It feels like ancient history, but only a week ago two U.S. candidates engaged in a public spectacle that was officially billed as a “presidential debate,” yet more closely resembled a pre-adolescent tantrum. That sickening display was another blow to the image of the United States, a battering that is doing great damage to U.S. standing in the world. For many, this slide began four years ago with the election of Donald Trump and they believe that a Biden victory in next month’s ballot will stop the deterioration and allow Washington to re-establish its global leadership. Fat chance: It will take more than a ‘mere’ change of administration to prompt an enduring and meaningful shift in perceptions of the United States.

Last week’s U.S. presidential debate was engrossing — as is a car crash or a tawdry reality TV show. The rudeness, name-calling, and incoherence left most viewers either ashamed or aghast. The Yomiuri Shimbun opined that “the low-level debate speaks volumes about the deterioration of American politics.” The Guardian newspaper called it “a national humiliation,” a prominent German commentator said it was “a joke, a low point, a shame for the country,” and former Singaporean diplomat Bilahari Kausikan noted that it “encapsulates all that has gone wrong with American politics.” Many observers, both American and foreign, used obscenities to describe the exchange. It is hard to disagree with those unprintable characterizations: Pithy and crude, they well captured the evening.

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