from Greenberg Center for Geoeconomic Studies

Foreign Policy Sidelined in Midterms

Foreign policy is taking a backseat to the economy in the midterm elections, says CFR’s James Lindsay, with issues like START, immigration, and trade on hold.

September 13, 2010 2:56 pm (EST)

To help readers better understand the nuances of foreign policy, CFR staff writers and Consulting Editor Bernard Gwertzman conduct in-depth interviews with a wide range of international experts, as well as newsmakers.

Though Congress returns from summer recess, and the midterm elections are moving into their final phase, foreign policy is largely absent from the congressional agenda, says James Lindsay, a CFR expert on politics and foreign policy. Lindsay argues that the election’s focus is the economy, "because that’s what’s animating voters." As a result, says Lindsay, many foreign policy issues are on hold, including pending ratification of the new START arms control accord with Russia, as well as immigration reform, climate policy, and foreign trade. Lindsay notes that if the Republicans win big in Congress in this election—as they did in 1994, during the first midterm of Clinton’s presidency—they may become more assertive, pushing the White House on issues such as "the environment, arms control, China, [and] immigration."

There’s considerable talk about economic plans the White House wants approved before the November elections, but I haven’t heard anyone talk about foreign policy in weeks. Is there no foreign policy agenda for either party?

More From Our Experts

Foreign policy is going to take the back seat in these elections. The focus is on the economy because that’s what is animating voters. Voters are concerned about high employment rates—right now about 9.6 percent—but when you factor in people who’ve stopped looking, the rate is probably five or six points higher than that.

More on:

United States

Congresses and Parliaments

Politics and Government

So foreign policy matters—like seeking ratification of the new START treaty, signed by President Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev in April—are dead right now?

I would say the new START treaty is in limbo. We’re not likely to get Senate action—if at all—until a lame duck session after the midterm elections. If we don’t have a lame duck session, and it gets held over to the new session of Congress that opens up in January 2011, it may be the case that the new START treaty just goes on hiatus for a very long time, because you’re going to have, in all likelihood, more Republican votes than now.

On the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the ranking Republican, Senator Richard Lugar, is favor of ratification of START. But is the Republican Party as a whole generally opposed to ratification?

The Republican Party is split on new START treaty as well as a lot of other foreign policy issues. A number of Republican foreign policy luminaries have come out in support of new START; former Secretaries of the State Henry A. Kissinger and George P. Shultz have endorsed it. However, it is being questioned, if not necessarily opposed, by a small but very vocal group of Republicans in the Senate led by Jon Kyl of Arizona, who is the Senate Minority Whip. Kyl has raised a number of objections (WSJ) about the treaty, seeking more information about the negotiating record.

More From Our Experts

If you look from now through the end of this year, we’re unlikely to see major movement on any of the big issues.

A question lurking in the background is how much Senator Kyl’s opposition is rooted in particular dislike for this treaty, which doesn’t move the disarmament ball forward that far. The treaty actually has several things in it advantageous to the United States. Senator Kyl, it’s been rumored, wants to deny Obama victory before the midterm elections or send clear signals to the Obama White House that he is going to seek deeper cuts in dealing with the Russians, or use new START as a bargaining lever to get the administration to commit to greater levels of spending on nuclear force modernization.

More on:

United States

Congresses and Parliaments

Politics and Government

In general, looking at the Republican Party, particularly the Tea Party influence on the Republican Party, there is no unity on foreign policy. That’s one of the really interesting things about this campaign. A few weeks ago, for instance, Rand Paul, the Senate candidate from Kentucky who is the son of Congressman Ron Paul of Texas, was giving a speech in front of Tea Party activists and he started invoking his and his father’s view of a more limited role abroad. He was actually booed by some of the people ( in the audience, because some Tea Party supporters really adhere to what we might call the "Dick Cheney/Muscular Foreign Policy" school of thought, while others like Ron Paul hearken back almost two centuries to the foreign policy of John Quincy Adams and some of the early American presidents, in which we don’t go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.

Let’s talk about other foreign policy issues, such as immigration.

If you look from now through the end of this year, we’re unlikely to see major movement on any of the big issues. Climate change [policy], cap and trade, is dead. Immigration is too divisive among the two parties, and it’s going to get pushed over to the next year. We’re going to have maybe some talk about trade policy, but Democrats don’t want to vote on free trade agreements, and it’s not clear that a lot of Republicans want to vote on free trade agreements either because it divides their constituents as well. Then we have a whole host of domestic issues—largely surrounding tax policy—that are going to sort of suck the life out of Congress. So I would expect over the next two months there’s going to be a lot of name calling; there’s not going to be a lot of progress. The real question will be: Will we have a lame duck session after the elections, and what will that lame duck session attempt to do?

