In the coming week, Washington takes stock of the midterm election results. The G20 summit is held in Bali. And debates grow on possible diplomacy between Russia and Ukraine. It's November 10th, 2022 in time for the World Next Week. I'm Bob McMahon.
And I'm Jim Lindsay.
Well, Jim, as we prepare to tape this podcast, control of the next US Congress was still a bit unclear. Vote tabulating continues from the midterms. If trend lines hold the House of Representatives looks like it will flip to a Republican majority, but the Senate remains too close to even project at this point. So how is all this registering in Washington?
Well, Bob, the much predicted red tsunami has turned out to be the red ripple. As you point out, we're still counting votes. It's highly likely that the Republicans, as you mentioned, are going to take back control of the House of Representatives. We may not know until the December runoff for the Senate seat in Georgia which party is going to control the United States Senate. I think one thing to note reflecting in the 48 hours after the midterm is that we had a lot of close races, as is the case in every midterm election. But so far no one of any significance is refusing to concede defeat or insisting that their election had been stolen from them. That was one standard operating procedure. I only make note of it here because back in 2020 we had the argument being made by Donald Trump and his supporters that elections were rigged against him.
Now with the results coming out, Democrats are celebrating, they succeeded in avoiding their worst outcome, which would've been this red tsunami. But that doesn't mean that Democrats got a good outcome. If I were using a metaphor, it would likely be something akin to surviving a car crash but breaking some bones. Now the change of the House is significant for two reasons. First, the majority of Republicans oppose most of what Joe Biden wants to do on domestic policy in some of what he wants to do on foreign policy, I think especially climate change. Republicans have also made it clear that they will use their control of congressional committees to investigate what they contend is the administration's incompetence in corruption. So expect to hear highly politicized hearings on things like how the administration is handling security at the U.S. southern border, the administration's Afghanistan withdrawal, Hunter Biden's business dealings. And again, these will not be dispassionate, impartial hearings, but highly politicized, I think more of Benghazi hearings and the current January 6th hearings.
The second thing is that the Republican lead house could be a very difficult and inconsistent governing partner for the White House. Republicans are divided on many issues. Indeed, there was no consensus Republican program or agenda for the 2022 midterm. As you point out, any majority they have is going to be quite narrow, which is going to greatly complicate the ability of the likely new Speaker of the House Kevin McCarthy to actually lead.
Again, we saw after the 2020 election that the Democratic Senate could only go as far and as fast as Senator Joe Manchin and Senator Kyrsten Sinema wanted them to go. House Republicans and the House Republican leadership is going to face the same problem. But the dissenting voices that Kevin McCarthy and his allies are likely to face aren't going to come from the political center. They're going to come from the extremes. And this could prove to be very problematic on issues like raising the debt ceiling, passing budget bills, and even on the issue of continuing support for Ukraine, not because the majority of Republicans in the House would be opposed to doing so, but a small number will be and their votes could be pivotal for getting legislation passed.
Yeah. Jim, I would just say as you well know, because you've just had a trip abroad, it is unusual to see a U.S. midterm so closely watched outside of the U.S. I mean, you have other countries with people with more innate knowledge of the U.S. system than many Americans, which is not necessarily unusual, but this time it was particularly intense. Do you see a sense though on the very big pictures like you mentioned Ukraine or let's say U.S. relationship with China, the so-called democracy on the ballot question. Is the U.S. seen as a country that was weakened by this election or potentially strengthened or is that too early to say that because we're still counting?
Well, I think what people overseas, see in the elections is going depend upon what they're looking for. And I think the read is going to vary as you go from country to country. And again, President Biden is now about to embark on some diplomacy. We can talk about that momentarily. My guess is that he is going to continue the theme that he has struck since the vote were cast in the midterm that American democracy is resilient. This was a good election outcome for Democrats that he intends to continue with the vision he laid out when he first became president of working with America's friends and allies on common issues and common challenges and that he's rolling up his sleeves and is ready to work.
I think also for many foreign capitals, they're going to be looking at the results of the midterms, not so much for what's going to happen over the next 12 to 24 months, but what does it mean for the 2024 presidential election? We all know the way American politics works that the midterm election essentially kicks off the start of the next presidential run. I think the early reads are that these election results have hurt Donald Trump, that he's been badly damaged because many of the candidates that he endorsed have done so poorly.
