What effect could midterm elections have on US foreign policy?
Vote for control of Congress could deepen divisions over Ukraine aid, complicating the Biden administration’s agenda.
Voters in the United States will cast their ballots to decide the next makeup of the US legislature in critical midterm elections on November 8.
While the campaign season largely has been defined by domestic debates over the economy, abortion, crime and immigration, voters also will be setting the tone for the next two years of US foreign policy.
Following years of fracture, experts have widely agreed that both Democrats and Republicans have reached a surprising bipartisan consensus on at least two of the main foreign policy priorities of President Joe Biden’s administration: China and the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
But while the White House’s current approach to Beijing’s growing economic might and assertiveness is expected to remain relatively stable no matter what party takes over Congress, analysts have said Republican rifts over continued financial support for Ukraine could be exacerbated if they take control of the House, which most predictors see as a strong possibility.
“A lot of Republicans have wanted to see more weapons and have been less inclined to restrain the types of weapons that [the US] sends [to Ukraine],” said Leslie Vinjamuri, director of the US and the Americas programme at Chatham House.
“But then, at the same time, we’ve seen a certain wing of the Republican Party vote against some packages that include a lot of money that’s going to Ukraine.”
Meanwhile, observers have said Republican victories in the House or the Senate may amplify a growing partisan divide in Washington, DC, posing myriad challenges for the Biden administration’s agenda in the next two years.
Republican control of the legislature also could amplify the voice of former President Donald Trump, who is expected to be the party’s 2024 candidate – and who pursued an “America First” strategy that shook up US foreign policy during his term in office.
“There’s going to be a lot of Republicans who are going to be very eager to demonstrate their loyalty to Donald Trump, as he presumably goes on to campaign for the presidency and perhaps win,” said Jeff Hawkins, a former US ambassador and an associate research fellow at the French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs in Paris.
“There’s going to be all this noise and the objective is going to be to discredit Democrats generally, but Joe Biden specifically,” Hawkins told Al Jazeera. “And that will be felt in foreign policy.”
Division of powers
While US presidents have increasingly consolidated power over foreign affairs in recent decades, and some observers have accused Congress in recent years of having “abdicated its foreign policy responsibilities”, the House and Senate still maintain several key constitutional powers.
That most notably includes control over the federal budget and the ability to formally declare war against another nation.
Congress must approve aid spending, as well as appropriations to the vast apparatus that makes up the US foreign government, with a large portion of that funding going to the military, the diplomatic corps, and other expenses abroad.
For example, since Russia launched its invasion of Ukraine in February, it has authorised tens of billions of dollars in military and humanitarian funding for Kyiv. The president, meanwhile, can typically bypass Congress to impose sanctions, a key tool Washington has used to punish Moscow over the war.
“The sanctions – the sticks – can almost all be done, traditionally, by executive order,” said Maximilian Hess, a Central Asia fellow in the Eurasia programme at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. “But the administration in my view is looking towards using more carrots, helping out affected third countries, as well as Ukraine itself,” he said.
“I think [a Republican takeover] could affect the carrot side of the approach, not the stick,” he told Al Jazeera, “but with Ukraine essentially needing $3-$4bn in external support almost every month, that is hugely important.”
Republican discourse on Ukraine
In May, 57 Republicans in the House of Representatives voted against a $40bn Ukraine aid package. Eleven Republicans voted against the measure in the Senate.
But it remains to be seen if the relatively small group of Republican legislators currently opposed to Ukraine aid will grow, said Vinjamuri at Chatham House.
Still, the combination of the “more populous side” of the party and “the broader ecosystem of the Tucker Carlson Republicans”, she said, referring to the popular right-wing television host who has regularly espoused Russian talking points since the invasion began, could shift the discussion – particularly if the US begins to “really suffer” economically.
Polls generally show strong support and concern for Ukraine among the US public, although the position has softened, particularly among registered Republicans.
A survey released in October by Eurasia Group found continued widespread support for the current US approach to Ukraine among voters from both parties, with more than 30 percent of Republicans agreeing or strongly agreeing the US has responded well. Still, the authors noted a third of respondents reported a neutral opinion, “suggesting the war might not be a top concern for a substantial minority of respondents”.
House minority leader Kevin McCarthy, currently the highest-ranking Republican in the chamber, recently suggested that a change in the party’s position on Ukraine could be imminent. “I think people are going to be sitting in a recession and they’re not going to write a blank cheque to Ukraine,” he told Punchbowl News on October 18. “They just won’t do it.”
Nevertheless, another top House Republican, Michael McCaul, hours later said the Biden administration should provide longer-range missiles that Washington has not yet made available to Kyiv, mostly amid concerns they could be used in cross-border attacks.
Among Republican candidates, the rhetoric has at times gone beyond just criticising aid, according to a joint analysis by Foreign Policy magazine, the Alliance for Securing Democracy at the German Marshal Fund and the Brennan Center for Justice.
The report identified a “noisy minority” – two House Republican candidates and a Democratic candidate who has not been endorsed by the party – who have “parroted the most egregious Kremlin propaganda”, including calling Ukrainians “Nazis” and accusing Kyiv of war crimes.
Populist Republicans who have remained more staid on the issue may look to the performance of candidates like JD Vance, a Republican running for an open Senate seat in Ohio who become one of the most prominent opponents of aid to Ukraine this campaign season, for cues on how to approach the issue, the Foreign Policy Research Institute’s Hess noted.
Is foreign policy a priority?
Ultimately, foreign policy generally lags behind other issues on voter priority lists, with only 45 percent of registered voters ranking it as an important issue in an August Pew Research Center Poll, far behind the 77 percent who identified the economy as critical.
Meanwhile, 37 percent of respondents rated Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as a “very important” issue as of mid-October, according to a Morning Consult poll, down from 56 percent in mid-March and also lagging far behind the economy, gun policy and abortion.
“There’s a kind of disconnect between foreign policymaking in Washington and ordinary Americans,” said Mike Hannah, a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation.
“It isn’t a critique of the foreign policy establishment per se, it’s just the case that Americans don’t typically prioritise or get really excited about or interested in foreign policy topics around election seasons,” he said.
“As a result, there’s less political incentive for policymakers to really heed public opinion.”
He added the Eurasia Group’s recent survey has revealed several bipartisan trends among voters that appear out of step with traditional party positions, and could inform how legislators and candidates approach some key foreign policy issues after the midterms.
Notably, nearly 80 percent of Republicans and Democrats were in favour of greater congressional oversight over the use of force. That’s a relevant statistic as lawmakers from both parties have pushed to reform the 2001 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMFs), which have been used as the legal justification for most US military operations in Africa, the Middle East and Asia over more than two decades of Washington’s so-called “war on terror”.
The survey also found a majority of registered voters in both parties supported Biden’s currently stalled efforts to return to the Iran nuclear deal – a number seemingly out of step with the cadre of congressional Republicans who oppose the return to the 2015 agreement.
Meanwhile, there was wide bipartisan support for ending arms sales to Saudi Arabia, a potentially relevant trend as legislators from both parties have called for a tougher stand against Riyadh following a recent decision by OPEC+ to cut oil production.
“It goes both ways. You need the policymaking community to be more sensitive to public opinion,” Hannah told Al Jazeera. “And ideally Americans would be more engaged … [so] that they can participate in debates about national security and geopolitics.”