Foreign diplomats react with horror to Biden’s dismal debate performance

President Joe Biden’s dismal showing at the CNN presidential debate against former President Donald Trump resonated around the world, with foreign diplomats expressing shock and concern while raising questions about the implications for a consequential US election that could upend the foreign policy status-quo should Trump be elected again.

“Hard to watch” is how multiple foreign diplomats described Thursday night’s debate between Biden and Trump to CNN.

The overwhelming sentiment among more than half a dozen diplomats from Europe, the Middle East and Asia whom CNN spoke to was that it was “a bad night for Biden,” as one European diplomat put it.

“It is a sad reality that Biden is old, and he is getting older. We saw it. I had difficulties understanding what he was saying, and I understand English pretty well,” said a second European diplomat.

“Trump ate him alive,” said an Arab diplomat.

“I was shell-shocked. I could not believe my eyes,” an Asian diplomat said of Biden’s performance.

Biden’s debate flop was front-page news across Europe, with left- and right-leaning newspapers excoriating the president — even in France, where the country has its own elections coming up this weekend.

The president’s debate performance also compounded already pronounced concerns about the policies Trump would likely enact if he wins in November. Trump on Thursday once again displayed his isolationist tendencies and his NATO-skeptic worldview that often alarmed US allies during his first presidential term. At the debate, Trump questioned continuing to fund Ukraine’s war against Russia and falsely claimed that the US had given more in aid to Ukraine than all other European countries put together.

Trump even suggested that he had spoken to Russian President Vladimir Putin about his “dream” of invading Ukraine. He also attacked Biden over the Afghanistan withdrawal and argued it was the reason Putin invaded Ukraine in 2022.

“When Putin saw that, he said, you know what, I think we’re going to go in and maybe take my — this was his dream. I talked to him about it, his dream. The difference is he never would have invaded Ukraine. Never,” Trump said.

A Ukrainian politician told CNN he found Trump’s statements on the war in Ukraine “worrying.”

“We’re very concerned because we, more or less, understand what it means for Ukraine, (a) Biden presidency, and we really don’t know what it means for Ukraine, a Trump presidency,” Oleksiy Goncharenko told CNN. “It can be very good, it can be very bad. We just don’t know. And that’s definitely concerning.”

‘If they can change the horse’

Biden’s showing Thursday did not make the diplomats CNN spoke to question his ability to serve as commander in chief at this moment, with many noting that he has a good team working with him.

But some diplomats raised questions about how the Democratic Party will handle the issue.

Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski wrote on social media that Biden should now responsibly manage a succession plan.

“Marcus Aurelius was a great emperor but he screwed up his succession by passing the baton to his feckless son Commudos (He, from the Gladiator). Whose disastrous role started Rome’s decline. It’s important to manage one’s ride into the sunset,” he wrote.

Another Polish diplomat didn’t mince their words, calling Biden’s performance “a horror, what a car crash.”

Post-debate, it wasn’t just Democrats raising the prospect of replacing Biden on the ticket for November — foreign diplomats were also wondering whether Democrats could turn to a plan B.

“If they can change the horse, they should,” said the second European diplomat. “If it was possible to call the governor of California and have Biden say, ‘You go and I’ll step out,’ that would be the right thing to do.”

But like many Americans, the diplomats woke up Friday unsure of what could be done.

“There are many options that are discussed, but we don’t see, any that are self-evident,” the first European diplomat said.

Some of them are reaching out to US contacts to get a sense of the likelihood of Democrats moving on from Biden.

“Some US contacts say there was always simmering debate about replacing Biden, but they say that now the doubts are in the open. There is fire on the roof,” said a third European diplomat. “I am told that if the Democrats do this, they have to go with Kamala (Harris), because they cannot skip over a Black woman vice president, but they wonder what that will do to their base. They think they could still lose.”

‘The problem is there is no strategy’

The diplomats were not surprised by Trump’s comments on foreign policy during the debate — with one calling it the “same recipe as usual” — but they added that they felt even more concerned about his lack of commitment to Ukraine and what that might mean for European security.