Indeed, this gets us back to a point that Senator Mitch McConnell made during the summer that it would be hard to take back the Senate because of what was called euphemistically, "candidate quality problems." Not having candidates who are likely to be able to appeal to voters near the center of the political spectrum. Big question, of course, is going to be whether Donald Trump remains badly damaged. It's clear from again, some of the early punditry that there are a lot of people who are hoping this closes the door on Trump and Trumpism, but people have been predicting the demise of Donald Trump ever since he came down that escalator in the Trump Tower back in 2015 and everyone who has said that Trump is now done, now finished, has been proven wrong. So I'm not so sure that the end of Trump or Trumpism is signaled by these elections.
I do think that for the Biden administration, they're going to find their work much harder to do in the next two years than in the previous two years. It's hard to see any real success on the domestic agenda. Again, it looks like Republicans are spoiling for a fight. They want to make big cuts to the budget.
We've seen this movie before, go back to 2011 with Barack Obama. Once again, we're facing a debt ceiling vote sometime in the spring assuming it's not taken care of in the lame-duck session. So we're going to see Republicans in essence trying to extract big concessions from the White House on that. It's going to be difficult. Meanwhile, the president will still have, as presidents always do, some considerable latitude in foreign affairs. Obviously the one big issue for Joe Biden, which is countering China in that case, having a Republican House may actually help him since they share the attitude that China is a threat that the United States needs to respond to.
Clearly, as you indicated also, it's a country very much divided no matter how things shake out in the next few weeks. On the counting side of things, also another opportunity for what we've heard before, which is learning some civics right down to interparty or intraparty maneuverings. I mean Kevin McCarthy's going to have to get a vote of 218 Republicans I believe if they do in fact get the majority in the House, that will then endorse his speakership and then he's got to navigate that. Republicans have to deal with their own divisions, Democrats as well. And then we have at the state houses a new understanding of their role in counting and in districting and everything else that goes on in the U.S. body politic.
Well certainly Bob, and I think that you're right to point out that Democrats had a good day on the state and local level reversing a trend in recent years. And there's going to be I think a lot of discussion among Democrats about why was it that they did so much better than anticipated? And again, historically speaking, the Democrats should have lost more seats than they have just the general rule of politics, midterms being referenda on an incumbent president. This is the president who's polling in the low forties. So the expectation was the Democrats would lose 20 to 30, maybe 40 seats and that didn't happen. And I think the question is going to be why? Is it simply because people were repelled by or didn't like the Republican message or there things that Democrats did right, did well? So I think it was going to be a big postmortem, a lot of op-eds, a lot of journal articles written trying to make sense of this.
I think on the Republican side you'll be having the same examination. And in sense all of those examinations and postmortems are really contests about who gets to control the direction of the party and what the party's going to focus on. So progressive democratic side can offer one set of analyses, more moderate Democrats, probably something different likewise on the Republican side. Let's say traditional conservatives and Trump conservatives, they're going to be contesting why it was that they didn't get the tsunami that so many of them expected based on the polls. And again, here's an interesting thing, the polls look to be wrong. I haven't done a deep dive in all of them, but they're wrong in a way that's different than they've been in the past. That is, they exaggerated or over predicted how well Republicans would do. Whereas, in the past the criticism has been that polls tended to under predict how well Republicans will do. So pollsters will have their own protracted postmortem trying to figure out why it was that at the end of the day, the red wave that they predicted and certainly drummed on in the last two weeks didn't materialize.
But Bob, let's pivot and go to Southeast Asia. Next week in Indonesia will host the 17th G20 Heads of State and Government summit. The meeting is going to be held in beautiful Bali. While these summits generally focus on global economic growth and development, many expect Russia's war in Ukraine to dominate the conversation. So what are your expectations for the summit, Bob?
Well, we've just heard ripped from the headlines as we went into this podcast, Jim, that there is in fact going to be a meeting between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping on the sidelines ahead of the summit. So that is going to be a very important mood setting exercise among other things where you have the world's two great economic powers and geopolitical powers sitting down at a time of high tension and we'll have to see whether that creates a sense of opportunity or a funk or maybe just a little bit more status quo. We'll have to see Jim.
