Roberta N. Haar

The impact of the U.S. midterm elections on transatlantic relations

29 november 2022Leestijd: 5 minuten

Europeans were watching the U.S. midterm elections closely. The war in Ukraine has finally strengthened the bond between the United States and Europe, after years of Trump’s isolationist policies. But the influence of isolationist Republicans was noticeable again last election, writes Roberta N. Haar.

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In the months leading up to the 2022 U.S. midterm elections many Europeans let it be known that these elections felt exceedingly consequential, certainly more than the average midterm election round. A late summer indication came during a dinner hosted by the U.S. Mission to the Netherlands where it was noted that the Dutch were paying close attention to the campaign.

Roberta N. Haar is Professor of Foreign Policy Analysis and Transatlantic Relations at the University of Maastricht and the University College Maastricht.

The big reason, of course, are concerns raised by Donald J. Trump and his possible impact on both U.S. domestic and foreign policy as well as possible knock-on effects to American democracy.  The question that I was asked the most, will Trump be the kingmaker for Republicans running this November? And if so, what does that portend for November 2024, when Trump himself runs again, and what impact that might have for the future of American foreign policy?

The October Rollercoaster

If the adage is that a week is long in politics, what does the month before the election look like? Trump and his supporters must have looked warily at the month of October because their strategy to win back both houses of Congress was crumbling under the weight of a deluge of indictments and criminal charges. At the end of September, The Economist wrote that Biden was “enjoying a winning streak,” as he addressed the UN General Assembly. Three events transformed the midterm elections into a much closer race than Republicans expected. First, the preponderance of evidence that Trump committed crimes on the 6th of January and at his home in Mar-a-Lago leaned the midterms into a referendum about Trump rather than perceived failures of Biden and the Democratic Party.

Second, the Democrats showed that they could pass legislation linked to their key campaign promises, such as Student Loan Forgiveness, the Inflation Reduction Act that included $369 billion in measures to combat climate change, and the Chips Act that delivered on promises to stimulate the supply side of the semiconductor industry within America. And third, the overturning of Roe v. Wade, which energized progressives and females in general against a Republican Party that had become dependent on ever expanding the culture wars to motivate its increasingly conservative base. Ironically, winning the Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization case meant the Republican Party lost a key rallying cause.

But October was month of whipsaw movements in the American electorate, starting with what looked like a Democratic ability to staunch their loses in the House, to a sudden swing back to the right as discontent surged over a four-decade high inflation rate and fears of rising crime levels, which, in turn, heightened Biden’s deep unpopularity within the electorate. The willingness of oil producers in the Persian Gulf to ignore appeals by a sitting American president additionally underlined Biden’s weakness on the global stage. In line with the importance that the price of energy is to the American economy, by mid-October Republican chances in key battleground states looked much rosier.

And what about foreign policy?

Earlier this year, I wrote in Atlantisch Perspectief that Putin and Xi Jinping managed with their no-limits partnership before Putin’s invasion to accomplish the impossible in Washington by getting a bipartisan policy on Ukraine. This is the case because both parties feel that some issues are too important to be subjected to polarization for political gain and because some issues do have broad support in the whole of the American public (although waning as the war continues). Because both chambers in Congress exhibit strong backing for Ukraine in its fight against Russia, in many ways, the midterms will not impact U.S. foreign policy. Even if Russia and its allies clearly wanted to affect the midterms through their nefarious social media influence operations, few Americans believe that Russia will win the war.

Add to this that none of the U.S.’ adversaries and critics expect that U.S. foreign strategy towards Ukraine would dramatically shift because the Republicans captured one or both chambers of Congress.  Instead, Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Indian premier Narendra Modi made clear to Putin at a meeting in Central Asia around the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, that they were losing patience with his ongoing war.

China is especially unhappy about the fact that the war created a more united, more militarized West that is more suspicious of China and its alliance with Putin. Instead of courting Chinese investment, Europeans are acting as if the scales fell off their eyes about Chinese global intentions. For example, on 17 October 2022 the EU’s 27 foreign ministers gathered in Luxembourg to recalibrate Europe’s China policy. The official document released after the meeting refers to China as a “tough competitor.”

Ukraine fatigue in America

This is not to say that we should shed our concerns about Trump-Republicans doing well in 2022 or in 2024. Trump’s brand of transactional foreign policy would again fray transatlantic ties and undermine the collective security system in Europe. Trump’s eroding of ties across the Atlantic contributed to Putin’s calculations that the U.S. would not support Europe when he attacked Ukraine. A return to political divisions over what sort of relationship Europe should build with Russia would bolster Putin’s use of pipeline politics and his calculations that he can ride out Western sanctions and wait for Ukraine fatigue to set in along with cold houses and high gas prices.

Moreover, anti-Ukraine campaign sloganeering was made by members of the House Freedom Caucus, which represents some of the most extreme right-wing members of the Republican Party. In what will be a razor-thin margin over Democrats, every Freedom Caucus member has the potential to play the Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema role—and hold legislation hostage to their narrow agendas.

Add to these potentials for paralysis is the fact that the most likely House Majority Leader, Kevin McCarthy, echoed anti-Ukraine sentiments during the midterm campaign. Opinion polls that came out on 10 October reveal that these isolationist voices in the Republican Party are on to something: 32 percent of Republicans believed that the United States has a responsibility to protect and defend Ukraine from Russia, compared to 58 percent of Democrats.

Fatigue is around the corner in Europe

But Ukraine fatigue is a real issue here in Europe too. A point made to me while giving a lecture in The Hague at the end of September when I was asked, why America wants to support Ukraine. When America’s role in defending Ukraine’s right to exist is up for debate in one of America’s strongest Atlanticist-allies, then contemplating how U.S. foreign policy might change if isolationists leverage more control after the midterm elections, is no meaningless exercise.

If both the Republican Party’s base and some of its loudest legislators lean further into Trumpian-isolationism, we can expect that the midterm elections will significantly impact America’s strategic priorities, its transatlantic relations and certainly narrow the path for continued U.S. assistance to Ukraine.

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