It’s not unusual for governments around the world to face the awkward situation of how to respond when the leader of a foreign power refuses to acknowledge the results of a democratic election. It is unusual for that foreign power to be the United States.
Most U.S. allies quickly acknowledged Joe Biden as the victor after news outlets called the election Saturday. The president-elect has already fielded phone calls from foreign leaders including Canada’s Justin Trudeau, Britain’s Boris Johnson, France’s Emmanuel Macron, and Germany’s Angela Merkel.* (It should be noted that these calls were not coordinated with the State Department, as they normally would be, because the State Department is not yet cooperating with Biden’s team.)
The bulk of these leaders were no doubt relieved by the results of the election, but some of Trump’s allies on the world stage have come around as well. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have both put out statements congratulating Biden. Analysts noted that Netanyahu’s statement was worded so that it did not call Biden the president-elect or even specify what exactly Biden was being congratulated for, though President Reuven Rivlin put out a less ambiguous statement at the same time.
Both Netanyahu and Erdogan have benefited from Trump’s favor over the past four years, but they also want to start off on the right foot with the Biden administration. It’s not unrealistic to think they might succeed. Netanyahu and Biden have a long personal relationship. While the potential for conflict with Turkey is high on a range of issues, Erdogan had a famously close relationship with Barack Obama and may hope he can rekindle that with Biden.
India’s Narendra Modi, another Trump ally, enthusiastically congratulated Biden on his “spectacular victory” and praised Kamala Harris as a trailblazer for Indian Americans. Not much ambiguity there.
There are some notable holdouts. China’s Xi Jinping has not yet congratulated Biden, with a foreign ministry spokesperson saying, “Our understanding is that the outcome of the election will be determined in accordance with US laws and procedures.” There’s reason to think China’s leaders would prefer to deal with Biden—a more predictable and traditional leader—but they also probably see little reason to antagonize Trump, who will be in office for another two months. It’s also not as if democratic legitimacy is a major concern for the Chinese Communist Party.
Russia’s Vladimir Putin has also held off on acknowledging a winner, with spokesman Dmitry Peskov referring to “ongoing legal processes” that need to be resolved. When it comes to domestic U.S. politics, Russia’s preference is generally for the most chaotic outcome possible, so this comes as little surprise.
Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, a close ideological ally of the U.S. administration whose son and aide wore a “Trump 2020” hat on a visit to Washington last year, has also not commented, though he did seem to be hedging his bets last week by saying that Trump was “not the most important person in the world.”
Kim Jong-un also hasn’t said anything but given that North Korea tends to do these things on its own schedule, we probably shouldn’t read too much into that yet.
The most interesting holdout is probably Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador, a veteran leftist who has surprised many by being arguably even more pliant and deferential to Trump than his conservative predecessor. For López Obrador, this may be personal: In justifying his decision to wait before congratulating Biden, he referred to the 2006 Mexican presidential election, which he lost narrowly but which he and his supporters alleged was fraudulent and still dispute to this day.
But no one, not even the governments that have reached out to Biden, has condemned Trump’s refusal to concede. As the Washington Post’s Adam Taylor notes, the highest-level criticism of Trump from a foreign official so far came in the form of a tweet from Japan’s land minister. It was quickly deleted.
It’s not really clear what such criticism would accomplish right now—it certainly wouldn’t sway many Trump supporters—and foreign governments are likely just hoping this situation resolves itself and that Trump gives up on his legal challenges soon.
Generally speaking, prevailing diplomatic practice is for governments to simply recognize the de facto leader of a foreign power, even if they condemn how that leader came to (or clung) to power. There are some cases, however, where the international community splits over who is actually the legitimate leader of a country. For instance, the U.S. and around 50 other countries have recognized opposition leader Juan Guaidó as the president of Venezuela whereas Venezuela’s allies continue to recognize de facto leader Nicolás Maduro.
Could there ever be such a split when it comes to the U.S. president? Let’s hope we don’t find out.
Correction, Nov. 11, 2020: This post originally misspelled Emmanuel Macron’s first name.