Young Europeans eye U.S. election as crucial test for democracy

A girl goes with her mother to vote for the European Parliament elections in 2014. Most young Europeans we asked said they're watching the U.S. election closely and that it will directly impact their lives. (Photo from Flickr by Enrique Balenzategui Arbizu)
A girl goes with her mother to vote for the European Parliament elections in 2014. Most young Europeans we asked said they’re watching the U.S. election closely and that it will directly impact their lives. (Photo from Flickr by Enrique Balenzategui Arbizu)

The U.S. Presidential election has a way of sucking up all the attention. The candidates seem to endlessly remind us that “the U.S. is the most powerful country in the world” — and it’s true that people all over are closely following our election.

But why do people who don’t live in the U.S.A. even care? Don’t they have their own issues, communities, and countries to think about?

I’ve lived abroad during two American presidential elections now. I have seen the ways non-Americans view the American election — with a mixture of admiration and disgust, hope and fear.

So I asked a whole bunch of my friends and former students a few questions about about our presidential race. The results were pretty surprising.

I received 44 responses, the vast majority of them from people aged 22-36 years old. Respondents came from 18 countries all over Europe (both inside and outside the E.U.) with more representation from Eastern Europe than Western.

In terms of political ideology, five respondents identified as unaffiliated or fluctuating, eight as centrists, four as conservative, and 26 as some degree of left of center or social democrat.

I asked them why it matters who is president of the U.S., how it affects them, and who they’d like to see as president.

Here’s what they had to say:

The second most commonly mentioned issue was Russia or Putin, at 19 times. Most responses were about the need for the U.S. to take a tough(er) stance on Russia, vis a vie its involvement in the wars in Syria and Ukraine and its creeping aggression towards other countries in Eastern Europe. One person, from Estonia, went so far as to say the independence of their country is threatened directly by Russia and only NATO and the U.S. security guarantee keep it free.

However, a few respondents also talked about the need to work with Russia, to avoid escalation at all costs, and to imagine what could be accomplished if the U.S., Europe, and Russia worked together.

Other security related topics came up repeatedly — the U.S. supporting and remaining involved in NATO was mentioned five times. Keeping the Euro-Atlantic orientation of U.S.-European relations and supporting E.U. unity, was mentioned four times.

Regional stability, especially in the Balkans came up repeatedly. The region is fragile and could become more open and European-oriented, or more authoritarian and closed.  The U.S. role in maintaining the geopolitical status quo, preventing the countries from moving towards Russia, and supporting the independence of Kosovo all came up, but so did the anger and memories at being bombed by NATO during the 1990s.

(Map from Wikipedia by San Jose)
(Map from Wikipedia by San Jose)

One respondent didn’t feel it matters at all who is elected, because Hillary supported the Clinton era bombing of Serbia and Trump is so pro-Russia and erratic anything could happen, calling it a lose-lose situation.

Ukraine was mentioned three times. Needing to address the wars in the Middle East was mentioned 13 times. Most were in favor of further engagement, three were for just cutting loose, but all were about trying to resolve Middle East instability somehow.

More broadly, global issues of war and peace were mentioned 11 times. Avoiding use of nuclear weapons was mentioned twice.

The most popular issue might surprise you:

The idea that the U.S. has a role as a model of democracy, multiculturalism and liberal values was mentioned most of all, at 23 times. Radicalism, or the rise of rightist movements in Europe, was mentioned 12 times, with most people fearing that a Trump win would validate and embolden these movements, but some just saying that the U.S. has a leading role in the world as an example and a promoter of tolerance.

For all of our shortcomings as a country, the U.S. is still seen by many as a beacon of liberal values, rule of law, open debate, and minority rights. Europe is seeing a surge in support for nationalist and rightist parties unlike anything in recent years, and the symbol the U.S. shows to the world, not to mention the material support we can provide — of being a part of that tide or fighting against that tide — will be a huge signal to activists on either side of those local struggles. Coupled with the support that Russia is providing to rightist parties throughout Europe and its clear desire to exert its influence into Baltic and Balkan countries, the U.S. support for liberal values and a free Europe matter significantly.

A number of other issues came up too:

  • Thirteen people talked about the importance of the U.S. being a leading country on sustainability and addressing climate change.
  • The U.S. leading solutions to the refugee situation (either in Europe or by addressing what is causing people to flee) by 12 people.
  • The importance of the US in maintaining balance in the economic system and a global trade system was discussed by 11 people, some making the note that the system should be improved to work for people, not corporations, but all comments were basically supportive of the system.
  • Nine people talked about human rights. 4 people mentioned women’s rights.
  • The importance of getting visas to U.S. was discussed by 6 people.
  • A laundry list of other items and character traits related to U.S. domestic policy came up, suggesting that young Europeans are concerned with our well being beyond just how it might impact them: Transparency. Integrity. Restraint. Ending poverty. Gun control. Better or universal healthcare. Better education. Stronger banking regulations. Funding of campaigns. Moral integrity. The NASA mission to Mars. Paid parental leave. Courage to do the right thing. Selflessness. Ending the War on Drugs. Fighting racism. Promoting diversity. Working multilaterally with other countries. Working across the aisle with Congress. Being pro-choice. Equity of opportunity.

This is a small sample size, so it isn’t statistically valid. But it is a snapshot from a select group of people. A whole bunch of people didn’t take the survey, some letting me know they weren’t following the election at all, or didn’t feel it really impacted them one way or another.

But, as you can see, that’s a whole bunch of people do care, and feel our politics do affect them. Probably most significantly, the U.S. is seen as being a central actor on issues of international war and…less war.

Choices we make about how to deal with Russia, Syria, and many other countries — and indeed, the personalities of the decision makers involved — can have great consequences. How hawkish is Hillary, really, and how willing is she really to use the military to influence world events, be it for humanitarian or national security ends? We’ve seen how thin-skinned Trump is, and how quickly will he resort to force when challenged? Despite the huge influence our leaders have in them, these conflict would be far more likely to play out in and around Russia and the Middle East than in North America, giving great urgency to Europeans’ concerns.

When asked directly who they would like to see as President of the U.S., 36 said Clinton, two said Trump, and four simply refused to decide between the two.

As Americans in a well-connected world, our vote matters not just domestically, but well beyond our shores too.

But why again? I’m glad I asked.

Responses came from the following countries: Albania, Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, Finland, Georgia, Germany, Italy, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro, Netherlands, Poland, Romania, Serbia, Slovakia, U.K. and Ukraine.