News analysis

America's image tarnished by ugly campaign

Across the globe, the country's political system is being ridiculed; and at home, Americans' trust has been shaken

NEW YORK • Thanks to a presidential campaign marred by scandal, political violence, graft allegations and fears of voter fraud, America's image stands tarnished in the eyes of its own people and the world.

The US 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 lustre the US brand has lost is hard to quantify. Global polls, taken largely before the campaign's worst moments, still find the US 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 used to mediating other countries' disputes are now being called on to defend American democracy in the face of allegations that the election is "rigged".

Mrs Hillary Clinton at a campaign event on Saturday in Pembroke Pines, Florida. US diplomats more used to mediating other countries' disputes are now being called on to defend American democracy in the face of allegations that the election is "rigged
Mrs Hillary Clinton at a campaign event on Saturday in Pembroke Pines, Florida. US diplomats more used to mediating other countries' disputes are now being called on to defend American democracy in the face of allegations that the election is "rigged". PHOTO: WASHINGTON POST

"I think it has affected the way that people see us," said veteran diplomat Nicholas Burns, 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 globe, people are contemplating the possibility that the US might not be so exceptional after all. "Much of the world is no longer in awe of you," said Mr Lyall Mercer, managing director of a public relations company in Australia.

He noted that state lawmakers in Sydney had recently adopted a resolution by unanimous accord that described Republican candidate Donald Trump as a "revolting slug".

"Of course I understand this is about the candidate and not the country," Mr Mercer said. "But the very fact that they were willing to do this... I think speaks to the diminishing awe, or even respect."

Arabs sceptical of US efforts to promote democracy in the region have eaten up allegations of sexual misconduct and embarrassing e-mail leaks in the campaign, according to Mr Hisham Melhem, a correspondent for An-Nahar, Lebanon's leading daily.

"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," he said.

In Russia, which is accused of hacking into the e-mails that have dogged Democrat Hillary Clinton's campaign, newscasters portray the US as under the control of dark, secretive forces. Vesti, a nightly news programme 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, in Europe, 85 per cent of people in a recent Pew Research Centre poll reported having no confidence in Mr Trump to "do the right thing regarding world affairs".

"The overwhelming question that you get about the presidential election is 'What are you people thinking?'" said Mr 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".

Perhaps the most important change in the image of the US, however, is the one taking place within its own borders. Americans' trust in the political system has been shaken. Fifteen per cent of voters have no confidence their ballots will be properly counted, up from 6 per cent in 2004, a New York Times/CBS News poll found.

"I believe, like Trump does, that the system is rigged," said Mr Ted Gregory, 79. To the retired business owner who travels abroad frequently, that loss of faith has gone hand in hand with what he sees as a decline in the US' stature.

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

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

"People don't like countries that withdraw from the international sphere," he said, pointing to the tarnishing of Britain's image after it voted to leave the European Union.

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 07, 2016, with the headline 'America's image tarnished by ugly campaign'. Print Edition | Subscribe