WASHINGTON - Foreign policy issues rarely decide America’s midterm elections, but every midterm election has implications for U.S. foreign policy.
Tuesday’s midterms were watched closely by observers around the world, because in the age of Trump the global stakes of America’s political choices have never seemed higher. The result — Democrats won a majority in the House while the Republicans held their majority in the Senate — will not fundamentally change how the United States approaches the world under President Donald Trump. But it will empower the Democrats in several areas, and it will reassure — at least temporarily — foreign observers who are desperately trying to divine where U.S. foreign policy is headed.
Let’s start with the things that won’t change. The outlines of Trump’s foreign policy — the erratic behavior, the penchant for confrontation with allies and trading partners, the courting of authoritarian kindred spirits, the apparent mixing of personal and policy interests — will remain. Trump himself will not significantly alter his approach, and Democrats, who will control only one-half of one-third of the U.S. government, lack the power to make him shift course.
House Democrats cannot force the administration to rejoin the Iran deal or the Paris climate change accords. Nor is this election result going to lead to Trump’s impeachment, barring a Mueller report that is far more explosive than the revelations that have become public so far. Finally, the Democratic House leadership will presumably not give the more radical ideas expressed by progressive House candidates — such as sanctioning Israel as an “apartheid state” — much of an airing. Nonetheless, Democrats will be able to exert greater sway in U.S. policy, in three key respects.
First, a Democratic House will be able to use its oversight powers both to make the administration’s life harder and to begin articulating a Democratic foreign policy alternative. Committees controlled by Democrats will use subpoenas and other investigative tools to probe the shady relationships between administration officials and foreign countries such as Saudi Arabia and Russia.
Concerns about corruption and collusion are real enough, and these issues deserve more scrutiny than the GOP-controlled Congress has given them. Yet the trick will be for Democrats to probe these matters without developing a Benghazi-like obsession about kompromat or other issues that matter little to the average voter.
More constructive would be to use hearings to hold the administration’s feet to the fire on major policy issues (how much the president is giving away in his diplomacy with North Korea’s Kim Jong Un, for instance), to highlight critical global challenges that Trump has ignored (especially climate change) and to start developing the intellectual framework for Democratic foreign policy in 2020 and beyond.
Second, the friction in U.S.-Saudi relations will likely increase. Democrats have generally been more skeptical than Republicans about U.S. arms sales to the Saudis and support for Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s war in Yemen, and they will be less susceptible to persuasion or arm-twisting by a White House that wants to move past the killing of dissident journalist Jamal Khashoggi as quickly as possible.
Democrats will probably not be able to force the suspension of arms sales to Saudi Arabia (even if they were united in wanting to do so), because this would require veto-proof supermajorities that are still beyond reach. But the changing balance within Congress will accentuate the pressure to impose targeted sanctions on Saudi officials, wind down U.S. involvement in Yemen, or otherwise put distance between Washington and Riyadh.
Third, the Pentagon is about to get greater scrutiny. A Democratic House may well revive congressional debate about where, how long, and for what purposes American forces should be deployed overseas in the global war on terrorism. If pursued judiciously, this approach may helpfully push the administration to clarify its aims in countries such as Syria and Yemen, where U.S. policy is currently quite muddled.
A more fraught issue will be the Pentagon budget. Democratic leaders have indicated that they see defense dollars as dollars that are not being spent on the working class and middle class at home. A Democratic House may use its influence to push for a budget that increases social spending while decreasing outlays on defense (despite the fact that defense spending has traditionally served to pull more individuals into the middle class). That approach could have some utility in forcing the Pentagon to use its remaining funds more creatively and efficiently. Yet it may also make it harder to recapitalize the nuclear triad, invest in important conventional capabilities, address a lingering readiness crisis, and signal to allies and adversaries that the U.S. is fully committed to defending its interests abroad.
As important as all these issues are, the most significant impact of Tuesday’s midterms may be more symbolic than concrete. Since Trump’s victory in 2016, countries around the world have been trying to discern whether the president and his “America First” program represent a harbinger of the future or a temporary departure from the tradition of American internationalism. Had Republicans held the House in an election that Trump (characteristically) managed to make mostly about himself, the results surely would have been interpreted as affirmation of his agenda and style of politics.
The president’s demagoguery and fear-mongering on issues such as immigration would have provided a further fillip to surging illiberal movements around the globe, particularly in Europe. The subtle realignments that are already occurring in world politics — hedging by worried American allies and partners, efforts to work around or even against the U.S. on issues of trade and global governance — would likely have accelerated.
The fact that Democrats took back a single part of Congress does not constitute a decisive repudiation of Trump by voters. Yet it does lessen the damage that a stronger Republican showing might have done.
Allies that have long depended on U.S. leadership but are profoundly worried by the president will continue keeping their heads down, preserving as much cooperation with Washington as possible, and hoping that U.S. policy returns to normal after 2020. The world will not look at the 2018 midterms as another victory for xenophobic populism. To be sure, the democratic world still faces enormous challenges, and there remain profound questions about the future of U.S. foreign policy. But Tuesday’s election results at least bought a bit more time for the world order America has done so much to shape.
Hal Brands is a Bloomberg columnist.