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Midterm US elections - what impact on US foreign policy?

Midterm US elections - what impact on US foreign policy?
 Michel Duclos
Special Advisor and Resident Senior Fellow - Geopolitics and Diplomacy

A general impression emerges from these midterm elections: it is a short victory for the Democrats; the "blue wave" did not occur; compared to similar episodes in the first Bush II and Obama terms, Donald Trump was able to limit the damage. The Republicans lose the House of Representatives and consolidate their majority in the Senate as planned.
What accentuates this feeling is that the Democrats did not win any of the three most symbolic battles. In Texas, Ted Cruz won against the rising star of the Democrats, Beto O'Rourke; in Florida and Georgia, emblematic (African-American) candidates are defeated by Trumpian Republicans. Perhaps, once they have had time to analyze the details of the results, the experts will arrive at a more nuanced judgment or at least discern underlying trends that will have a longer-term impact. In the first analysis, it was mainly pro-Trump candidates who won in the Republican camp, and it was rather moderate candidates who scored points on the Democrats' side. In sociological terms, the Democrats do not recover the workers' and rural strongholds that historically belonged to them and that the Republican Party took from them in previous elections; conversely, in the suburbs of major cities – Houston, Washington, Dallas, Chicago, Denver etc. – they do not recover the bastions that they historically owned. Republicans are losing the educated middle and upper class voters who were once one of the pillars of the party.

It is a short victory for the Democrats; the "blue wave" did not occur

How will this new political configuration affect US foreign policy? The key lesson of these elections is that Mr. Trump should be strengthened in his personal choices in this area

Technically, the Chamber has very little power over the major issues that hold Mr. Trump's attention. It has constitutional prerogatives in the field of trade regulation, but this competence has also been transferred in recent years to the executive branch. In any case, the Democrats are probably divided on the subject, if only because of the weight of some unions, and it is unlikely that they will form a free trade party. A Democratic House can be expected to lead the offensive against the Trump administration on two types of issues: symbolic issues, such as human rights or the reconstitution of committees dealing with climate change. Nothing there to keep the President awake at night. Secondly: the use of the Chamber's powers of control and investigation to put Mr. Trump in difficulty about Russian interference or the opacity of his income. This is a potentially more serious embarrassment for the White House man, but on the one hand his Russian policy was already under severe pressure and, on the other hand, the Kavanaugh affair once again demonstrated Mr. Trump's – a great populist leader – ability to return to his favor in this type of situation.
Another factor is that from January onwards (until then, the current Congress remains in office), the President will have a majority in the Senate that will be strengthened both numerically and in terms of allegiance: Senator McCain is no longer, Senator Corker has not presented himself for re-election, Lindsay Graham has adopted a Trumpian line. While appointments to the main committees will have to be closely monitored, it is very likely that the next Senate will constitute, as they say in Washington, a true "Trumpland".

This is one of the elements that suggests to many observers that the President – who will undoubtedly start the campaign for his re-election in 2020 – should now follow his separation with his former Attorney General (Mr. Sessions) by cutting his Secretary of Defense, General Mattis. The latter alone represented some parts of the administration's policy – for example, in the case of Syria, or the transatlantic security relationship – that could be swept away by his departure.

Trump's foreign policy will be largely dependent on the domestic policy battle

What can we expect from a president Trump who is strengthened in his personal choices in foreign policy? On three subjects, we can think that the President will raise the stakes.

  • First, on China: as Vice President Pence's recent speech showed, there is currently an alignment in the United States between the traditional Republican Party line (China is a "strategic competitor"), Mr. Trump's personal tropisms (the "zero-sum game" in trade) and the hardening/disenchantment of big business vis-à-vis China. However, this pattern could be qualified if Mr. Trump again felt he needed Beijing on the North Korean issue or even if at some point president Trump asked for the help of the Chinese to counter a possible downturn of the economy.
  • Secondly: Europe. Europeans must expect the President to put considerable pressure on European car sales in the United States and on trade in agricultural products once again.
  • Thirdly: Iran. The exemptions granted to certain countries (China, India, Turkey, Iraq and Italy in particular) with regard to the implementation of oil sanctions should not be an illusion. The administration will continue its strategy of "maximum pressure", all the more determined because this is in fact a subject on which there is bipartisan agreement in Congress, including in the House of Representatives.

Does this mean that we have entered a phase where the presidency has completely overtaken Congress in the development of foreign policy? A phase where the personal summits – Trump-Wi, Trump-Kim, Trump-Putin, or Macron etc. – are at their highest and definitively replace the slow emergence of consensual attitudes within the specialized committees of the Senate and the Chamber? You don't have to go that far. Experts from the Washingtonian world have shown that despite the extreme polarization of American politics, areas of consensus still exist in foreign policy. For example, we have seen a Republican-dominated Congress vote to protect foreign affairs and foreign aid budgets from cuts proposed by the Executive, impose new sanctions on the President against Russia, or adopt "red line" resolutions on the transatlantic relationship or the non-removal of US troops from North Korea. A good specialist on this topic, Jordan Tarma, went so far as to refer to an "anti-presidential bipartisanism" (as opposed to the classic bipartisanism of support to the Administration).
In this respect, the policy towards Saudi Arabia will probably very quickly become a case study: it would be logical for the House of Representatives, under Democratic leadership, to push for tough measures such as ending support for the Saudi campaign in Yemen, or requirements concerning the Khashoggi case. It is likely that the Republicans share the same approach and therefore that bipartisan pressure is exerted on the Administration.
In other words, for the United States' partners, it remains important to cultivate the Capitol Hill assiduously. In the coming months, in the run-up to the presidential elections, we can expect an escalation of tension within an American political system that is more divided than ever. Trump's foreign policy will be largely dependent on the domestic policy battle. Depending on unforeseeable circumstances, Congress may have to play a more important strategic role than a media dramaturgy organized around President Trump alone would suggest.

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