Jacob Parakilas
Deputy Head, US and the Americas Programme
The focus is on winning over the American electorate, but how the debates shape the perceptions of the US around the world will frame the winner’s foreign policy opportunities.
Donald Trump delivers a speech during the Republican National Convention. Photo by Getty Images.Audiences outside the US will not simply be paying attention to the foreign policy sections. Photo by Getty Images.

Tonight, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will meet on the debate stage for the first time. With polls showing only a narrow Clinton lead, there is enormous interest in what the three presidential debates represent not just in the US, but around the world.

But what perspectives will viewers outside the US be bringing to the debates? Our research offers a few clues. Since 2013, we have been tracking how elites in various regions view the US, using narrative submissions from those most closely connected to their country’s foreign policy process. The most recent iteration of this report looked at Latin America and the post-Soviet states.

The purpose of this project isn’t to replace more traditional forms of public polling; rather, it is to flesh out the data that those surveys generate and to situate them within narratives of how the US acts in the world. Traditional polling has found a significant reservoir of approval towards the United States: its public favourability in most of the world for the last few years has been generally, if not overwhelmingly, positive. Our research, however, finds that this positivity is more often directed towards the idea of the US and its non-official representatives (businesses, universities, NGOs) than towards the government or its policies.

Top-level focus

A constant refrain in the replies is that the US government acts arrogantly around the world. The essays in our latest report were written largely in the spring and summer of 2015, so there are relatively few mentions by name of either Clinton or Trump in them. But to a greater degree than usual, the major party candidates represent two hugely different paths the US could take.

As a centre-left politician with somewhat hawkish instincts, Clinton exists largely within the modern tradition of US foreign policy, and would likely reinforce existing perceptions of American intent. If there is little in her proposals that suggests a major improvement in global opinion of the US, there is less which runs the risk of suddenly tanking it.

By contrast, Trump’s policies would confound that political tradition. Some of his policies, like military disengagement from eastern Europe, might win support among populations who have traditionally been suspicious of American motives, such as Russian elites. But his disregard for international law and norms will almost certainly make a far greater impact. His support for torture, collective punishment and religious tests for immigration would rapidly expand the already significant gap between US presentation of itself as a moral beacon and the widely-held negative views of its specific policies and actions.

And that perception in particular will make an enormous difference. One thing we’ve found in this research, across all regions, is that there is limited understanding of how the US policy-making process works. There are variations across the board − Latin American and European elites seem slightly more familiar with the complexities of the US political system than their counterparts in Asia and the post-Soviet sphere − but on the whole, this group seems to put an outsized importance on the top layers of political leadership. So the actions and rhetorical approach of the US president and their top appointees (such as the secretaries of state and defense) will have outsized importance on perceptions of the US − which will in turn have secondary and tertiary impacts on bilateral relationships and policy.

Domestic policy, global interest

Finally, it is important to note that audiences outside the US will not simply be paying attention to the foreign policy sections. Our responses suggested that, at least for elite audiences, American domestic policy is a significant factor in their view of the US. Perceptions of institutionalized social discrimination are particularly strong here: the responses we received in 2015 included numerous references to the Ferguson riots, the prevalence of mass shootings in the United States and the country’s level of economic inequality. But this isn’t a simple relationship: foreign audiences have an enormously different viewpoint on many of these issues than do their American counterparts. For example, it is difficult to find significant support outside the US for the view that gun control laws should be loosened, yet adherence to that view has contributed to a long-standing domestic political stalemate over gun violence.

During the debates, the candidates will be focused on winning over an American audience. But the challenge for the winner will be finding ways to talk to the global audience, answering their constituents while husbanding the positive perceptions that give the US the ability to act effectively in the rest of the world.

To comment on this article, please contact Chatham House Feedback