Foreign Policy implications of the U.S. Midterms
Updated: Jan 16
This Voices piece explores different perspectives on the foreign policy consequences of what has been an unusual midterms in a highly polarised political domestic environment in the U.S. Our student contributors focused on unpacking the capabilities of the house and senate in foreign policy making, and also how this impacts the Biden administration. This Voices piece was edited by Malou van Draanen Glismann (Managing Editor).
U.S. Foreign Policy Unlikely to Change in New Congress
By Alex Cook, MSc International Relations
It is unlikely that the new U.S. Congress, which began on January 3rd, will cause a seismic shift in U.S. foreign policy. In the United States, the president is responsible for developing and implementing most foreign policy, not Congress. Therefore, notable changes in foreign policy are most likely when a new president takes office, such as when Donald Trump ended U.S. participation in the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (known colloquially as the Iran Deal) that President Obama helped negotiate, or when Joe Biden recommitted to the Paris Climate Agreement, following President Trump’s withdrawal from the deal in June 2017. Because the President was not standing for election this cycle, U.S. foreign policy, and the career and political appointees who implement it, will be largely unaffected.
Moreover, the emergence of divided government in Washington (with Republicans holding the House of Representatives and Democrats holding the Senate and the presidency) will lead to political gridlock. While often frustrating, a political stalemate generally means that there will not be agreement on policy matter, let alone major policy changes.
Similarly, most of Congress’s foreign-policy related authority is either rarely used, such as the power to declare war, or requires a supermajority (such as the Senate’s role in giving advice and consent regarding the ratification of treaties, which requires the approval of two-thirds of voting senators). This in turn renders moot any advantage provided by a one seat shift in Senate power.
Nonetheless, there are two ways in which the midterm elections will affect U.S. foreign policy. First, Republicans, who now control the House of Representatives, which is responsible for appropriating funding, seem more reluctant to give Ukraine limitless aid. Under President Biden and the current Democratic-led Congress, the United States has committed over $19bn (roughly £15bn) in security assistance to Ukraine since Russia’s invasion in early 2022. However, Kevin McCarthy, the Speaker of the House, has said that his party would not “write a blank check to Ukraine,” a sentiment shared by other members of his party. While it’s unclear whether there is enough support in Congress to withhold or significantly curtail aid to Ukraine, it seems at least likely that House Republicans will impose increased auditing requirements, potentially slowing down or limiting the provision of aid to Ukraine.
Second, Senate Democrats will have an easier time confirming President Biden’s nominees, including ambassadorial and other foreign policy-related positions. This is because Democrats expanded their majority in the Senate from a 50-50 split where Vice President Harris cast a tie-breaking vote to a 51-49 split. Importantly, having a true majority in the Senate will give Democrats full control of the committees that vet and vote on nominees, whereas in an evenly divided Senate Democrats and Republicans had to negotiate and agree on committee assignments. In essence, Democrats will now be able to streamline votes, making confirmations of disputed nominees (for ambassadorial or diplomatic posts, for example) less contentious. This remains true, despite Senator Kyrsten Sinema leaving the Democratic Party, as Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer has agreed to preserve her committee assignments, similarly to Independent Senators Angus King of Maine and Bernie Sanders of Vermont.
As such, any alterations to U.S. foreign policy directly correlated to the midterm elections are likely to be limited in number and scope. Barring any unforeseen geopolitical crises, U.S. foreign policy will continue on due course - at least until the 2024 election.
The House and Foreign Policy under the 118th Congress
By Johan Rhiis Jeanniot, third-year BSc International Relations and Chinese
Both the House and Senate play an important role in directing the spotlight and national attention of American voters, and upsets here are sure to affect the foreign policy of President Biden. The largest foreign policy change in-lieu of the midterms will likely happen in the House Foreign Policy Committee, where, out of the eight Republican members that did not consider the 2020 election stolen, three have lost their seats.
Moderates have gone from representing 32% of the Republican side, down to 17%, which, combined with the general slip of the House, is likely to lead to a Republican led committee. This shift will likely also take place in the committee's six subcommittees dealing with and publishing reports on their respective geographic focus.
With an anticipated general shift from the committee and subcommittees being led by Democrats, to being led by Republicans more and more defined by hardline Trump supporters, it is likely that President Biden will find it harder to get unanimous support for his policies, and will face more opposing legislation and amendments on proposed bills given a more active opposition. This was notably the case in 2015 when opposition to President Obama’s ‘Iran Deal’ sent letters to the Iranian government, slowing down negotiations.
In fact, presidential power in foreign policy affairs has continuously been decreasing, with house minority party presidents having a more difficult time passing legislation through roll call votes than ever before. This is especially true in terms of the economy and trade, two topics which vis-a-vis the Russo-Ukrainian war and US-China competition are at the forefront of President Biden's agenda heading into the 118th Congress.