A peculiar feature of American democracy is that it has an election every two years. The midterm elections replace a proportion of the senate members and return some representatives to the House. The constitutional exercise, however, does not have the thunder of a presidential election as it produces little change in the government's policies and shifts no ground in the White House. Given that, foreign policy has little effect on either informing the voters and swinging their choices on the ballot or determining the course of the foreign policy works of the presidential administration either. But the 2022 midterms were considered crucial because they happened under the pall of a European war, an aggressive China, and closer home, galloping inflation. As the Republican Party grapples with its rather abysmal midterm performance, the results sure will impact the domestic and foreign policy front. Despite the odds being heavily favoured for the Republicans to take over Congress, it was projected that the Reds would be gaining a sizeable majority in the House and pipping the Democrats in the Senate. But once all the races were called, the Republicans had to settle for far less than they expected. Although the midterm results defied the expectations of the GOP, they have managed to wrestle back the House of Representatives, leading to a divided Congress as the Democratic Party has retained its majority in the Senate. As the dust of the electoral contest settles down, the article examines the implication of a divided Congress on the Biden administration’s foreign policy initiatives.
Blue, Red, and the Purple Patch: Bipartisanism in the US Foreign Policy under Biden
It is being argued that the US foreign policy will largely demonstrate relative uniformity/stability amidst an otherwise polarised Congress. There seems to be a consensus between the republicans and democrats regarding the challenges confronting the US primacy in international politics, making it (the foreign policy) the purple patch as the red and blue of American politics seems to be broadly converging. According to the Pew Research survey, both republicans (83%) and democrats (68%) have a negative view of China, signifying a consensus on the China policy. In one of the rare displays of bipartisanship, the American senate approved a competition bill targeting China’s manufacturing last year. The bill attempts to achieve this objective by incentivizing manufacturing in the US and targeting China’s economic/trade malpractices. Other than boosting manufacturing of high-end products like semiconductors, mandating local procurement of materials like steel for infra projects funded by the federal government, and boosting scientific research, it attempts to target China’s trade malpractices by building a coalition with like-minded countries like Japan, and Australia in stopping imports of goods from China that are deemed to violate the Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). The bill further envisages an independent task force to study China’s market manipulation. The bill's passage by 68-32 brings the bipartisan consensus on America’s China policy to the fore.
Another important test case of bipartisanship for the Biden administration’s foreign policy will be the US aid to Ukraine in the wake of the Russian invasion. Post GOP’s control of the house, there are speculations about the return of America's first conservatives adversely impacting the US assistance to Ukraine; statements by GOP leaders like Kevin McCarthy, the republican leader and contender for the speaker of the House have added fuel to this speculation. He noted that Republicans wouldn’t support a ‘blank cheque’ for Ukraine. However, there is much more than what meets the eye. GOP leaders like Mitch McConnell and Richard Shelby have strongly argued for US assistance to Ukraine. As of today, Ukraine is the highest recipient of US Aid; this is the first time since the Truman administration’s Marshall plan that any European country has come to occupy the spot. Reportedly, a total of USD 5O billion worth of aid ranging from humanitarian to the military was provided by the US to Ukraine. Ukraine tops the tally for US military assistance; the table below shows the same.
Source: CFR, 2022
This shows that American aid to Ukraine enjoys bipartisan support in the house. Recently, a letter signed by thirty ‘progressive’ democrats asking President Biden to negotiate with Russia was withdrawn after all-around criticism. These suggest that notwithstanding occasional statements and posturing, the US support to Ukraine in terms of military and humanitarian aid is poised to be steady. This is also evident from the mood of everyday Americans; according to a survey by the Gallup poll, close to 66% of Americans support the Ukrainian resistance against Russia, even at the cost of prolonged war.
Indo-Pacific Policy is another significant theatre of the US foreign policy that deserves examination in the wake of midterm results. It is being argued that the GOP’s control of the house could result in a tick in defence spending esp.Domestic defence spending/manufacturing; would be reassuring for US allies and partners in the Indo-Pacific region. Speaking of allies, the senate committee on foreign relations’ approval of the Taiwan policy Act aimed at strengthening the US-Taiwan bilateral ties by bolstering the defence of Taiwan and pledging a commitment of USD 6.5 billion for modernising the Taiwanese military too points to growing convergence on tough US against Chinese aggression. Interestingly, this act was introduced by the GOP leader Michael McCaul alongside 35 other republicans. Therefore, GOP’s control over the house could see a more resolute US foreign policy posturing in the Indo-Pacific, entailing siding/arming allies and partners.
Next, speaking of trade, the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) unveiled by the Biden administration in the wake of the US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is viewed as a significant initiative of economic statecraft on the part of the US. Here, it is expected that the GOP could support trade liberalisation arrangements as lower tariff rates for the US goods could benefit farmers-a traditional vote bank of the GOP. This would also help in countering China in overall global trade. It is worth noting that notwithstanding the negativity surrounding trade agreements, the US-Mexico-Canada (USMC) free trade agreement received substantial bipartisan support. The inclusion of activistic provisions like stringent labor laws etc., in IPEF is somewhat similar to USMC, which received bipartisan support.
The semblance of convergence, i.e., the purple patch in an otherwise polarised US politics, suggests that while political parties have their respective interests, the state has its reason. Here, the US state has reason to resist the challenge to its fading unipolar moment from China. The initiatives like the China competitiveness bill and Taiwan policy act, alongside attempts to forge defence partnerships with partners around the Indo-Pacific region, could be interpreted as an attempt to balance China without containment. Given the integration of China into today’s economy, it is a herculean task for a declining hegemon (the US) to outrightly contain China, as, unlike the cold war era, the world today is characterised more by dense economic interaction rather than ideological camps. This has prompted the US, its allies, and its partners to re-think globalisation, especially in the post-covid world. Therefore, we are witnessing the rush to secure supply chains and bring back manufacturing increasingly characterising the US foreign policy- be it Blue or Red. Thus, the competitiveness bill shows a form of economic balancing against China. Next, talks about domestic defence expenditure could be interpreted as a means to balance China’s aggressive intent in the Indo-Pacific. Next, initiatives like the Taiwan policy Act aimed at modernising Taiwan’s defence, followed by attempts to deepen defence cooperation with countries like India, could be interpreted as a means to balance China’s rise by equipping regional powers. Quad- a consortium of four democracies could also be viewed as a balancing instrument against the increasingly assertive China. Thus, the convergence of GOP and democrats in the realm of foreign policy is indicative of the reasons for the US state that transcends party-wise compartmentalization.