But the G20 does serve as an opportunity for such encounters. We also know that President Vladimir Putin will not be attending. He's sending Sergei Lavrov, his foreign minister, instead to represent Russia. And you're right, Ukraine is going to permeate, I think a lot of the discussions. There's a lot of concern among G20 countries already emanating from capitals that geopolitical tensions are going to cloud over everything.
So perhaps at the very least a Biden, Xi summit where there's an iconic handshake that takes place maybe dispels some of the gloom and they can start talking about some nuts and bolts issues, which will include everything from a health architecture or a new health architecture after widely acknowledged failures on coordinating a response to COVID. And also looking towards a response to the next pandemic as well as playing off of the COP27 meetings that are going on as we speak, Jim, in Egypt. And I think there's a great deal of hope that, that set of talks will lead to a broader and reinforced global understanding of what's needed to take place, both involuntary and perhaps a committed way to reduce carbon emissions.
There's something called the Bali Compact about achieving a more diverse and sustainable energy access worldwide. So I think we're going to see whatever results from COP, and again COP will be going on simultaneously with the G20 summit, but it will happen after some of the major leaders have already left Egypt and we'll get a sense of whether there is going to be momentum there. Among other things they're trying to talk about the way poorer countries can get help in mitigating or adapting to what is happening now, let alone what will happen in the future to them because they have been hammered by extreme climate instances.
Bob, it's summits like these, you have the formal events leaders getting together in a setting discussing issues, but as you noted with the meeting between President Biden and President Xi, there's a lot of work that happens on the margins and meetings and so-called bilaterals in other smaller group meetings. Play out for me what you think Joe Biden's message is going to be to the other G20 leaders at this meeting. What do you think Biden is trying to accomplish? What's his headline for fellow leaders?
It's a great question, Jim. I mean we should note that one other meeting that's likely not to take place after the infamous summer fist bump is Joe Biden in the Saudi de facto leader MBS or Mohammed bin Salman. But I think based on some of the things that we've been talking about already, which is the president getting a bit of a lift from the lack of a red tsunami in the U.S. midterms gives him I think maybe a bigger sense of agency. He would've gone to this summit anyway and talked up U.S. leadership and U.S. being a stakeholder in the world's approach to so many challenges.
And Biden we should also note, for decades he has been a fixture at global meetings and global summits like this. He knows the individuals in the room very well, he knows the issues at hand, he knows the challenges states have. So I think you're going to have a chance for Biden to do what he does best in some ways, which is work the room, work the individual, maybe not the shoulder rub of Angela Merkel that we have seen in the past. But certainly we are not likely to see a photo like we did emerge from, let's say when Donald Trump came to this meeting and reveled in the fact that he was staking out the U.S. sovereignty and there's the famous photo from I think the meeting in Canada where it's Trump against the other major powers and it a confrontational photo. It's a very compelling photo, but we're not going to see that.
We're going to see a president who can try to work his personal charms and his ability to engage on the issues and he'll be able to talk up any issue you think about. He can talk about debt relief or financing as it relates to helping countries out in dealing with climate catastrophes and talking about global health architecture and enhancing the way vaccines are distributed. It should be noted at a previous COVID summit there was a pledge to vaccinate 70 percent of the world. I think that vaccine trackers have noted that indeed 70 percent of the world has gotten at least one vaccine. But then if you look at the figures as a track from there, it's pretty appalling set of divisions. And some of the most populous countries, especially in Africa, have shown very low level of booster or any follow up vaccine access, certainly a level that pales in comparison to the U.S.
To answer your question, Jim, you're going to see Biden using this opportunity amidst a whole host of summitry going on in Asia to really show a U.S. presence and a U.S. president who is present and who is going to be there in a way for these countries that maybe they felt was absent recent years.
Well, I was just in Jakarta, Indonesia and I would summarize my conversations with people there that they're very excited that Indonesia is hosting the G20. They're concerned about the summit being disrupted by disagreements by the great powers. And their hope is that the summit can at least provide a form to have some frank and open exchange of views and that it might cool down some of the tension between Washington and Beijing. I think that's something people hope for.
