Why the US midterms matter to the rest of the world

Why the US midterms matter to the rest of the world

Illustration by Curt Merlo for Arab News
Illustration by Curt Merlo for Arab News

Amid widespread international media coverage of the midterm elections, many observers around the world might wonder why polls for Congress matter outside of the US. 

Midterm elections occur in the middle of a president’s four-year term and involve elections for all seats in the House of Representatives and around one-third of Senate seats, as well as elections for many state and local-level positions. International businesses with interests in the US should pay close attention to how the elections might affect federal or state-level decisions on regulations, fiscal spending and other issues that could affect them. 

In terms of foreign policy, midterm elections matter, though they are significantly less important than presidential elections. The president has the greatest amount of power to shape US foreign policy and foreign relations. However, the Senate has significant influence, and even the House has a role. 

The Senate reviews and must agree to the president’s appointments to principal positions in the Departments of Defense, State, Commerce and Treasury. While the president negotiates treaties, formal ratification of a treaty requires approval by two-thirds of the Senate. The House has a lesser role in foreign policy but, together, the two chambers of Congress have the power to help shape the US’ attitude to the world.

On issues of war and national security, the president clearly has the lead. However, Congress has the constitutional authority to formally declare war. In reality, the last time Congress did so was World War II but, in recent decades, it has authorized the use of military force several times, such as the 2003 invasion of Iraq. The president has significant leeway to engage in military hostilities without approval from Congress, but there are political and practical restrictions on his ability to do so for long without some degree of congressional support. 

The president also has the lead on negotiating and implementing international agreements. While formal treaties require Senate approval, the president can implement many agreements through executive order. In fact, executive agreements constitute roughly 90 percent of all US international agreements, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. The problem, however, is that agreements implemented through executive order without bipartisan congressional support can be rolled back by future presidents — something Donald Trump demonstrated by withdrawing from the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear deal. Negotiating and implementing international agreements without gaining sufficient approval in Congress undermines the agreement’s durability.

There are multiple other tools that Congress has for influencing foreign policy. It has budgetary authority and often uses it to attach conditions to funding bills that tie a president’s hands, to refuse necessary funding for a president’s foreign policy initiatives, or to require the president to spend money in a certain way. Congress can pass legislation that requires the imposition of sanctions on a country or individuals, blocks arms sales or attach conditions to them, impose regulations that affect trade agreements, change immigration laws, and so forth. Through their oversight roles, both the Senate and the House can hold hearings and investigations into elements of a president’s foreign policy. 

More broadly, Congress has the authority to impeach a president, which — at least in theory — could lead to their removal from office. In the US, this is a rare political move, but some Democrats are calling for impeaching Trump. At a minimum, a Democratic victory in the elections would complicate the environment in which the president makes foreign policy decisions. 

For all these reasons, the outcome of the Nov. 6 elections matter far beyond US borders. Multiple polls and models suggest that the Democrats are likely to win the House and the Republicans are likely to maintain control of the Senate, although it is plausible that either the Republicans or Democrats could emerge from the elections with full control of Congress. 

Together, the two chambers of Congress have the power to help shape the US’ attitude to the world.

Kerry Boyd Anderson

Assuming that the Democrats win the House, they would have limited but significantly increased influence over Trump’s foreign policy. If Republicans hold the Senate, Democrats would be unable to change the nuts and bolts of foreign policy, but they could use hearings, attempts at legislation and other tools to help shape US priorities and complicate parts of Trump’s agenda. Democrats would likely use their position to place greater weight on human rights issues and immigration reform, for example. Furthermore, through hearings and other efforts, they could openly investigate elements of Trump’s foreign policy, and relations with Russia would be a major focus. 

In this era of heightened partisanship, some foreign policy issues that once were bipartisan are now becoming entwined with partisanship. For example, in the past, there was strong bipartisan support for Israel, but Democrats today are more willing to question Israel’s actions, while Republicans are more devoted than ever to Tel Aviv. In the past, there tended to be bipartisan support for strategic alliances, and that continues to some extent. However, alliances that are seen as closely associated with Trump — even if the alliance goes back decades — might now be something that Democrats would question and possibly oppose.  

If Republicans maintain control of both the Senate and the House, little may change in US foreign policy. However, if the Democrats win the House, they will use their position to question and often oppose Trump’s agenda abroad. If Democrats win both the Senate and House, countries around the world should be prepared for significant potential changes in their relations with the US. 

  • Kerry Boyd Anderson is a writer and political risk consultant with more than 14 years’ experience as a professional analyst of international security issues and Middle East political and business risk. Twitter: @KBAresearch

Read 'The captivating Senate races that could ultimately boost Trump' by Ellen R. Wald

Disclaimer: Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect Arab News' point-of-view