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“I feel sorry for Americans”: a baffled world watches the United States



BANGKOK – Myanmar is a poor country grappling with open ethnic wars and a coronavirus outbreak that could overwhelm its broken hospitals. That hasn’t stopped its politicians from feeling sorry for a country they believe is lost.

“I feel sorry for the Americans,” said U Myint Oo, an MP in Myanmar. “But we cannot help the US because we are a very small country.”

The same feeling is in Canada, one of the most developed countries. Two in three Canadians live about 60 miles from the American border.

“Personally, it’s like watching the decline of the Roman Empire,” said Mike Bradley, the mayor of Sarnia, an industrial town on the Michigan border where locals ventured out for lunch.

In the midst of the pandemic and ahead of the presidential election, much of the world is watching the United States with a mixture of shock, anger, and most importantly, confusion.

How did a superpower get infected by a virus? And after nearly four years of praising authoritarian leaders and obscenely dismissing some other countries as petty and criminal, is the United States at risk of displaying some of the same traits that he belittled?

“The US is a first world country, but it behaves like a third world country,” said U Aung Thu Nyein, a political analyst in Myanmar.

In addition to feeling confused, Mr Trump has refused to embrace an indispensable principle of democracy and eluded the question of whether he will commit to a peaceful transfer of power after the November elections if he loses.

His demurral, combined with his frequent attacks on the voting process, has been reprimanded by Republicans including Senator Mitt Romney of Utah. “A peaceful change of power is fundamental to democracy,” wrote Romney on Twitter. “Without that there is Belarus.”

In Belarus, where tens of thousands of people took action against the police following the controversial re-election of President Aleksandr G. Lukashenko last month, Mr Trump’s statements sounded familiar.

“It reminds me of Belarus when someone cannot admit defeat and is looking for means to prove they cannot lose,” said Kiryl Kalbasnikau, a 29-year-old opposition activist and actress. “This would be a warning sign for any democracy.”

Some others in Europe are confident that American institutions are strong enough to withstand attack.

“I have no doubt about the functioning of the constitutional structures of the United States with its control system,” said Johann Wadephul from Germany, a senior lawmaker of the Conservatives of Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The fact that the President of the United States, the very country that led the birth of its own peaceful democracy in Germany after the defeat of the Third Reich, wavered over the sanctity of the electoral process, met with disbelief and dismay.

The degradation of the United States’ global image began before the pandemic when Trump administration officials opposed international agreements and advocated America First policy. Now, however, his reputation seems to be in free fall.

A poll by the Pew Research Center of 13 countries found that last year, nations like Canada, Japan, Australia, and Germany saw the United States in its most negative light in years. In every country surveyed, the vast majority of respondents believed the U.S. is doing a poor job on the pandemic.

This global disapproval has historically affected countries with less open political systems and strong leaders. But developing country people, whom Mr. Trump poked fun at, say the signs from the United States are threatening: an uncontrolled disease, mass protests against racial and social inequality, and a president who appears to be unwilling to endorse the principles Electoral democracy.

Mexico, perhaps more than any other country, has been the target of Mr. Trump’s anger. The president used it as a punching bag for the campaign and promised to make the Mexicans pay for a border wall. Now they are feeling a new emotion that has overcome their anger and confusion over Trump’s insults: sympathy.

“We used to look for inspiration for democratic governance in the US,” said Eduardo Bohórquez, director of Transparency International Mexico. “Unfortunately that is no longer the case.”

“‘Being great’ just isn’t enough,” he added.

In Indonesia, the most populous Muslim-majority democracy, there is a feeling that the United States has left the world even if its application of democratic ideals overseas has been imperfect. Washington supported some of Asia’s most ruthless dictators for decades because they were seen as critical to curbing communism in the region.

“The world is seeing the degradation of social cohesion in American society and the chaos in the administration of Covid,” said Yenny Wahid, an Indonesian politician and activist. “There is a vacuum of leadership that needs to be filled, but America is not fulfilling that leadership role.”

Ms. Wahid, whose father was President of Indonesia after the country emerged from decades of strong rule, said she feared Mr Trump’s disapproval of democratic principles could legitimize authoritarianists.

“Trump has inspired many dictators, many leaders interested in dictatorship, to copy his style, and he has encouraged them,” she said.

In countries like the Philippines, Mexico and other countries, elected leaders have been compared to Mr Trump for turning to divisive rhetoric, disregard for institutions, intolerance of dissent and antipathy towards the media.

But there is also a feeling that Americans are now getting some insight into the problems people face in fragile democracies.

“You now know what it’s like in other countries: violations of norms, international trade and your own institutions,” said Eunice Rendon, expert on migration and security and director of Migrant Agenda, a non-profit organization in Mexico. “The most powerful country in the world suddenly looks vulnerable.”

Even now, an American passport that once provided easy access to almost every country in the world is no longer a valuable passport. Due to the coronavirus, American tourists are banned from most parts of Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceania, and Latin America.

Albania, Brazil, and Belarus are among a small group of countries that welcome Americans without restrictions.

The State Department has tried to play its role in fighting the coronavirus overseas, despite the fact that at the beginning of the pandemic the United States struggled to provide its own doctors and nurses with adequate equipment. In March, the US provided Thailand with 10,000 gloves and 5,000 surgical masks, including fewer than 3,520 coronavirus cases and 59 deaths. Despite the small number of cases, most Thai people continue to wear face masks in public and the country has never had a mask shortage.

“Through the generosity of the American people and the actions of the US government, the United States continues to demonstrate global leadership in the face of the Covid-19 pandemic,” said a statement from the US State Department.

In Cambodia, which has been reported to have been largely spared the virus so far, there is a measure of malicious glee towards the United States. Prime Minister Hun Sen has survived as Asia’s longest-serving leader by countering dissent and getting used to China. He has turned his back on American aid because it has often been linked to conditions aimed at improving human rights. Now he and his administration are mocking the United States and its handling of the pandemic.

“He has a lot of nuclear weapons,” Sok Eysan, a spokesman for Mr. Hun Sen’s Cambodian People’s Party, said of Mr. Trump. “But he’s negligent with a disease that can’t be seen.”

The coverage was provided by Azam Ahmed from Mexico City. Melissa Eddy from Berlin; Saw Nang from Yangon, Myanmar; Ivan Nechepurenko from Moscow; Catherine Porter from Toronto; Muktita Suhartono from Bangkok; and Sun Narin from Phnom Penh, Cambodia.


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