When Donald Trump clinched the presidency early Wednesday morning, the stream of diplomatic niceties from world leaders streamed in.
Chinese President Xi Jinping said he looked forward to “working with [Trump] to uphold the principles of non-conflict, non-confrontation, mutual respect, and win-win cooperation.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu congratulated Trump and called him “a true friend of the State of Israel.”
Vladimir Putin of Russia said his country, which reportedly had contact with Trump’s team during the campaign, is ready to “restore the fully-fledged relations with the U.S.”
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Even world leaders who had criticized Trump’s divisive rhetoric during his bid for the White House issued laudatory statements. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, for instance, gave Trump kudos on his “hard-fought campaign,” and said she looked forward to working with him on “trade, security, and defense.”
A day before the election, May leveled veiled criticism at Trump by saying that she likes campaigns “to be conducted in a calm and measured way with proper consideration of the issues.” As Home Secretary, she was more blunt, saying the Republican was “plain wrong” in suggesting that Britain had “no-go zones” run by radical Islamists. “Politicians should be very careful as we are dealing with the issue of terrorism, as we fight terrorism, we need to be bringing communities together. Bringing greater cohesion in communities, not seeking to divide,” she said at the time.
There was one leader to diverge from the litany of pleasantries. Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf expressed worry that Trump wouldn’t make Africa a priority. “We are concerned as to whether president-elect Trump will have an African agenda, will be able to build bridges with Africa,” she told the BBC. “We can only hope that he will do so in due course.”
Liberia has close ties to the United States since it was settled by African Americans and freed slaves in 1822. Johnson Sirleaf, 78, became the first woman to be elected as head of state in Africa when she took over in a 2005 contest overseen by U.S. peacekeepers. Prior to that, the nation had endured years of civil war overseen by convicted war criminal Charles Taylor. Johnson Sirleaf watched that conflict, mainly from abroad. She had barely escaped a coup in the 1980s, in which she was one of only four cabinet members whose lives were spared in the overthrow of the government. Since taking office 11 years ago, she’s been characterized as a near-miracle worker who’s brought stability to war-ravaged country. She won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011.
According to UN Women, Liberia is one of 17 countries with a woman head of state or head of government. Four women have been added to the list this year—May in the U.K., Marshall Islands President Hilda Heine, Austria Acting Joint Head of State Doris Bures, and Estonia President Kersti Kaljulaid.
By the World Economic Forum’s count, there are 20 female heads of state and/or government; it includes three that the UN does not count: Taiwan’s Tsai Ing-wen, Myanmar’s Aung San Suu Kyi, and Zeljka Cvijanovic of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Women leaders each have their own set of political agendas, of course, but generally, “they bring their own perspective to the debating chambers, and there’s a spin-off effect on policy,” says Julie Ballington, a policy advisor on political participation at UN Women. That often leads to more discussion of gender equality and women’s issues. A woman as the head of a government or state is “hugely symbolic” and “sets a tone for the rest of politics in the country,” Ballington says.
In her statement about the outcome of the U.S. election, Johnson Sirleaf was candid in acknowledging what could have been: “We are extremely saddened by this missed opportunity on the part of the people of the United States to join smaller democracies in ending the marginalization of women.”