I’ve been a witness to the way the world processes American political dialogue. As a young speechwriter, I was puzzled when my boss erased an applause line that could have been misinterpreted overseas. When I arrived at the State Department, I learned he was right: foreign diplomats consume our news voraciously. A great line in Dubuque might not be worth the headache in Dubai. The whole world always watches America’s elections, but few will keep them glued to their televisions like the one on Nov. 6, when voters go to the polls in congressional midterm elections.
Conventional wisdom has it that a Democratic wave is soon arriving, to change control of at least one house of Congress two years into the Trump administration. The American political deck will likely be reshuffled – and with it the geopolitical one as well. How will it resonate beyond our shores? The answer is, more and less than you might think.
First, some context. Donald Trump’s low approval ratings have been an anchor around Republicans’ necks. But he would be far from the first American president to receive a failing midterm grade. In fact, U.S. politics, dating back to 1974 when Democrats took 49 seats from the Republicans in a repudiation of Nixon and Watergate, has been punctuated by “wave” elections delivering a message of discontent – including 1982 for Democrats unhappy with Reagan, 1994 for the anti-Clinton Republicans, and 2010 for the Tea Party Republicans who opposed Obama. Yet Presidents Reagan, Clinton, and Obama were all reelected when they next faced the voters. A tsunami could wipe out Trump’s majority in the House of Representatives, but the map of Senate races still favors the Republican Party. Trump is likely to still have a Senate backstop after the election, and time to recalibrate.
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But if Trump loses the House the world would assess a realigned Washington very differently. Obama headed to Asia right after the 2010 midterm losses. His appearance on the world stage implicitly reminded the public at home of something Bill Clinton felt compelled to express explicitly after his party’s losses in 1994: the American president is always relevant.
What would Trump do in a new dynamic?
Trump faces two immediate international tests. First, when he sees Russian President Vladimir Putin in Paris on Nov. 11, he must avoid a repeat of the Helsinki fiasco, where the U.S. president received widespread condemnation for praising his Russian counterpart and rejecting the U.S. intelligence agencies’ finding that Moscow had meddled in the 2016 U.S. election. Trump’s post-midterm challenge will be complicated: he can’t afford to again appear tone-deaf about Russia and further alienate his ever-more important Republican base. But he needs to demonstrate that his outreach to Moscow has borne some fruit. Putin may be inclined to throw Trump a lifeline. National Security Adviser John Bolton will be under pressure to determine whether any Putin offering – such as greater cooperation on Syria, Ukraine, or Iran – is real, or a ruse.
At the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires Nov. 30, Trump faces an even bigger test: a meeting with China’s Xi Jinping. If he suffers significant electoral losses, Trump will be under pressure to deescalate a trade war that’s always been a sore spot for his Republican supporters. But will Beijing, with its patient command and control authoritarian system, rush to resolve a trade war begun by a president it may now see as permanently weakened? China is more insulated and better able to function as a “resistance economy,” but a “freeze for freeze” on tariffs while the two countries return to negotiations may benefit mutual interests. Trump may also seek greater Chinese cooperation on North Korea, but is unlikely to get it if his administration doubles down on a growing anti-China narrative. Was Vice President Mike Pence’s tough-talking China speech on Oct. 4 a preview of escalation against Beijing, or will Trump instead pursue strategic cooperation?
These are among the vital questions a weakened president would have to answer. If Republicans lose power, his North Korean diplomatic gambit will be tested: Kim Jong Un may perceive that Trump will now be even more desperate for a “win” on the world stage. Will Trump continue to base his North Korea policy on his personal relationship with the dictator with whom he says he “fell in love” – or reach out for greater leverage from the allies he often finds frustrating?
Certainly, at home and abroad all of these calculations will be affected by political jockeying, which will only intensify. On the day after the midterms, an “invisible primary” among Democrats will begin in earnest to choose a candidate capable of winning in 2020. The Democrats will have to define a foreign policy for that campaign, navigating thorny issues that include articulating an alternative to Trumpism globally while still reconnecting with persuadable Trump voters who feel left behind by globalization. In other words, Trump is not the only one with a difficult dance to perform.
Americans rarely vote on foreign policy, and certainly issues from healthcare to jobs and immigration are on the ballot in bold font, looming far larger than America’s place in the world. But the outcome will nonetheless set the stage for how Trump navigates the next two years of his presidency, both among voters and international leaders. Will Trump be emboldened, or undermined, as he pursues his foreign policy? By Nov. 7, we will begin to have our answer.
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