One of the things I think many people who follow the Ukraine issue will be listening to is whether President Xi says anything about the Russian invasion or perhaps more important does he repeat what he said in his meeting with Chancellor Scholz last week about nuclear wars essentially cannot be won and should not be fought. Do we get a statement like that, that can be read as an implicit rebuke of the implied threats that Russian President Vladimir Putin has made? So I think there's some grounds for at least some optimism, but I don't think as you look at this G20 summit that you're going to see major breakthroughs on any of the global issues and I don't think that you're going to see any grand bargain or compromise between President Xi and President Biden.
I think fair enough. And I do think, again, back to Ukraine, that is going to be one area of signaling, like basically every utterance on Ukraine is going to be closely watched. The meeting with Chancellor Scholz was also a significant one, I think to see the first one after the party congress, the first one with a Western leader I should say. Yeah, I think it's all going to set in motion what is the limitless leadership of Xi going to look like now going forward and is a very big stage for him to set out
On certainly is, Bob.
Well Jim, let's keep it going on Ukraine then because there have been a growing number of debates opening up, certainly not just on the op-ed pages, but actual signalings happening from U.S. officials, responses from Russia, Ukraine and so forth about a diplomatic solution. Kremlin has said it's open to peace negotiations, but it's up to now it's been setting conditions that have made such negotiations a non-starter. And similarly, when President Zelenskyy, Ukraine has mentioned willingness to negotiate. He's also cited out conditions that deal with Ukraine's territorial integrity, which also seemed to be inviable. So what significance should we attach to this latest diplomatic signaling, Jim?
Well, my first response Bob would be, don't expect diplomacy to go anywhere soon. Conditions simply aren't ripe for it. However, we're going to have a lot of talk about it because it's politically useful for both sides in this conflict to signal its willingness to engage in discussions, it doesn't mean discussions are going to come about. I think first we have to ask ourselves why is it that all of a sudden we're seeing a flurry of talk about diplomacy? I think that's partly because of the Russian losses that have taken place in each Ukraine. Just this week the Russians announced that they withdrawing from Kherson as a significant defeat for the Russian. So that raises the question of whether or not the calculations have changed in Moscow and whether Russia would be served by finding some way to extricate itself from the debacle that it's created.
I think what's also playing into this is concern that the new U.S. Congress will be less supportive of the Ukraine than the current Congress and that Ukraine's hand will be weakened. I think there's a third factor here, which is that the United States government and number of governments in Europe are concerned or alarmed or have been concerned and alarmed by what they view as growing Ukrainian ambitions in terms of what the war should produce. Previously President Zelenskyy had talked about Vladimir Putin having to step down as president as a precondition to negotiations.
And obviously whether you're talking about Washington or Berlin or Paris, other capitals, they're worried about the potential for this war to go to a point where it expands. And how do you avoid being in a situation where you overdo something and you create a bigger conflict. And even if you believe that the Ukrainian should make maximal demands, obviously in the White House, State Department can make calculations that some of the coalition partners in Europe may find it very hard to, in essence give a blank check to Ukraine that they may have to cash.
So partly, it's political that what you want to do is to show that the Ukrainians are being reasonable and that will reassure populations here at home in the United States and also in Europe. And let's just note on this score that our colleague Charlie Kupchan a week or so ago wrote a piece in the New York Times or for the New York Times, which lays out the arguments for why the United States should encourage negotiations.
Now the flip side of that, of course if you start negotiations is whether or not the person on the other side of the table is at all interested in making the concessions needed to strike a deal. And on that score, we really haven't seen anything from Moscow that indicates that it's willing to engage in substantive diplomacy, that it's ready to make any kind of concession. And indeed I think some people worry that the remarks that we're hearing out of the Russians, what their willingness to negotiate, "We've always been willing to negotiate," are basically a political and diplomatic ploy on their part to essence say signal to countries around the world or in Europe, "Hey, we're actually trying to find a way out of this. It's not the Russians who are being unreasonable, it is the Ukrainians who are being unreasonable."
So in that sense, this talk of diplomacy is also really about trying to win third party audiences. And again, Putin strategy is he believes he can split the West, that this winter is going to be very difficult, that that is going to lead western governments to reconsider support for Ukraine because of public outcry over an ability to find food, lose their jobs, not have enough heat and like. Whereas on the other hand what Western governments want to do is to preserve their solidarity by saying, "Hey, we're with Ukraine. Ukraine has reasonable ambitions and we have to stand unified even if it is a very difficult period to go through."
