adviser who developed a poll of 25,000 people in 20 countries called the Nation Brands Index, said the United States had fallen to the world’s seventh-most-admired country after the Iraq War, but rebounded to No. 1 after Obama’s election.

Its image is unlikely to suffer lasting damage, he said, as long as the country does not carry out Trump’s promises to scrap trade agreements and military alliances.

“People don’t like countries that withdraw from the international sphere,” Anholt said, pointing to the tarnishing of Britain’s image after it voted to leave the European Union.