A Blessing in Disguise?: The Impact of the Midterm Elections on US Foreign Policy

On Tuesday, November 4th, US citizens made dramatic changes to the makeup of their government. For the first time in nearly a decade, the Republicans won control of the Senate, giving them a majority in both houses of Congress and dealing a blow to the party of current President Barack Obama. The election can be viewed as a referendum on the immediate past performance of US government, and though there is considerable debate as to whom to hold responsible for the recent gridlock and dysfunction, it is easy to understand the appeal of leadership change.

US President Barack Obama meets with Senator Mitch McConnell in the Oval Office. In the wake of the recent midterm elections, McConnell, a Republican, stands to become the Senate majority leader. [President Barack Obama meets with Senate Minority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., in the Oval Office, Aug. 4, 2010. (Official White House Photo by Pete Souza) (P080410PS-0912) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

But while recent years have brought considerable failure and frustration domestically, the Obama administration has been lauded by many for its handling of foreign policy over the same period. New economic relationships have emerged and developed, diplomatic networks have been fortified, and the United States has won back some measure of credibility as a global leader after the tumultuous Bush years. It is worth asking, therefore, what this Republican resurgence might mean for the United States in its global engagements, both now and moving forward.

In the immediate term, US foreign policy figures to become more aggressive. Military engagement with ISIS, for example, seems likely to be ramped up, as many of the newest senators display a hawkish attitude toward the militant group. During his campaign, Tom Cotton, a fresh-faced Arkansas senator and veteran of the Iraq war, aired a particularly saber-rattling ad, which featured sepia-toned footage from ISIS-produced propaganda films set to a brooding piano melody and military-esque percussion. While perhaps less explicit in their messaging, other newcomers seem to share these sentiments. Among many examples, new Nebraskan Senator Ben Sasse did not rule out the possibility of boots on the ground when asked about it in a recent debate, and Thom Tillis of North Carolina said in an interview that the United States must stop “thinking we can just launch bombs and all of a sudden ISIS is going to go home. ISIS will continue to expand its reach and gain more territory until we recognize that.” These opinions appear to represent what is more or less the position of the Republican party as a whole, and as we move into the next legislative session with Republican majorities in the House and Senate, it would not be surprising to see US anti-ISIS rhetoric, if not outright tactics, become harsher.

The other foreign issue that has dominated US public consciousness lately is Russian aggression in Eastern Europe, and the world can also expect the United States to take more direct action here in the next legislative term. While new members have been less outspoken about how to deal with Putin, one can assume that new Republican members will be keen to toe the party line, which has thus far called for tougher sanctions and a more menacing disposition, on such a complex issue. A firmer tack on Russia might be forthcoming.

While US liberals might despair at a turn for the bellicose in the country’s two best-known foreign entanglements, there is actually compelling reason to believe that the Republican takeover might be broadly conducive to Obama’s foreign policy platform. Marginalized domestically, Obama may begin to prioritize his goals abroad. In the weeks since the midterms, President Obama has devoted significant attention to global climate change, announcing an emissions reduction pact with China, as well as $3 billion in contributions to the Green Climate Fund, and standing firmagainst Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbot’s attempts to stifle discussion of the issue at last weekend’s G-20 summit. Over the same period, movement was announced on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a massive trade deal featuring the United States, Australia, Japan, Mexico, and many other large economies. While much of this progress came on a pre-planned eight-day tour of Asia, scheduled far before the results of the midterms were known, the zeal and purpose with which Obama has approached these talks, as well as his single-minded focus on a few areas of priority, evince a real sense of urgency. Looking forward, a November 24th deadline to reach a deal with Iran to lift sanctions in exchange for assurances that Iran will not develop nuclear weapons looms. Nuclear security has long been a priority of the Obama administration, and if the past two weeks are any indication, he will pull out all the stops to reach an agreement.

While some might claim that Obama’s lame duck status at home weakens his position abroad, it would appear that so far, it has simply provided the necessary marriage of opportunity and urgency to produce results. In fact, this early insight into Obama’s political mortality might incentivize parties like Iran, Russia, and the Palestinian Authority – groups with which Obama has so far been unable to reach long-term, comprehensive understandings despite considerable effort – to pursue deals now with someone receptive to compromise, rather than wait for a potential hardliner to take over in 2016. The greatest tool left in Obama’s belt is his status as the face of the nation to the world, which is not besmirched by his party’s recent humbling. As the president comes to grips with the end of his term and looks to cement his legacy, more of this one-man diplomacy seems likely. Though US foreign policy seems likely to adopt a sterner outward visage, this may be accompanied by a stronger drive toward liberal ends below the surface. For those who once looked hopefully on Obama’s promises to facilitate a more sustainable, open, and peaceful world through dialogue and understanding, the midterms could prove a blessing in disguise.


This post first appeared in the Harvard International Review. 

Daniel Epstein, US


Daniel Epstein is a sophomore at Harvard College, where he studies mass violence and reconciliation through the Social Studies program. He is the Writing Chair of the Harvard International Review, a position through which he has explored interests in human rights and economic development, and has experienced first-hand the opportunities and challenges that face publications in today's media climate. Until he figures out what he wants to do with his life, he hopes to learn as much as he can about the world and see as much of it as possible.

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