And again in this instance, and there have been plenty of other instances in history, weather can make a really big difference. If you get a very, very cold winter in Europe, that would maximize the pressure on European government. So some of this diplomacy is basically, again about trying to reassure people that their side is being reasonable.
Jim, in the middle of all this, there were some interesting comments that had been picked up from the U.S. chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Mark Milley about the number of casualties. He estimated about 100,000 dead and wounded on the Russian side and he said similar on the Ukrainian side. In both cases, stunning numbers. The Ukrainian one, maybe even a little bit more shocking because the proportionally it'll even higher. But is that in some ways, do you see that as a backdrop to potentially driving diplomacy as the exhaustion and the scale of the death toll? By the way, he also mentioned something like 40,000 civilians killed in Ukraine.
Well, history suggests that countries only negotiate when events force them to negotiate. And I think right now the Russians have sufficient strategic depth, they have sufficient cash resources, public opposition is sufficiently lower, the coercive apparatus of the state sufficiently effective that they can sustain this war. Likewise, for the Ukrainians they have taken and experienced horrific casualties. They are also seeing the Russians destroy their civilian infrastructure. Again, this is not by accident, this is a calculated strategy to make it hard for Ukrainians to feed themselves, to provide water, to provide food, in the rest.
Notwithstanding that I think Ukrainians see their national survival at stake. They also see themselves as taking back their territory. They are having success. It's undeniable on the battlefield. And again, in these situations people are willing to absorb horrific consequences on behalf of their country. When people believe their cause is just, they will fight even if they suffer tremendous losses, which it raises the concern that you could end up with a war that could last for a very long time.
Again, one of the reasons that people are trying to find some diplomatic solution to the current situation to try to come with some formula that could be acceptable to both sides. It would be substantively meaningful is precisely because the toll of war is so high. But again, I think right now the structural ingredients that would produce a lasting ceasefire, forget about even getting to a peace, but simply stopping the killing for a long period of time just doesn't seem to be there. The Russians believe again that Western support for Ukraine is going to break. All they have to do is hang on, eventually it will and then the tide will turn in their favor.
I think many Ukrainians say in essence, "We're winning. Why should we compromise? We want to push the Russians out of our territory. We have that sovereign right." And again, leaders in other capitals can give advice, can urge, trying to find a way to square the circle. But I think the case right now is that the Ukrainians intend to keep fighting unless the Russians concede and the Russians show no signs of doing that.
And I think as you mentioned, it'll be a winter among other things of just a test of wills.
Yes, it certainly is a test of wills and you know we're going to see whose will is the strongest. But Bob, we've reached that time of our podcast where we discuss our audience figure of the week. I want to remind everybody that they can vote on figures of the week every Tuesday and Wednesday at CFR_org's Instagram story. I think I described that properly, Bob. This week Bob, our audience selected "13 million in Guangzhou zero-COVID lockdown." Can you tell me a bit more about it?
Sure, Jim. Just to remind everyone, the rigid COVID measures that many countries have put into the rearview mirror continue in China. And China is a stepping up its actions in Guangzhou because it's got a spike in local infections. Last reports I saw from Wednesday said that there were more than 3,000 local infections and they're running at a thousand new cases for five straight days. This is something that for China registers alarms beyond what you're able to assume proportionally China does not want to see any infections. In fact, they shut down Shanghai Disneyland when there was just a handful, if not just one case that was reported and not too long ago, Jim.
And although something that the Economist pointed out recently in one of its columns on China, which is that people who think that China is susceptible to public pushback on its COVID lockdowns put too little weight on the disorder that would follow. I'm quoting the Economist here, "...were COVID to left to rip through an inadequately vaccinated country with no herd immunity and weak hospitals." So the piece went on to point out that while there have been major Chinese cities and Guangzhou is certainly counts as one that have been locked down in an extraordinary way in prolonged ways. China has more than a hundred cities of a million people or more, and many of them are not facing lockdown right now. China can sustain this or seemingly have shown it can sustain this, which is not to say it's going to be easy and you're not going to see pushback even on the social media that's closely monitored in China, Jim.
