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How U.S. allies and partners see the November election

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Polls and NPR's own reporting tell a story of many Americans fatigued by our upcoming presidential election, not satisfied with the choice between two men who have both already held the office of president. But American allies and partners are watching the race intently. Take South Korea, Japan, Ukraine, Israel - the fates of those countries are closely tied to whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden ends up sitting in the White House next year. So we have gathered the NPR correspondents who cover those countries to walk us through how they view the stakes of the U.S. election - Joanna Kakissis in Ukraine, Daniel Estrin in Israel and Anthony Kuhn, who covers both South Korea and Japan from his base in Seoul. Welcome to all three of you.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Thank you, Mary Louise.

JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: Thank you.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: All right. I'm going to start in Asia, since you're well ahead of us on the - in the time zone clock, Anthony. I want to talk through with all of you how a lot of anxiety centers on U.S. financial support and how that may come into play, depending on who wins this next presidential election. How does it look from where you sit?

KUHN: Well, Donald Trump has described the U.S.'s top allies in Asia, Japan and South Korea, basically as wealthy freeloaders. And he said that if they don't pay more for the U.S. to defend them, the U.S. could bring home some of the roughly 78,000 troops based in those two countries. Now, critics point out that U.S. troops are not there just to defend allies. They're also there to defend U.S. interests and maintain U.S. primacy in Asia. But critics say that Trump is more interested in the balance of payments than the balance of power in Asia. For example, in 2019, Trump demanded a 500% increase in South Korea's contribution.

KELLY: Five hundred percent?

KUHN: Yes.

KELLY: OK.

KUHN: And that made some South Koreans feel like he was shaking them down for protection money.

KELLY: Joanna, hop in here. When you hear Anthony talking about Trump throwing around the term wealthy freeloaders, how does that resonate for you sitting in Kyiv, which, of course, is very dependent on the U.S. and its NATO allies for support right now, both military and financial, and where Trump has also threatened NATO allies saying, you need to pay more; you need to up your contributions?

KAKISSIS: Yeah, that's right. I mean, for Ukraine, this election is actually existential. Everyone asks us what's going to happen, and this sort of lack of clarity on Trump's position to some extent and, like, the future is making everybody really nervous. At least with Biden's team, they say, well, this is an administration that's been with us through the worst of it. And Donald Trump has made some pretty strong statements. He has threatened to cut off future support for Ukraine. And he called President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Ukraine's president, the greatest salesman, and he didn't mean...

KELLY: The greatest salesman.

KAKISSIS: He did not mean it as a compliment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

DONALD TRUMP: Zelenskyy is maybe the greatest salesman of any politician that's ever lived. Every time he comes to our country, he walks away with $60 billion.

KELLY: I think President Zelenskyy would love if that were true - if every time he visited the U.S., he walked away with $60 billion. Daniel Estrin, jump in here from Israel, also, of course, grappling with its own war and trying to figure out what a Trump or a second Biden presidency would look like.

ESTRIN: That's right. And Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is also grappling with the very question of U.S. defense support, just like we heard in Asia and in Ukraine. I mean, just this week, Netanyahu infuriated the White House. He put out this video accusing the U.S. of holding up weapons and ammunition to Israel, just really making it clear that Netanyahu is publicly standing up to Biden.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: I said it's inconceivable that in the past few months, the administration has been withholding weapons and ammunitions, too, as well.

ESTRIN: I think it is clear in the background, Mary Louise, that Netanyahu and his circle of advisers much prefer Trump in the White House to Biden. Netanyahu's advisers will walk in the hallways and say things to each other like, well, it's just half a year to go, and then the Biden administration's pressure on Israel will go away. And that pressure is very much on Israel's conduct in the Gaza war. So analysts see here that Netanyahu is perhaps trying to buy time with the war, hoping that Trump wins the election and hoping that eventually that means that Israel will get this pressure from the Biden administration off its back.

KELLY: Anthony Kuhn, what about in South Korea? What about in Japan? Do you hear political leaders there either publicly or kind of under their breath expressing support for one candidate or the other in the American elections?

KUHN: They put a very diplomatic public face on it, saying that no matter who's in the White House, alliances with Washington will remain ironclad. But if you talk to people here, you know that they have serious concerns about abandonment. And this goes not just for South Korea and Japan, but also allies such as the Philippines and partners such as Taiwan. And they fear they could be abandoned for several reasons.

KELLY: Joanna, speak to speak to that in Ukraine. What kind of comments are you hearing from Zelenskyy, from his team in terms of either saying out loud or saying under their breaths the - what they may be doing to prepare for a possible change of administration?

KAKISSIS: He's - Zelenskyy is very much a person who says, come, see what we're experiencing here, and I believe that you will change your mind if you have any reservations. And there are teams. President Zelenskyy's government is reaching out privately to Trump's team. So these efforts at diplomacy are being sped up as the election gets closer and closer.

KELLY: And then - this is a jump-ball question for any of the three of you. We've obviously been focusing these last several minutes on how elected leaders in your patch of the world view the American elections. What about just ordinary people? How closely are they tracking this given everything else going on actually in their daily lives and plenty of politics at home to watch?

ESTRIN: It's not on the front pages of the newspaper here. That's for sure. I mean, the Israelis are preoccupied with so much right now, the Gaza war, a potential Lebanon war. Polls do show that more Israelis would want to see Trump in the White House than Biden. I think there is one thing though that Israelis fear, and it's that the U.S. won't give its full backing at this very precarious time for Israel's security. And really whoever is in the White House, there's a hope that they can help Israel reach a resolution to this mess.

KUHN: Yeah, I was just going to add that a lot of people here in South Korea, I think, think back to the Trump administration as a time of very high tension. People called it the days of fire and fury when there was a sort of nuclear brinksmanship between then-President Trump and Kim Jong Un, and people really felt insecure. And I think in people's memories, that was a very tense time.

KELLY: And Joanna, last word.

KAKISSIS: Well, Mary Louise, it's really amazing how closely people are following this. People all know who Mike Johnson is. They all know who the key players in Congress are. We were just in Western Ukraine on the border with Romania, you know, very - kind of an impoverished part of the country, and everyone there was asking me about it as well. Well, who do you think Trump would select as a Secretary of State? And I was like, wow. You all are really interested in this. So - but it's understandable considering how much of a role the U.S. plays in Ukraine's fate.

KELLY: That is NPR's Joanna Kakissis in Kyiv, Daniel Estrin in Tel Aviv and Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Thanks to all three of you.

KUHN: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KAKISSIS: You're welcome.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

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Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.
Joanna Kakissis is a foreign correspondent based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where she reports poignant stories of a conflict that has upended millions of lives, affected global energy and food supplies and pitted NATO against Russia.
Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.