By Luke Baker and Andreas Rinke
LONDON/BERLIN (Reuters) - As Americans head to the polls, prime ministers and presidents around the world face a delicate question - when to congratulate the eventual winner, especially given the risk the election result will be contested.
On the one hand, there's a chance the popular vote will go one way and the Electoral College - which actually determines the winner - the other. Also, President Donald Trump has repeatedly alleged mail-in ballots are subject to fraud, suggested he may not accept the result and said the Supreme Court may have to decide the winner.
"You want to be prompt and clear in sending congratulations, particularly to such an important ally," said a foreign policy adviser to a northern European leader.
"But it's risky this time. You don't want to get it wrong, or move too soon. We may be sitting on our hands for a while after election day."
Foreign policy advisers recall the U.S. election in 2000, when a host of leaders - including the presidents of Germany and France, the prime minister of New Zealand and ruling parties in South Africa, South Korea and Japan - sent congratulations to George W. Bush after U.S. TV networks had declared him winner.
It would be another five weeks before the Supreme Court ruled in his favour, finally handing him victory over Al Gore. In the meantime, some leaders withdrew their congratulations. Others just kept quiet.
The 2016 contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton produced a similarly tight finish, with Clinton winning the popular vote but Trump securing the backing of the Electoral College.
This year, Jean-Claude Juncker, former president of the European Commission, said it was critical not to send congratulations too soon.
"Caution is the mother of the transatlantic porcelain box," he said in an interview with Germany's ARD-TV, using a German figure of speech to convey how carefully the European Union's relationship with the United States needs handling.
The chief adviser to another European leader described the situation as "complicated and delicate," saying it depended on how clear the result was, and whether both candidates accepted it. Both could claim victory, he suggested.
He also raised another diplomatic conundrum. If Biden wins, might it not be smart to call Trump to commiserate, too?
Trump remains president until Jan. 20; it would be wise to show respect.
In Canada, which has a wealth of border and trade links with the United States, there is a plan to dispatch congratulatory statements only once there's a clear winner - but that may not be obvious.
"We don't have a definition of what that would be, but in my mind it would mean a concession from one of the two major candidates," said a source in Ottawa.
"If there is no concession, we will have a lot of thinking to do. We're going to be watching closely and assessing day by day, if indeed it's an unclear or contested result."
Britain's former ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch, who quit after disparaging diplomatic cables he wrote about Trump were revealed by a newspaper, has said he hopes his former boss, Prime Minister Boris Johnson, won't make a mistake.
"I can't believe they would get dragged into commenting on a disputed election outcome," he told the World Review podcast. "I hope they would just shut up and wait for events to take their turn."
(Additional reporting by David Ljunggren in Ottawa; Edited by Sara Ledwith)