It is rough and it basically shuts everything down for days and it's intrusive and in some cases it is injurious to people who are involved in the process. We saw a lot of writing about what happened in Shanghai because there happened to be a number of Westerners caught up in that as well, Jim. And Guangzhou we're probably looking at some of the same with these figures that we're seeing.
Bob, you're right to flag the Economist piece because it gets to the nub of the problem. The Chinese were so successful in stopping spread of the virus that they've now put themselves in a situation in which it's impossible to open up without the virus running through society, putting tremendous toll on China's underdeveloped healthcare system. So the Chinese are waiting around until they can develop their own mRNA vaccine. I should note that they have been unwilling to take Western mRNA vaccines like Pfizer and Moderna that probably has a lot to do with Chinese nationalism and maybe overconfidence in how quickly the Chinese can develop that vaccine that is effective not only against the original variant, but subsequent variants. The Chinese are testing in Indonesia right now, an mRNA vaccine. We'll see how successful that is.
But if that should succeed and the Chinese decide to adopt it would take quite a long time to vaccinate the population. And my understanding is that the early trial data on this vaccine suggests it's nowhere near as effective as the ones we're seeing here in the West with Moderna and Pfizer. So Xi Jinping wants to exercise control, has been exercising control, but it has created some unintended consequences.
And I think a bigger picture question here is what does the rolling lockdown strategy mean for overseas investment in China? Do companies look at it and say, "It's too dangerous to invest big time in China with the fear that we could have our production facilities shut down?" Apple iPhone production I think is being impeded. When you add in the fact that the United States and China are going at each other on various trade practices, maybe the best thing to do is to relocate elsewhere so that you are not exposed to this kind of risk. Now, is that a small change or is it a big change? If it's a big change, does it have a lasting impact? A lot is at stake here.
Two really important points there, Jim. I agree, the mRNA seems to be the path out for China, but it partly, I think depends on can there be some vaccine diplomacy going on in Indonesia where the US offers as a gesture to provide some of the Pfizer, let's say, and China accepts it and goes from there. We'll have to see that. That's might be a bit step too far.
And then the economic change that you mentioned is also a really important point. I think it was around November 1st, there was a rumor, it's not clear where it came from that went around that China was poised to open up its country and therefore its economy by easing COVID restrictions and stocks took off. Chinese stocks really took off and it was tamped down after a little while, but it went for a while and it showed, I think the desire, the pent up desire to get back to business and we'll have to see how long that can stay pent up.
Well, I imagine the Chinese state has a sufficient surveillance and course of apparatus to make those shutdowns last a very long time. But Chinese citizens are like citizens everywhere else. They want to lead their own lives. Lockdowns are very, very hard to deal with and there's going to be growing pressure on the Chinese government to find some way out of this cul-de-sac that they had put themselves in. And again, go back to the beginning of the pandemic. The Chinese were patting themselves in the back as to how successful they had been in preventing the spread of the virus. And they deserve kudos for minimizing the death toll that we saw in the United States and so many other countries. But they're now in a position where they're stuck trying to find some way to ease back into something approaching normalcy. And that could be very, very difficult to do. And again, take some time.
Well, that's our look at The World Next Week. Here's some other stories to keep an eye on. US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen visits India. Millions tune in to watch the ICC T20 Cricket World Cup. And the UN marks the International Day of Tolerance.
Please subscribe to The World Next Week on Apple Podcast, Google Podcast, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts and leave us review while you're at it. We appreciate the feedback. The articles mentioned in this episode, as well as a transcript of our conversation is listed on the podcast page for The World Next Week on cfr.org.
Please note that opinions expressed in The World Next Week are solely those of the hosts or our guests, not of CFR, which takes no institutional positions on manners of policy. Today's program was produced by Ester Fang, with Senior Podcast Producer Gabrielle Sierra. Our theme music is provided by Miguel Herrero in licensed under Creative Commons. This is Jim Lindsay saying, so long.
And this is Bob McMahon saying goodbye and be careful out there.
Mentioned on the Podcast
“The Chinese City That COVID Forgot,” The Economist
Brad Dress, “Russia Says Nuclear War ‘Must Never Be Fought’ Despite Fiery Rhetoric,” The Hill
Charles A. Kupchan, “It’s Time to Bring Russia and Ukraine to the Negotiating Table,” New York Times