The U.S. midterm elections have resulted in divided government returning to Washington. Democrats will control the House of Representatives while Republicans have enlarged their majority in the Senate. Foreign and defense policy played virtually no role in a campaign that was dominated by domestic issues, such as health care, immigration, the economy and gun policy. Voters who dislike the president’s tone on international matters do not necessarily favor a deeper U.S. engagement in world affairs.
While international issues were not a focus of the electorate, the midterms may nonetheless result in some subtle shifts in U.S. policy. Here are key trends to watch in 2019 on issues that might impact the global community:
U.S.-CHINA RELATIONS: The Trump administration has staked out an aggressive position on China, but its concerns on geopolitics, trade and technology are widely shared and rooted in genuine frictions. Democrats in Congress are likely to give the president the latitude to pursue an agreement with China in 2019, unless talks threaten to create permanent damage in bilateral relations or harm domestic constituencies.
President Trump and President Xi are scheduled to meet at the end of November on the sidelines of the G20 summit, which could establish a framework for negotiations or result in the administration pursuing an even more aggressive trade and intellectual property theft approach toward China.
TRADE: Democrats have expressed concern over President Trump’s use of Section 232 to impose tariffs on steel, aluminum and propose tariffs on autos and parts. House Democrats will try to restrain any administration overreach on trade, while seeking to influence negotiations with the European Union, Japan and a post-Brexit United Kingdom in 2019.
Congress will take up ratification of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada (USMCA) agreement next year. Democrats say they want tougher labor and environment provisions in the agreement, which could mean an uphill political fight for USMCA in the House of Representatives. If Democratic support is not forthcoming, the president could threaten to withdraw the United States from the existing NAFTA agreement and blame Democrats for the ensuing economic chaos.
FOREIGN POLICY: U.S. presidents have considerable authority to conduct foreign policy with little interference from Congress. This means the Trump administration’s “America first” approach to international relations will continue. Democrats could investigate aspects of Trump’s foreign policy — ties to Russia, withdrawals from the Paris climate accord and the Iran denuclearization agreement, sanctions policy and the negotiations with North Korea, among others.
Democrats will also seek to provide greater oversight of Pentagon and State department operations. In the Middle East, Democrats may push for sanctions against Saudi Arabia and an end to any U.S. support in the war in Yemen. But on his broad foreign policy worldview, President Trump will have support from an enhanced Republican majority in the U.S. Senate, where his most vocal critic on foreign policy — Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — has retired.
IMMIGRATION: In the final weeks of the election, President Trump sought to rally his conservative base with immigration fears. However, polling indicates that immigration might have cost House Republicans support among women and suburban voters. The president will have to negotiate immigration reform with House Democrats who favor a more lenient policy. Democrats are not likely to fund the president’s U.S.-Mexico border wall. The caravan of Central American migrants currently heading toward the southern U.S. border will pose an early test of whether the administration and Democrats can work together on immigration.
CABINET CHANGES: Republicans have increased their majority in the Senate and one result could be an easier path for confirmation of any foreign policy cabinet changes. There is speculation that Secretary of Defense Jim Mattis and Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross could leave the administration, and Attorney General Jeff Sessions resigned earlier today. Other key players on the president’s international team — Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Secretary of the Treasury Steve Mnuchin and U.S. Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer — are likely to stay on in their current positions. The president will also nominate a new UN ambassador.
U.S. relations with Russia will continue to be impacted by the Mueller investigation and likely Democratic probes. Democrats will be ready to fuel any Mueller findings of Trump misconduct…To date, there is no evidence that Russia or other countries attempted to interfere in the U.S. midterm elections.
The Trump administration will move forward with economic sanctions against Iran, despite opposition from key allies around the world…Any effort by House Democrats to legislate on climate change or global poverty will find resistance in the Republican Senate.
Democrats in Congress might attempt to reverse corporate tax reform next year, but Republicans will counter their effort.
Democrats could reauthorize the Export-Import Bank.
New governments in Brazil, Mexico and Colombia may require an increased focus by the administration and Congress on Latin America.
Finally, the 2020 presidential contest begins today, with several Democrats seeking to position themselves to run — and likely offering a different worldview than the current administration.
By Jim Meszaros, Executive Vice President, International Public Affairs at Weber Shandwick, Washingtion D.C.