What the Midterm Elections Mean for U.S. Foreign Policy
The Day After
Election day 2022 is over. There are still lots of races to be called, but here’s what projections are saying as of Wednesday morning.
It appears Republicans will take control of the House, flipping it from a narrow Democratic majority today to what will be their own slim majority when the next Congress convenes in January. Democrats look like they’ll keep their Senate majority.
This means some policy changes—or, to put it more accurately, attempts to change policy—are on the horizon. But foreign policy stands out as one issue area that is unlikely to see many big swings. Despite the reality that Congress is more polarized than it has been in decades, Republicans and Democrats are remarkably in tune with one another on today’s two most pressing international questions.
The Donald Trump administration ushered in an aggressive new era on China policy, focusing first and foremost on the economic side of the ledger. On Capitol Hill, those efforts drew some initial high-profile denunciation but never amounted to much. Normally free-trading Republicans feared angering the president and their base voters—and for typically trade-skeptical Democrats, the tariffs were a natural fit, even if they were spearheaded by Trump. To be clear, lawmakers in both parties had principled, well-founded worries about China, but they were also channeling U.S. public opinion. During the first year of the Trump presidency, 47 percent of Americans held an unfavorable view of China, up from just 29 percent in 2006.
This dynamic—genuinely concerned policymakers with plenty of solid real-world evidence that China needs to be challenged, reinforced by the fact that four out of five Americans now view China unfavorably—has continued since Trump’s departure. President Joe Biden has kept in place most of the measures instigated by Trump, and taken a more across-the-board approach to confronting China. This approach has spanned human rights, industrial policy, casting the Sino-American relationship in democracy-versus-autocracy terms, and surprising declarations regarding Taiwan—none of which have generated significant criticism from members of Congress, and have in most cases garnered widespread bipartisan support.
In the 118th Congress, there could be a small handful of opportunities to take a few steps back from recent years’ increasingly hard line—if the political stars align. For example, Biden has suggested relaxing certain China tariffs, a move he might be able to get away with without taking too much fire from the Hill, given the support of many Republicans for such a move. But broad across-the-aisle backing for endeavors to continue pushing back on China are likely to be the general rule in the coming Congress, with debates confined to lesser tactical matters regarding the precise scale, scope, and methods of particular proposals. This phenomenon will also be infused with a healthy (or unhealthy) dose of one-upsmanship—with few willing to risk taking positions that could open them up to accusations of being “soft” on Beijing. In other words, if you’re a bipartisanship enthusiast, there will be a lot to like. If you’re someone concerned the United States is at risk of oversteering on China, not so much.
Russia and Ukraine
Here, things get more interesting.
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, Congress has passed $66 billion in Ukraine-related supplemental spending bills by wide bipartisan margins. These “aye” votes have included not just the foreign policy leaders in Congress—who have been lockstep in their unflinching support for Ukraine and often cast the conflict in the broader context of defending world order—but also the bulk of the rank-and-file in both parties.
But the full story is more complicated. In what was the clearest recent barometer of support for Ukraine assistance—the $40 billion supplemental appropriation vote taken in May—a quarter of House Republicans and a fifth of Senate Republicans voted “no.” Most cited fiscal concerns, along with worries that high price tag funding for Ukraine was a mistake with the United States facing so many pressing issues at home. Donald Trump weighed in as well, casting the vote as a misprioritization of taxpayer dollars.
These were early signs of what may be a slow burn taking shape among current Republican members and candidates on Ukraine aid. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA)—who, if projections hold, is likely to become speaker in January—said in October that there would be no “blank check” for Ukraine when “people are sitting in a recession.” And the second- and third-ranking members of House leadership have declined to say whether a House GOP majority would continue supporting Ukraine assistance—though both have previously supported aid.
Meanwhile, the Congressional Progressive Caucus issued and then quickly retracted a letter calling for direct diplomacy with Moscow on Ukraine. Observers initially took the move as a sign that cracks in support for Ukraine might also be appearing on the left, but after the letter was withdrawn it appears the Democratic commitment to the issue—and support for the White House—remains solid.
Which brings us back to the House Republicans. If—and it remains a big if—the number of McCarthy’s members opposing assistance grows to the point where it becomes a real problem for the speaker, he will have to make some choices. He does not want an internecine battle to publicly break out between that faction and the sizable contingent of Ukraine-support backers, including a number of powerful committee chairs. The likely outcome would be a compromise—additional strings, such as greater oversight and controls on the funding—but no real diminishment in actual dollars spent. But this scenario could become more difficult depending on how the debate is cast. For example, if it is effectively framed in some kind of “no dollars to secure Ukraine’s borders until the U.S. border is secured” terms, the effort to continue the Ukraine funding stream could get messy.
Obviously, there are dozens of other foreign policy issues out there, and it’s by no means sunshine and rainbows all around. Vexing international challenges abound, many of which could easily touch off open partisan warfare on the Hill. Iran is one that comes to mind, but progress on that front seems further away than it has for quite a long time. It’s also worth keeping in mind that House Republicans already have a full slate of investigations teed up for next year. Some of these—such as probing the administration’s withdrawal from Afghanistan and looking into the contents of Hunter Biden’s laptop—will raise questions related to foreign policy and are sure to generate plenty of partisan rancor.
But on the biggest foreign policy issues, there are far more similarities than differences between congressional decision-makers in the two parties. A lot of people will take this as good news, especially at a moment when so many Americans are grasping for any semblance of unity. But times of concordance can also be times requiring greater caution. Well-balanced policies are more difficult to craft in the absence of significant conflicts between varying perspectives, and leaders should remember this as we move into the new Congress.