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Biden debate performance alarms U.S. allies worried by Trump win

HONG KONG — The first presidential debate between President Joe Biden and former President Donald Trump offered little reassurance for restive allies of the United States.

The two candidates have distinctly different ideas about how to tackle the challenges of a world consumed by multiple wars, rising geopolitical tensions and doubts over America’s commitment to its longtime partners.

That contrast was occasionally on show Thursday night, but it was Biden’s performance that dominated headlines.

The debate was watched around the world — by allies anxious about their future U.S. ties as well as autocratic governments seeking to rival the U.S.-led global order — and neither candidate appeared to impress.

“Personal attacks, hazy memory, mocking each other… this debate was very entertaining for many Chinese people,” Hu Xijin, a nationalist Chinese commentator, said in a post on X.

“Objectively speaking, the low-quality performance of these two old men was a negative advertisement for Western democracy.”

But the focus was mainly on Biden, whose shaky performance has already brought calls from inside his own party for him not to move forward with his campaign.

Biden Presidential Debate
President Biden during the first debate in Atlanta on Thursday night.Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP – Getty Images

The prospect of Trump returning to the White House is alarming for many U.S. allies in Europe, Asia and elsewhere, their ties with Washington having often been strained during his presidency.

A former senior British official, who worked with Biden for many years, said he was struck by the president’s “physical deterioration,” including how thin he was, how weak his voice was, and how “confused and inarticulate the replies were.”

“I was absolutely horrified by how poorly he performed,” the former British official said. “I thought he might have moments when he would get a name or a date wrong or use the wrong word. But that was just catastrophic.”

Biden’s debate performance is prompting British diplomats to prepare more urgently for the prospect of dealing with Trump again in the White House, the former official said.

“Most people think, putting together the apparent likelihood that he will still be the Democrat candidate and the sheer dreadfulness of that performance yesterday, the chances of a Trump 2.0 presidency have risen substantially in the last 24 hours. And that really does frighten people,” the former British official said, describing private conversations today with officials in British government.

The official added: “Taking a cue from Obama saying America could survive one Donald Trump term, people will already be getting very worried here. Because they will kind of assume that if it is Biden, the chances of him winning are becoming really quite small.”

The verdict of liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz was that “meandering Biden, pathological Trump” had offered a “sad night for America.”

And British tabloid The Sun had just one word at the top of its website on Friday: “JOE-MATOSED.”

With his “low voice, rasping and meandering,” Biden “lost the chance to convince not only American voters but also viewers watching in India,” Robinder Sachdev, president of the Delhi-based think tank Imagindia Institute and a founder of the nonprofit U.S.-India Political Action Committee, told NBC News.

“This night will not be forgotten. The Democrats have to rethink their choices now. And Germany must prepare at full speed for an uncertain future. If we don’t take responsibility for European security now, no one will,” Norbert Röttgen, a veteran German lawmaker and ex-chair of the Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee, said in a post on X. 

Kim Darroch, who was the British ambassador to the U.S. during Trump’s presidency, said of Biden that it was “very hard to see him winning now” and that he should stand aside after “a historically bad performance.”

“Every answer from Trump, if you listen to them carefully, is a mixture of wild exaggeration and total fantasy. And it’s a policy-free zone,” Darroch told Sky News. “So his performance is pretty terrible too, but it was fluent and confident nonsense rather than stumbling, losing my train of thought nonsense.”

Policy clashes

Biden has sought to promote U.S. global leadership and strengthen relationships with allies around the world, particularly in response to growing challenges from China and Russia.

Trump, who has expressed admiration for autocratic leaders such as Chinese President Xi Jinping, Russian President Vladimir Putin and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, favors a more withdrawn role while the U.S. focuses on its problems at home.

In the debate Thursday, Biden criticized his rival’s approach to Putin and Trump said the president’s policy on Israel meant he was effectively a “very bad Palestinian” as the foreign policy discussion centered on the wars in Ukraine and the Middle East.

Trump argued that the world has become a more dangerous place since Biden took office.

Putin says he will end his war against Ukraine only if Russia keeps all the Ukrainian territory it has already gained and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stops pushing for Ukraine to join NATO, the U.S.-led military alliance.

Trump said he would not accept those terms, but that “this is a war that never should have started.”

“I will have that war settled between Putin and Zelenskyy as president-elect before I take office on Jan. 20,” Trump said, without explaining how.

He also criticized the $175 billion in military aid the U.S. has provided to Ukraine since the Russian invasion in February 2022, including $60 billion in weapons and other assistance this spring that Zelenskyy says is crucial for victory over Putin.

Trump argued that countries in Europe should provide more since they are physically closer to the conflict.

President Biden with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy in Paris
Biden met with Zelenskyy at D-Day commemorations earlier this month.Evan Vucci / AP
Ukrainian soldiers firing toward a Russian position at the frontline in the Donetsk region on Monday. Evgeniy Maloletka / AP

Biden said that Trump would be foolish to rein in support for Ukraine as it may be only the start of Putin’s territorial ambitions.

“Do you think he’ll stop if he takes Ukraine? What do you think happens to Poland?”

Poland is a member of NATO, whose 32 member states have pledged to defend each other in the event of attack. Trump has threatened to pull out of the 75-year-old alliance unless those nations spend more on defense.

“We’re paying everybody’s bills,” he said.

The Kremlin said Putin did not get up in the middle of the night to watch the debate, adding that it had no comment. “We never interfere with U.S. election campaigns,” said spokesman Dmitry Peskov, an assessment that is not shared by Western intelligence agencies.

Both candidates expressed strong support for Israel. As with Ukraine, Trump said Israel “would have never been invaded” if he were president, a claim that cannot be proved or disproved.

He also said Biden was not supporting Israel enough, saying “he’s become like a Palestinian, but they don’t like him because he’s a very bad Palestinian.”

Biden has lost support on the left over the war’s devastating toll on civilians in the Gaza Strip.

Pushing back against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s claim that the U.S. has been withholding weapons, Biden said the U.S. had provided Israel “with all the weapons they need and when they need them.”

The only exception, he said, is a shipment of 2,000-pound bombs.

He also said he had coordinated the defense of Israel during Iranian missile strikes in April. “We saved Israel,” said Biden.

Rubble on the streets of Rafah, southern Gaza on June 23, 2024.
Israel’s assault on Rafah has fueled global criticism and a clash with the Biden administration.Ashraf Amra / Anadolu via Getty Images

Both candidates said an election victory by the other would lead to World War III.

“His military policies are insane,” Trump said of Biden, adding that the wars “will never end with him.”

World leaders such as Xi, Putin and Kim “don’t respect him, they don’t fear him,” he added.

“You want to have war,” Biden replied, “just let Putin go ahead and take Kyiv.”

Biden also defended America’s global image and said it was not a “failing country,” as Trump contended, but rather “the envy of the world.”

For the rest of the world on Friday, that was very much up for debate.

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