Most of the world sees the U.S. midterm elections as a referendum on Trump’s America First policies.
By: Michael Hirsh, U.S. magazine of Foreign Policy
Like no other U.S. midterm in memory, Tuesday’s congressional elections will be the vote heard round the world.
A Democratic victory in the House of Representatives (the most widely expected result) would send a message abroad, however tentative, that the United States hasn’t fled from the world for good and that Capitol Hill hasn’t become just another Trump property. It would signal to many America-watchers overseas that there may be a future for the U.S.-sponsored global system that survives President Donald Trump and his apparent effort to turn the United States into a political island.
Above all, a Democratic win would convey the message, particularly to U.S. allies chafing under Trump’s policies, that relief may be at hand in two short years—that Trump is vulnerable in the next presidential election in 2020. (Although this may be a mistaken conclusion: Two of the last three U.S. presidents, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, won re-election despite big midterm losses after their first two years.)
To much of the world, which is still in a state of shock over Trump’s abrupt repudiation of major treaties and his threats of tariffs on allies, a Democratic victory might at least “prevent things from totally spiraling out of control,” one European diplomat said.
If, however, the Democrats fail to win the House—defying past trends in which unpopular first-term presidents lose control of at least one chamber—such an outcome would likely be seen by many abroad as conclusive evidence that benign U.S. stewardship of global stability, already so much in doubt since the Iraq War, is truly a lost dream. And that it’s every country for itself now.
“If the Democrats lose, they’ll see this as a reaffirmation of Trump, in which case they’ll think this wasn’t just a short-term flash in the pan and that most Americans aren’t very interested in anything other than America First,” said James Steinberg, who served as deputy secretary of state in the Obama administration.
Coming especially after Trump’s cynical closing campaign in which (rather than choosing to focus on the booming U.S. economy) he sought to rally nationalist and anti-immigrant fervor, a Democratic Party setback would signal to the world that Trump is only a symptom and that the world’s sole superpower has reverted to its isolationist past.
It would also ensure fierce Democratic infighting and chaos over the party’s messaging, thus dramatically spiking the odds of a two-term Trump presidency. “It’s just the question of what this indicates for 2020,” Steinberg said.
Beyond that, a Democratic loss would likely mean a world of renewed trade wars, dangerous nuclear arms races with Russia and China, and an escalating confrontation with Iran—but also the probability of a booming stock market, since traders seem to like the rightward political lurch happening in much of the world.
Some U.S. adversaries, such as Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese leader Xi Jinping, might be heartened by such an outcome that further turns America against its erstwhile allies. Others, such as Iran, would no doubt be disappointed—even if they don’t say so aloud.
North Koreans are watching the U.S. midterm elections closely, wondering how the results might affect negotiations with Trump.
“We’re not pinning any hopes on [the midterm elections] or 2020,” Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif recently told USA Today. After all, Zarif said, all U.S. administrations, whether Democratic or Republican, have been “hostile” to Iran to varying degrees.
There’s little question that most friendly foreign governments are hoping for a Democratic victory for the same short-term reason that, according to the polls, some disaffected American voters are: They’d like to see some restraint on a president whose rhetoric is frequently offensive and who is increasingly unilateral in his dealings both with the world and with Congress. Despite unemployment rates that are near midcentury lows and rising wages, Trump’s approval ratings among Americans have hovered mostly below 40 percent.
Most of all, many foreign governments would see a Democratic victory as some kind of brake on Trump’s headlong rush to shatter the rules of the global system and decades of painstaking alliance building.
In less than two years, Trump has pulled out of several multilateral pacts (the nuclear deal with Iran, the Paris climate agreement); announced his withdrawal from the most significant nuclear arms control accord in four decades, the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty; and declared his hostility to NATO, the G-7, the European community, and the World Trade Organization.
“A new Congress led by the opposition party would, for the first time, subject him to a healthy dose of American checks and balances,” said Nate Jones, the former National Security Council counterterrorism director under Obama. “Second, it would send a clear and unequivocal message that there are political consequences for his policies and his rhetoric.”
Fawaz Gerges, a scholar at the London School of Economics, said, “America’s allies and foes hope that the Democrats might be able to apply the brakes” to Trump’s impetuousness. “This would be welcome news in most European capitals, China, and Japan—though not in Russia, Israel, Arab Gulf countries, and Egypt.”
Yet a Democratic victory in the House would not dramatically change Trump’s policies. Many leading Democrats in Rust Belt states that brought Trump to victory in 2016, for example, have voiced restrained approval of the president’s trade tariffs, suggesting he co-opted a major plank in the progressive agenda. “I want to give him a big pat on the back,” Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer said. “I have called for such action for years and been disappointed by the inactions of both President [George W.] Bush and Obama.”
Nor is there anything a Democratic-controlled House could do about tariffs. In reality, the House of Representatives has much less power over foreign policy than the Senate, which can approve treaties and confirm high officials (but where Republicans are expected to retain narrow control).
“Short term, I’m pessimistic either way this goes,” another European diplomat said. “I fear triumphalism or denial doubling down either way.”
Still, the House does have control over the budget and investigatory and subpoena powers. And in that respect, a Democratic takeover would mean many more investigations of Trump’s policies and the president himself—meaning a lot more negative headlines, undercutting his popular appeal going into 2020. It would also mean repeated efforts to block spending bills on excessive military spending and other issues, such as Trump’s proposed wall at the southern border with Mexico.
Several leading Democratic members of Congress would take over powerful oversight committees in the House, among them Rep. Adam Smith, the ranking member of the Armed Services Committee; Rep. Eliot Engel, the ranking member of the Foreign Affairs Committee; and Rep. Adam Schiff, who would assume control of the intelligence committee and is expected to aggressively supplement efforts by special counsel Robert Mueller and the Southern District of New York to probe Trump’s Russia ties. Rep. Jerrold Nadler, who would take over the Judiciary Committee, has promised to begin an investigation into whether Trump has violated anti-corruption provisions of the Constitution with his family businesses and obstruct the FBI and Justice Department. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who is set to take over the oversight committee, will send out a slew of subpoenas on potential fraud and abuse and alleged voter suppression schemes.
In late October, Smith and Engel sent Trump a letter warning against an exit from both the INF Treaty and the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, saying that “[i]t would divide our allies and play directly into President Putin’s hands.” As committee chairmen, they would have the power to hold repeated hearings and force the Trump administration to explain its plans in ways the Republican-led House has not done.
Some of those hearings—which Democratic members have been shouting for since early 2017—could be acutely embarrassing for the Trump administration. “We will see a lot of demand for information,” said Alexandra Bell, a former senior arms control official.
“There’s no sort of indication from the U.S. military that we need INF missiles. And here we’ve spent a long time telling countries like Pakistan that they shouldn’t invest in more tactical nuclear weapons, that this was the way to an arms race.”
Like Iran, most overseas governments have been affecting disinterest in the outcome—not wishing to become part of the post-2016 narrative of foreign election interference. But Zarif, who spent years negotiating the 2015 nuclear deal from which Trump withdrew this year and is still hoping to salvage it, will be watching the results closely. If there is a prospect that Trump will be gone by January 2021, Zarif will hedge his bets on departing the multilateral pact—even in the face of renewed U.S. sanctions.
Conversely, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un may well be somewhat panicked by auguries of a Democratic victory in 2020. He could push harder for a deal with Trump but hold something in his back pocket just in case (a strategy that may become clearer when U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with his North Korean counterpart next week).
Kim, who is believed to study U.S. elections closely, must know that the Democrats, while in favor of diplomacy, will insist on more hearings on details of the negotiation.