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What Do the Midterms Mean for American Foreign Policy?
Ordinarily midterm elections don't matter for foreign policy. These have not been ordinary times.
One of my go-to themes is that Americans rarely cast their votes because of foreign policy. This is frustrating for presidential elections. Presidents control most of the foreign policy agenda — this is where what a candidate says on the campaign trail matters the most!
For midterm elections, however, it makes a ton of sense for voters not to care about foreign policy. After all, Congress plays a lesser role in international relations, and that role has diminished over the past few decades. This raises an interesting question: do the 2022 midterms have any impact on foreign policy? In particular, does the overperformance of the Democrats in both chambers of Congress mean anything?
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Biden has claimed that the results will bolster his position during his current overseas trip, but that kind of statement does not mean much in and of itself. In many ways, the midterm effects on foreign policy are marginal at best. It’s not like the Democrats suddenly have enough votes to ratify treaties or anything. But there are a few ways in which the results matter.
The most obvious implication is that the Biden White House will be able to replenish the ranks of the foreign policy and national security machinery. Senate-confirmable positions can be exhausting jobs. If, say, Janet Yellen wants to step aside as Secretary of the Treasury, Democratic control of the Senate makes it easier for Biden to get a replacement confirmed. There are still lots of outstanding ambassadorial appointments to be made. Republicans can continue to throw sand into the gears of the confirmation process — but not nearly as much as if the GOP was in the majority. That will be particularly true if Democrats win the Georgia senate runoff election next month.
Another clear way the midterms help is that they bolster America’s — and Biden’s — standing in the world. As previously noted, a healthy number of Republicans running for office this year were election deniers. Foreign observers had reason to wonder whether the U.S. commitment to the democratic project would persist if those candidates won key offices in battleground states.
As it turns out, all those election deniers lost in the swing states, despite fundamentals suggesting Republicans would have a good night. Intriguingly, almost all of those 2020 election deniers conceded in 2022. Trump’s efforts to mobilize his base against drawn-out vote-counting also amounted to nothing.
This might finally cause both allies and adversaries to consider whether they have overestimated the power of Trump and other GOP populists. For the past three election cycles I have seen foreign observers assume that the GOP populists would overperform in the polls. Even in 2020, when that did happen, most of them believed that Trump would win. The 2022 result in particular is a powerful data point: despite fundamentals suggesting a red wave, it did not materialize outside of Florida and New York. If international observers believe that Trump is not an unstoppable force transforming the American polity, they might put more stock in U.S. credible commitments.
Biden has made a point of saying that “American is back” on the global stage but also noted that allies and partners respond by asking him how long that will be true. This result should offer some reassurance to the skittish.
As for concrete policy shifts, I don’t see all that much changing to be honest. Matthew Kroenig suggests in Foreign Policy that “a Republican majority in Congress [will be] pursuing pretty standard right-of-center policies that should cause the Biden administration and the United States to intensify its focus on China.” The GOP’s margin of control is going to be so small, however, that it is difficult to envision what foreign policy agenda they can coalesce around.
Weirdly, the potential for chaos in the House might be good for U.S. foreign policy in the short run. If the Republicans had won a solid majority, then Biden might have been willing to play chicken on, say, the debt ceiling or aid to Ukraine. The theory would have been to force the GOP into owning any failure to take action on those issues.
As of this writing, however, it’s pretty clear that Republicans will, at best, have a bare majority. Maybe McCarthy will be speaker, maybe not. This will incentivize Biden and the Democrats to take action in the lame duck session to forestall catastrophic outcomes. This means raising the debt ceiling as well as passing a supplemental aid package for Ukraine that focuses on economic aid (the area where Republicans want to cut). In essence, Biden will try to ensure that Congress doesn’t have to make any big foreign policy decisions for the next year or so — except on China, where there is not much difference between the two parties.
In other words, for those folks who support Biden’s overall foreign policy approach, the midterms will be a balm. For those advocating something else, well, there’s always 2024.