The issue of US foreign policy has hardly played a role in the Congressional midterm elections campaign. However, the outcome might well have an impact on Washington's relations with the rest of the world.
The foreign policy leanings of many Tea Party candidates are unclear
When American voters head to the polls to elect a new House of Representatives and 37 new senators, there is perhaps nothing that sums up their sentiment better than the old adage from Bill Clinton's 1992 presidential campaign: "It's the economy, stupid."
And with unemployment hovering at close to 10 percent, a collapsed housing market and a stuttering economy, there certainly is ample reason for voters to worry about their personal well-being.
To be sure, there are definitely enough foreign policy issues that would merit the electorate's attention too: A war in Afghanistan, now in its ninth year, which is not going well, a tense situation in the Middle East with US-sponsored negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians always on the verge of collapse, Iran's alleged efforts to acquire nuclear weapons still unresolved and North Korea in the middle of a leadership handover.
But all of that doesn't really matter, says Thomas E. Mann, a congressional scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington: "For the most part the public is so distressed and pessimistic about the economy that that is what's dominating the campaigns," he told Deutsche Welle.
International issues on the sidelines
The only way foreign policy gets any traction as an election topic is when it relates to a domestic issue, adds Mann. China, for example, plays a role in certain campaigns when trade issues or the currency imbalances are discussed. And Mexico is addressed when illegal immigration and its effect on the economy is debated. Other than that, domestic issues, especially the economy, dominate the midterm elections almost completely.
While foreign policy issues have no impact on the election, the results of the elections could well have an impact on US foreign policy. If, as most pollsters predict, the Republicans win back the House of Representatives and stand a small chance of also retaking the Senate, this will have implications for the way Washington carries out international relations.
"There are a lot of Republican candidates running for the house who are Tea Party candidates, who are very hard-right candidates," Douglas Foyle, a professor at Wesleyan University who has researched about the impact of domestic issues on international relations, told Deutsche Welle. "They haven't said too much about foreign policy and so it's anybody's guess what they are going to do once they get into office."
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What the Tea Party candidates have said very clearly however, is that they want to balance the budget.
"If they are going to balance the budget, they will have to cut defense spending because that's about half of all discretionary federal spending," notes Foyle. "And pulling back in foreign policy in terms of the military is not something that traditionally the Republicans would do."
Future of the Republican Party
His colleague Mann also sees a chance of a "significant number of Tea Party-based Republicans coming in to the Senate with rather extreme views on the limited role for government and really hostile sentiments toward globalization and international organizations." He adds: "If this group were to gain the upper hand in the Republican Party we would have one center-left party and one extreme-right party in the country. That's not reassuring."
Regardless how the soul searching of the Republican Party ends, the party's majority in one or both chambers of congress would have an impact on US foreign policy in any case.
While the president has considerably more leeway to pursue his own course in international affairs than on the domestic front and also serves as the commander-in-chief of the military, he can't disregard Congress entirely. First, Congress approves the budget and through that can influence policy as well.
"Let's look at Afghanistan for example," Juergen Chrobog, Germany's former ambassador in Washington who now heads the BMW Foundation Herbert Quandt, told Deutsche Welle: "The troops and the war must be financed. And here the members of Congress have an enormous lever: They can give more or less."
Treaties face tough obstacles
What's more, Congress is also needed to ratify international treaties. Even with a sizeable majority in both chambers during the first half of his term, President Barack Obama couldn't get a climate change treaty through Congress. With a Republican majority in one or both chambers of Congress, predict the experts, a climate change treaty which must be ratified by a two-thirds majority in the Senate is all but dead.
The fate of the new Start treaty, the follow-up to the original nuclear disarmament pact signed by Republican icon Ronald Reagan and Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, is also uncertain. The lame duck Senate will vote on the issue in the middle of November. Whether it goes through is still unclear. If it doesn't, it seems rather unlikely that it will have an easier time in the new Senate.
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"I don't see any major treaties like these being ratified, at least not easily," says Chrobog. "I hope that President Obama and the Democrats at least keep their majority in the Senate."
The likely swing to the right in the midterm elections could make US foreign policy less predictable and more complicated, argue the experts. Still, they add, Europeans shouldn't fret too much about the outcome of the polls.
"I think the most important thing for those looking from abroad at this election is to realize this is not fundamentally about ideology," says Mann. "This is about Americans being scared and sour and pessimistic about our economic well-being and instinctively voting against the party in power."
Author: Michael Knigge
Editor: Rob Mudge