That would last presumably from mid-November until Christmas?

Assuming that the Republicans gain seats in the midterm elections, they’re going to argue for a lame duck session that does very little. They will argue that the people have spoken and that a newly-elected Congress should decide these issues. [But] the administration and the current Democratic majority are likely to push for aggressive action on the argument that members are entitled to exercise their legitimate rights to vote as long as they’re still members.

Why don’t we hear much from Congress about the conflicts in Iraq, where we’ve pulled out the combat brigades but still have forces, and Afghanistan, where the war is escalating?

It’s clear to Republicans that the public is not worried about foreign policy right now. The public is worried about jobs, and it is worried about the deficit.

We’re not seeing a lot of fighting over Iraq and Afghanistan for two reasons. One is that Iraq has sort of drifted out of the public consciousness, and Afghanistan, which is seeing public support slip, hasn’t moved into the phase of intense public opposition. The other issue is that, on Afghanistan and Iraq, there aren’t big differences between where the Republicans are as the party of opposition and the Obama White House. Indeed, if, as we all anticipate, Republicans have big gains after the midterm elections, Obama’s probably going to find less pressure on his Afghanistan policy than he would if the Democrats retained the majority, because most Republicans are on record favoring Afghanistan if anything, going with a bigger surge and giving General Petraeus anything he asks for. It is the Democrats who have been more uneasy. I would look not to Afghanistan or Iraq as flashpoints for a Republican conflict with the White House in the New Year, but on other issues—like the environment, arms control, China, [and] immigration.

On China, what would be the issue there—trade?

Trade and currency issues are likely to flare up. To step back a second, there are two questions that we don’t know the answer to. What will the Republican strategy be, post-November, in dealing with the Obama White House, and what will Obama’s strategy be? In 1994, when the Republicans last had a big victory at the polls, they were very confident about their legislative mandate. There was a lot of talk about Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker in the House, almost as a co-president with Bill Clinton, but within the span of two years the Republicans learned what other parties had learned previously—that the presidency is a very powerful institution in this country. It can dominate the playing field, and the Republicans lost much of their initiative.

Even with the best reading of history it is going to get very difficult for Republican leaders to resist the pressures they’re going to feel from their rank and file if they have a big victory in November. It’s one thing to know the lessons of history, it’s another to be able to marshal the political support to avoid them, because you’re likely to usher in a fair number of die-hard conservatives who are going to argue that their moment has come and it’s not time to pull back but it’s time to push forward. And the question will be how will the White House respond to that?

This is mostly on domestic issues?

It will be largely on domestic issues. It is not likely to animate issues of foreign policy. Again, it’s not clear if Republicans themselves are united on what foreign policy is and should be. It’s clear to Republicans that the public is not worried about foreign policy right now. The public is worried about jobs, and it is worried about the deficit.

I suppose there will be new debates on health care if the Republicans get control of one of the Houses?

We should sit down the day after the election and talk about it, but what you’re likely to see after November—again presuming there’s no wildcard that comes up that really scrambles the political landscape—we’re going to have Republicans feeling like the momentum is behind them, the public’s behind them, they’re going to become much more critical of the White House. You’re likely to see greater use of the investigations power by the Republicans if they gain majority of one or both of the houses. They’re going to use that to try to put the White House on the defensive, and we’re likely to have a replay of what we had in the 1995-96 period with the Democratic president and the showdown with Republicans on the Hill, each trying to maneuver the other into a position that makes them seen unpalatable to the broader American public.

One last thing on this, and I think it’s really the lesson of the 1994 elections. The outcome of midterm elections is a poor way of predicting what’s going to happen in the next presidential election. In some ways, a big Republican victory in November could be the best thing for Barack Obama’s 2012 electoral chances.

Why is that?

Because he’ll have the opportunity to define his policies against what the Republicans do. President Barack Obama will be likely to do a number of the things that Clinton did in 1995 and 1996 to paint his opposition as overreaching and obstructionist and unrealistic.


Top Stories on CFR


The conflict in the Tigray region of Ethiopia, far from over following the federal government's declaration of a ceasefire and Tigrayan fighters' capture of Mekelle, is entering an anxious new phase.

Climate Change

When it comes to climate change diplomacy, the European Union is the world’s heavy hitter. But the ultimate fate of their new Fit for 55 plan will depend on three factors. 


The Delta variant is driving new COVID-19 surges, even as countries around the world make gradual progress in vaccinating their populations. Five graphics show how the strain is taking over and who’s at risk.