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Customers dine while watching a live telecast of the U.S. election at a pub in Beijing Wednesday.Andy Wong/The Associated Press

America’s allies reacted with alarm, and its rivals with muted glee, to a muddy U.S. election result that looked likely to plunge the country into prolonged wrangling over who won the White House.

Shortly after incumbent Donald Trump made a premature claim of victory – and made unfounded statements about electoral fraud – German Defense Minister Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer said her country was watching with “grave concern” as the Republican Mr. Trump and his Democrat rival Joe Biden battled over the legitimacy of the result.

“This is a very explosive situation. This is a situation that can lead to a constitutional crisis in the U.S.,” Ms. Kramp-Karrenbauer told Germany’s ZDF television network.

Ian Bremmer, head of the Eurasia Group, a New York-based think tank, said an extended crisis in the U.S. could create a moment that rivals might seek to take advantage of. He pointed to Turkey, which is in conflict with several neighbours, and North Korea, which may seek to test another long-range missile, as potential flashpoints.

Live U.S. election results map: Donald Trump and Joe Biden’s presidential battle, state by state

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Western leaders were quick on Wednesday to pour cold water on Mr. Trump’s victory claim. Spain, which only emerged from dictatorship until 1977, set the tone.

Seven minutes after Mr. Trump declared “frankly, we did win” – while millions of ballots remained uncounted in key states – Spanish Foreign Minister Arancha Gonzalez Laya told Madrid’s most popular radio station that it was too early to make such a statement. Ms. Gonzalez Laya said the U.S. needed to “count votes one by one, as it’s done in democracies.”

British Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab sounded a similar note in a television interview about 10 minutes later. “Let’s wait and see what the outcome is. There’s obviously a significant amount of uncertainty. It’s much closer than I think many had expected. But this is for the American people to decide, and we’re confident in the American institutions that will produce a result,” he told Sky News.

Across Europe – which has been rattled by four years of Mr. Trump’s affection for authoritarian leaders including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and his disdain for international institutions such as the NATO military alliance – there was open anxiety about the prospect of the former reality TV star spending another term in the White House.

“The world sort of survived four years with a somewhat restrained Trump. But all the ‘adults’ are gone. A world with a triumphant Trump could well be a different thing,” former Swedish prime minister Carl Bildt wrote on Twitter. “The adults” was an apparent reference to members of the Republican Party establishment who worked for Mr. Trump at the start of his first administration before many of them quit in frustration with his unwillingness to heed their advice.

  • Beaver County Sheriff's deputy Clint Berchtold watches election workers prepare ballots for counting in the basement of the Beaver County Courthouse in Beaver, Pa.Andrew Rush/The Associated Press

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Even if Mr. Biden prevails – which looked to be increasingly likely as the counting of mailed-in ballots continued on Wednesday – analysts say the chaotic election would damage the international image of the United States, and weaken the arguments of those pushing for democracy in other countries.

“When the president casts doubt on the legitimacy of American democracy, he undermines the cause of democracy everywhere,” said Michael Fullilove, executive director of the Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank focused on international affairs.

“President Trump’s statement tonight will be welcomed in Zhongnanhai and the Kremlin,” Mr. Fullilove said. Zhongnanhai is the seat of Communist Party power in Beijing.

The Kremlin, which was accused of intervening in the 2016 election won by Mr. Trump, made no official comment Wednesday. Vyacheslav Nikonov, a pro-Putin parliamentarian, said Russians should sit back and enjoy watching America – a country that has hit the Russian economy with sanctions over the 2014 annexation of Crimea – descend into chaos.

“The result of the elections is the worst outcome for America,” Mr. Nikonov wrote on his Facebook page. “Whoever wins the legal battles half of Americans will not consider them the lawful president. Let’s stock up on large quantities of popcorn.”

For China, which has sought to emerge stronger from its bruising fights with Mr. Trump over the past four years, the prospect of a messy fight for the presidency in the U.S. also comes with advantages.

“No matter which side wins the game, the U.S. has entered an age of serious involution. It will make the U.S. more introspective and continue to weaken the U.S. position as a world leader and its global influence,” said Su Hao, a scholar in the School of Diplomacy at China Foreign Affairs University.

That’s not entirely good news for China, though, where the prospect of a narrow victory – no matter the victor – is seen with worry.

If Mr. Trump wins, “the U.S. will continue to hate the world and prioritize its own interests. China will definitely suffer more,” said Shi Yinhong, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, who is also an adviser to the State Council of China, the country’s cabinet.

A slim win for Mr. Biden, however, stands to create a White House vulnerable to attacks by Republicans looking to keep the pressure on Beijing. “There will be no decrease in the hardship for China,” Prof. Shi said.

In Africa, many leaders see the possibility of a Biden victory as an opportunity to improve the region’s relations with the United States, which have stagnated for the past four years under the Trump presidency.

Bob Wekesa, a scholar at the African Centre for the Study of the United States, a think-tank at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, predicts that Mr. Biden, if victorious, would bring the United States back into the World Health Organization and the Paris climate agreement – both of which the U.S. withdrew from under Mr. Trump.

Both issues are of great importance to Africa. The continent has been badly hit by climate change, and it sees the WHO as a crucial source of assistance during pandemics such as Ebola and COVID-19.

Many Africans have been dismayed by the Trump presidency. He has never visited Africa as president, drastically reduced immigration to the United States from Africa, opposed an African candidate for the leadership of the World Trade Organization and referred to African countries as “shitholes.”

But even if Mr. Trump eventually loses, Richard Heydarian, a political scientist in the Philippines, said the world’s serving strongmen would likely take encouragement from his showing.

Had it been a landslide win for Mr. Biden, it would have “put people like Duterte, Modi and Bolsonaro on notice,” he said, referring to Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Narendra Modi in India and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil.

“Now, that’s not going to happen. Even if Biden wins, it’s going to be a diminished president in a deeply divided country,” Mr. Heydarian said. Whatever the outcome, he said, the U.S. election had demonstrated “that right-wing populism and strongman rule is a best-seller.”

With reporting by Alexandra Li

After a close evening of election results, Joe Biden told supporters that the final outcome may take time but he is optimistic about the outcome for Democrats. Hours later, Donald Trump claimed victory while key states still had votes to count and threatened to involve the courts.

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