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US Foreign Policy: To What Extent Will the Midterms be a Turning Point?

Interview with Torrey Taussig

INTERVIEW - 6 November 2018

On Tuesday, 6 November 2018, midterm elections will determine whether the Congress majority remains Republican or not, thus influencing President Trump’s political leeway, especially in the field of foreign policy. Torrey Taussig, a specialist of US foreign policy, authoritarian politics, and US-Russia relations answers our questions on the ways in which midterm elections could impact US foreign policy. Torrey Taussig is a nonresident Fellow in the Foreign Policy program’s Center on the United States and Europe at Brookings. She currently works in Berlin as a Robert Bosch Foundation Fellow.

What is the current balance of power between the legislative and the executive branch on foreign policy since Trump’s election? Can we speak of a bipartisan consensus on current foreign policy issues?

Compared to domestic policy, the executive branch has a significant degree of flexibility on foreign policy. With Republicans in control of both houses of the legislature, President Trump has relied on his party’s support to enact tough trade measures on China, pull the United States out of the Paris Climate Accords, and withdraw from the Iran nuclear deal. However, there are two issues related to European security where Congress has acted in a bipartisan manner to constrain President Trump’s agenda.

  • The first issue concerns the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO). During the NATO Summit in July 2018, Trump publically and repeatedly raised doubts about the strategic importance of the alliance. Both Republican and Democrat legislators immediately highlighted Congress’s support for NATO and then pursued legislation that would require Senate approval for the US to withdraw from the alliance. In a sign of support for European security, the House also overwhelmingly voted to increase funding for the European Deterrence Initiative in its annual defense authorization bill.
  • The second area of significant bipartisan pushback has been on Russia. Starting in the 2016 presidential campaign, candidate and now President Trump has expressed a worrying degree of interest in developing friendlier relations with President Putin. This comes at a time when Russia has invaded Ukraine, bolstered the Assad dictatorship in Syria and meddled in the 2016 US presidential election. Through a series of sanctions bills, Congress has maintained bipartisan pressure to hold Putin and other Russian military, intelligence and economic actors accountable.

To what extent would a success from the Democrats constrain the president’s international conduct? What leeway would Trump keep if the Democrats win?

If Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, Congress will have an opportunity influence the foreign policy legislative agenda.

The midterm elections will not have a significant impact on US foreign policy over the next two years. There could, however, be smaller noticeable changes depending on the outcome. If Democrats take control of the House of Representatives, Congress will have an opportunity influence the foreign policy legislative agenda. Democrats in chairmanship positions on foreign affairs-related committees will have the opportunity to shape what hearings come in front of the committees.

It is also likely that a Democrat majority would pursue tougher actions on Trump’s business dealings and delve further into the collusion accusations to determine whether the Trump campaign colluded with Russia to influence the 2016 presidential election. Congressional delegations abroad could also strike a different and more pro-European tone, reassuring allies in Britain, France and Germany of America’s commitment to the transatlantic community. That being said, the broader contours of US foreign policy on issues such as trade, China and Iran are unlikely to shift.

Does Trump’s foreign policy represent a substantial shift or are they elements of continuity with the past Presidents?

There are a few elements of continuity in Trump’s foreign policy. Trump, like presidents before him, has called on America’s allies to bear more of the burden of maintaining global security and stability. For example, President Trump follows a long line of presidents who have called for NATO member states to spend more on defense. Trump has also questioned America’s role as the world’s global policeman, a perspective he shares with President Obama and an ambivalent US public that is tired of waging wars in the Middle East.

However, the Trump administration has broken with decades of US foreign policy in its distrust of free trade, multilateralism and collective security agreements. Since the end of WWII, the United States has viewed the country’s alliances and participation in international institutions as central to advancing US national interests. Trump’s foreign policy vision, on the contrary, regards American foreign policy as a balance sheet, in which gains among America’s allies are losses for the US Trump also sees the European Union as a strategic competitor and appears more at ease next to the world’s leading autocrats than many democratic friends, including Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and German Chancellor Angela Merkel – two leaders Trump has frequently derided.

Trump’s foreign policy vision, on the contrary, regards American foreign policy as a balance sheet, in which gains among America’s allies are losses for the US

As a result, some refer to President Trump as a populist and economic nationalist. American historian Walter Russell Mead places Trump’s foreign policy in the "Jacksonian tradition" – a core set of principles that were espoused by US President Andrew Jackson. This intellectual tradition is rooted in populism and identity-based patriotism, as well as a narrow and unilateral conception of America’s role in the world.


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