Why you should care
Initial confusion could soon see Trump weakened on the world stage, and Russia having less room to maneuver.
John McLaughlin is the former deputy director of the CIA. He writes a regular column on OZY called “Global Eye: Foreign Affairs Through an Intelligence Lens,” and teaches at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS).
While Americans are struggling to make sense of the midterm elections, foreign observers will also be weighing their implications. Expectations overseas, as they were at home, were distorted by talk of a possible blue wave, so the first-blush reaction abroad may be that the vote does not represent the resounding censure of Trump that many of his foreign critics hoped to see. Over time, though, they will realize that the Republican loss of the House will expose Trump to political danger from which his party until now has protected him.
Those overseas will assess the results against a backdrop of widespread skepticism and dismay about Trump. With the exceptions of newly resurgent rightist parties in countries such as Hungary, Austria, Germany and Italy, political leaders — especially in allied countries — have had a troubled relationship with Trump. This was mirrored at the public level in surveys taken by the respected Pew Research Center over the last two years that, on average, showed confidence in the president dropping sharply last year and remaining at a historic low in the latest poll this month.
Meanwhile, quasi-authoritarian political leaders and movements abroad took heart from Trump’s rise — what Trump’s former confidant Steve Bannon calls a “globalist populist movement.” Trump’s loss of significant legislative power will make it harder for these groups to persuasively present themselves as harbingers of an unstoppable worldwide trend.
The impulse in Tehran may be to bide time in the hope that Democratic momentum continues.
The results will also introduce a new dynamic into specific foreign relationships and policies.
Foreign leaders will hedge their bets, knowing that Trump could still be re-elected and recoup some losses in 2020. Still, once Democratic committee chairs in the House step up their investigation of Trump, these leaders overseas will begin to see him as politically wounded and less able to enforce his will at home or in disputes with them. Democrats, after gaining leadership of key national security congressional committees in the House, such as Foreign Affairs, Intelligence, Defense, Ways and Means, Finance and Commerce, will effectively end a one-party rule; they are already pledging to demand Trump’s tax returns, something the Ways and Means chairman is legally empowered to do.
None of this guarantees Trump will change any key policies, but his ability to carry them out could be inhibited.
For their part, individual countries will wonder if they should rethink tactics in light of the election results. North Korea, for example, will be weighing what impact this should have on its dealings with Trump. Kim Jong Un has already been dragging his feet on denuclearization pledges made at Trump’s Singapore summit with him. The midterms will encourage Kim to take a wait-and-see attitude, rather than bend to any additional pressure from Washington. If Trump comes under added political pressure at home, Kim will be tempted to bid for more concessions in return for showy but substance-free summits.
Regarding Iran, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in May put 12 demands on the table for Tehran, and just this week Washington reimposed economic sanctions on the country, following up on U.S. withdrawal in May from the five-party nuclear agreement. This will further damage Iran’s sputtering economy, but the election result is likely to increase Iran’s will to resist U.S. pressure. The Democrats were nearly unanimous in criticizing Trump’s exit from the nuclear agreement negotiated by Obama in 2015. So the impulse in Tehran may be to bide time in the hope that Democratic momentum continues. That, in turn, makes it even more probable that Iran will continue to comply with the nuclear agreement while political events in Washington play out.
Russia will see the midterm outcome as a mixed bag carrying more bad than good for Moscow. On the plus side, the sharp divisions brought to the fore align with Putin’s goal for having interfered in the 2016 election — which was primarily to sow discord and chaos in American democracy. On the bad side for Putin, the Democrats, through heightened congressional power, are likely to dig more deeply into Russian political and financial meddling in the U.S., including the nature of their financial relations with Trump. House Democrats will also now be able to block any effort to end Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of possible Trump campaign collusion with Russia and related matters.
China will likely take heart from Trump’s loss of the House. Although there is a bipartisan consensus in the U.S. to take seriously China’s challenge to U.S. international pre-eminence, most Democrats and many Republicans strongly disapprove of Trump’s trade war with Beijing that imposes tariffs on $250 billion on Chinese goods. Congressional Democrats will now have more power to curb his combative instincts that often cut against free trade. China, meanwhile, may feel less pressure to help Trump deal with the North Korea problem.
Apart from all this, it is hard to know what Americans think about Trump’s foreign policy based on the midterm results. Foreign policy hovered in the background of the midterms, but domestic issues were front and center. Voters opposed to Trump’s party may dislike the president’s tone on international matters, but that doesn’t mean they are in favor of deeper engagement in world affairs. Other than in times of undeniable crisis, there is always an underlying ambivalence among Americans about foreign “entanglements.” We will probably not get a reliable read on the U.S. mood in that regard until the 2020 presidential race, in which international issues are likely to rise to the equivalent of America’s domestic challenges.