The US Midterm election on November 8, 2022 led to a Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, albeit with a very thin majority, and Democratic hold of control of the Senate, with a one-seat improvement from the 2020 Senate. To get elected Speaker of the House, Kevin McCarthy had to give considerable power to a small number of extreme right-wing members of his Republican Caucus, reinforcing the polarization of Congress, which reflects the extreme polarization of the country.
With a divided Congress, Washington will experience gridlock for any major domestic initiatives, a development that will not enhance US reputation abroad. As a result of domestic gridlock, President Biden is likely, like most US presidents during the second half of their Administration, to focus more time and energy on foreign policy, where US presidents have more room to maneuver.
How much power does a Republican controlled House of Representatives have to impede Biden’s actions in foreign policy? The US Constitution, faithful to the “checks and balances” to limit the authority of any single branch of government, defines a separation of powers in foreign affairs: the President is solely in command of the military, yet Congress regulates foreign commerce, alone has the power to declare war and can seriously limit Administrative initiatives as it must approve funding for any military or foreign intervention. Nevertheless, US presidents have considerable latitude to initiate and implement US foreign policy.
The Democratic Party’s strong showing in the Midterms, and the relative decline of support for the anti-democratic, pro-Trump movement, has strengthened Biden in all of his dealings internationally, in Europe, in Asia and the rest of the world.
Furthermore, foreign affairs is the one exceptional area where Republicans and Democrats generally agree. I do not expect a major shift in any sphere of US foreign policy as a result of the Republican takeover of the House.
There may in the next two years be other international crisis topics which will change US priorities (North Korea, Iran, the Middle East?) but let us examine the three current major foreign affairs subjects: Ukraine, China and Climate Change.
It can be said that the biggest loser in the US Midterms was Russia, and the biggest winner NATO. Biden will continue his strong commitment to NATO, working in close cooperation with allies, and the relative poor results in the Midterm for Trump-backed candidates lets Europeans note with relief that Trump’s anti-NATO approach is fading into the background. Similarly, although there are rumblings among some Republicans that the US cannot continue to give a “blank check” to Ukraine, there is broad support in both Parties to continue to provide military supplies to Ukraine. Congress will not cut the financing for such expenditures, so long as they are spent on defending Ukraine against Russia. It may be a different story if the US is asked to finance large sums for the reconstruction of Ukraine, as the EU has indicated it will do, but we are not at that stage yet.
Biden will also have a free hand to continue to follow his own agenda on the question of whether to push Ukraine to negotiate an end of the war on terms that might not be attractive to Ukraine, and so far, there is no indication Biden will put significant pressure on Ukraine to end the war on terms acceptable to Russia.
The one area where almost all Americans agree Trump contributed positively to the country was his aggressive stance towards China, a policy pursued by the Biden Administration. Increasing Republican influence will only reinforce this direction, with new Congressional initiatives to limit the transfer of technology to China and probable assertive noise around Taiwan, perhaps complicating the Administration’s recently improved relationship with China after Biden’s November, 2022 meeting with Xi in Indonesia.
It is on the subject of climate change that the Biden Administration will be most hampered by Republican control of the House. Not a single Republican voted for the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which provided $370 billion in climate-linked investments, the Republican House will no doubt try to limit access to funding of the IRA, and there is no chance they will approve Biden’s pledge that the US will contribute $11.4 billion annually by 2024 for climate financing to developing countries. With Republican opposition, Biden will have trouble maintaining credibility as the world’s leader in combating climate change.
Another possible foreign policy consequence of Republicans control of the House is right-wing Republicans stated intention to refuse to increase the debt ceiling of the US without the Democrats’ accepting a reduction in social and military expenditures, which Biden has said is “non-negotiable”. An eventual default on US Government debt leading to an international financial crisis will surely have a major impact on the credibility of the US leadership in all foreign affairs. The aggressiveness of right-wing Republicans in the House and Speaker McCarthy’s accepting their demands leads us to conclude that, unfortunately, a US default on its debt in 2023 is not as unlikely as we might hope.