“Trump certainly won this. His worldview is problematic. So for those who believe in a rules-based order, Trump isn’t good,” said a NATO official. “Rules mean predictability, so Trump means unpredictability. He could go soft on Russia - he has a penchant for getting on with strongmen. He could also double down in supporting (Ukrainian President Volodymyr) Zelensky. The problem is there is no strategy, it all feels like it’s done on impulse.”

Other diplomats also observed that Trump’s comments on the ongoing Israel-Hamas war would likely hurt him among Arab American voters.

“When he called Biden a Palestinian, that was bad. It was an insult to the Palestinians – he lost Arab voters,” the Arab diplomat said. “He could have said that he is the bigger Israel supporter in multiple other ways.”

Still, despite Trump’s reinforcing of longstanding issues, there was a real sense of shock and concern about Biden’s performance and what it might mean for his chances in November.

Biden pilloried in European media

The diplomatic reaction was echoed by the British media. In unusual unanimity, the usually staid Financial Times declared, “Democrats panic,” with the irrepressible tabloids, famous for their stinging critiques, joining the chorus — “Joe’Matosed” declared The Sun, Britain’s most popular tabloid. Another outlet, the left-wing Guardian, piled on, stating, “Biden Bombed.”

Biden’s stumbles on the Atlanta debate stage touched a nerve across the continent. Europe woke up to radio stations playing his at times halting, seemingly confused, comments.

No nation was immune to concerns about Biden’s performance. Even in France, which is facing its own surprise elections this weekend where President Emmanuel Macron’s alliance confronts a far-right challenge, newspapers took time out to lament the frailties of the man who visited the country only a few weeks ago.

The ubiquitous left-leaning Le Monde declared: “An old, worn-out, absent Biden: How the debate against Trump turned in to a disaster.”

Indeed, waves of worry seemed to ripple around the Mediterranean. Questions were raised about Biden stepping aside, from Greece’s To Vima headline, “Biden’s time to exit the race,” to Italy’s Ansa and La Repubblica suggesting that Democrats are “looking for an alternative.”

But where much of Europe’s media seemed shocked, Russia’s was positively gleeful. Moscow’s state TV station, Russia 1, lampooned Biden’s debate performance.

Show host Olga Skabeeva laughingly congratulated him for not falling over, then criticized him for what she called a 20-second freeze, saying he had trouble remembering who and where he was.

Putin’s spokesman said the Russian leader didn’t stay up late to watch the debate and it “is not on the list of the main issues on the agenda (of Putin).”

However, it seems reasonable to surmise he will be up to speed with it now, if only through the unfriendly filter of his own media.

That Russian TV parodied Biden so soon after the debate likely reflects the Russian president’s mood, probably buoyed that Trump, who criticized NATO, hinted at cutting funding for Ukraine and said there would be peace in Ukraine before the end of the year.

Behind closed doors, no doubt, Europe’s leaders will be reflecting less on the froth and flailing of Biden’s performance and more on the substance of what they heard. After all, many of them met Biden at the G7 summit in Italy a fortnight ago, so his frailty was likely not a surprise.

Both days at the luxurious resort hotel in southern Italy’s spectacular Puglia region, Biden kept them waiting for half an hour, showing up late for no apparent reason, and even then, at times seemed slightly out of sorts.

“It was obvious that he was old,” one diplomat told CNN. “At one point he wanted to sit and there was no chair… he was moving slowly. Stupid things, but they showed that he’s an old person who needs assistance. We all noticed it,” the diplomat said.

Asked if their observations gave them concerns about Biden’s decision- and policy-making, the diplomat said no. “We aren’t worried about his policies,” they said. “If you have a president who works three hours a day, with a good team, and makes good decisions, that’s OK.”

And a Trump redux is the last thing most European leaders want, with the world far more dangerous now than when he left office.

This story has been updated with additional reporting.

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