Making sense of midterm America
11 Nov 2022|

Midterm elections take place in the United States every four years, halfway into a president’s term and two years before the next presidential election. At stake is one-third of the Senate, the entire House of Representatives, some governorships, and many state and local offices.

There’s no national vote, but the results tend to reflect where the country stands and are interpreted as a referendum on the party in power (in this case the Democrats, led by President Joe Biden). And while votes are still being counted—and in some cases recounted—it’s not too soon to draw some initial conclusions.

Above all, what was expected to be a decisive no-confidence vote in Biden for the most part failed to materialise. Republicans were widely expected to perform better than they did. The party in power almost always loses seats in midterms, as voters seek to express unhappiness and look for change, and many of the issues at the top of voters’ minds, including inflation, crime and illegal immigration, ought to have resulted in big Republican gains. But voter concerns about other issues, from abortion rights to the health of American democracy, together with questions about the fitness of more than a few Republican candidates, worked in the Democrats’ favour.

As is often the case, foreign-policy concerns seem to have mattered little to voters. Despite the fact that a war is raging in Europe, and that the US is providing the lion’s share of assistance to Ukraine, the reality is that, with few US troops in conflict zones, most voters are preoccupied with domestic matters.

Still, the midterms will have some impact on US foreign policy. The fact that the elections largely took place peacefully and as planned should reassure America’s friends and frustrate those who were hoping that there would be a repeat of the protest and violence that followed the 2020 presidential election. For now, at least, American democracy has held.

Regarding policy, the mixed outcome provides no mandate for significant change. This likely means that economic and military support for Ukraine will continue, although it is possible that there could be some attempts by Congress to limit its scale or link it to some future negotiations. Sanctions against Russia will remain in place.

So, too, will the hardline stance toward China, which reflects a strong political consensus. Indeed, one of Biden’s few bipartisan legislative victories was the CHIPS Act, which provides hundreds of billions of dollars to boost US competitiveness in areas like semiconductor manufacturing. With a divided Congress, one of the few areas for potential agreement will be similar legislation that takes aim at China. For example, the US could introduce a screening process for outbound investment, set new ground rules for Chinese investment in the US, or both.

Support for Taiwan will also continue. The Taiwan Policy Act, which would upgrade bilateral ties in ways sure to provoke China and provide Taiwan with greater military assistance, could be revived by the new Congress. Should Kevin McCarthy become speaker of the House of Representatives, as is quite possible, he will likely travel to Taiwan, which would similarly prompt a strong Chinese response.

Trade is another area in which policy will remain largely unchanged, since there’s little support from either party for new initiatives. The US is unlikely to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership or other trade pacts.

As for Iran, there are disagreements over how to address the nuclear issue. The mounting protests in Iran, however, along with evidence of Iranian military support for Russia, have ended any chance for the US to rejoin the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action.

North Korea, with its continued provocations and a seventh nuclear test looming, presents another challenge, but neither US party has a viable alternative policy to put forward. This means that the US will continue to sanction the North.

Support for Israel will continue to receive broad congressional backing. The same cannot be said, however, for initiatives designed to contend with climate change.

More generally, continuity will mostly prevail, partly because the US political system gives the president broad latitude in conducting foreign policy.

The main risk is that a Republican-controlled Senate could block personnel appointments, and a Republican-controlled House could hold hearings on such issues as the Afghanistan withdrawal, which could embarrass and distract the Biden administration.

Perhaps the most important outcome of the midterms is that the results have weakened former president Donald Trump, whereas Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who easily won re-election, has emerged as a serious contender to lead the Republican Party. While the Democrats exceeded expectations, questions within the party remain as to whether Biden should seek a second term in 2024.

In short, a political earthquake was averted. US foreign policy will remain mostly on familiar terrain for the next two years, until the presidential election. After that, anything can, and possibly will, happen.