Stephen M. Walt

What the election means for foreign policy (yawn) (UPDATED)

I’m sure you political junkies out there are busy chewing over last night’s election results, and I admit I spent a bit too much time last night reading and monitoring what was happening in various races. I like a three-ring circus as much as anyone, and it’s hard to take one’s eyes off a ...

I’m sure you political junkies out there are busy chewing over last night’s election results, and I admit I spent a bit too much time last night reading and monitoring what was happening in various races. I like a three-ring circus as much as anyone, and it’s hard to take one’s eyes off a train-wreck too.   

Of course, the really critical race to watch was for the County Board of DeKalb County, Illinois. The race in District 6 pitted incumbent Republican Steve Walt against Democrat Bob Brown, but somehow this important contest escaped the attention of CNN, the New York Times, and hot-shot election analysts like Nate Silver. So I can’t confirm that my namesake won, but surely the outcome of that race must mean something.

But I digress. Truth be told, I’m with all of those people — such as FP colleague Dan Drezner — who said this election is neither about foreign policy nor likely to affect foreign policy very much. A few points to keep in mind as you digest the final tallies.

  1. As Dan notes, the Executive Branch has primary authority over foreign policy, and especially at this stage in the evolution (if that is the right word) of the American republic. Obama is still commander-in-chief, his appointees are in charge at Defense, State, Treasury, and the intelligence agencies. Given that the Senate remains in Democratic hands, Congress cannot force President Obama to do anything he really doesn’t want to do, although they may refuse to fund initiatives that the White House might favor. (But how often does that really happen?) On the vast majority of foreign policy issues, in short, the initiative will remain in the White House. So if you’re thinking the election makes war with Iran more likely, or anything crazy like that, think again. We might do something that stupid, but if so it will be Obama’s mistake, not John Boehner’s.
  2. As I’ve repeated ad nauseum over the past few months, there just aren’t a lot of low-hanging fruit in the international arena, and that would be true even if the mid-term elections had gone completely the other way. Democratic control of the House and a supermajority in the Senate wouldn’t make Iran more compliant, wouldn’t make the Taliban run up the white flag, wouldn’t make Hamid Karzai shun corruption, and wouldn’t make Beijing more inclined to revalue its currency. The composition of Congress isn’t going to have the slightest effect on the drug wars in Mexico, the dysfunctional politics of Pakistan, or the hostility of Al Qaeda and its various clones. It’s not even going to make a difference on climate change, because Obama couldn’t get an energy and climate bill passed back when the Dems had both houses of Congress in their grasp.
  3. Unlike Aaron Miller, I don’t think this situation means Obama should just put foreign policy on the back burner, but the fact of the matter is that it is the nature of these international problems that makes them hard to solve, not the balance of power on Capitol Hill. And on Israel-Palestine, the one big issue where domestic politics does loom large, both parties are still in thrall to the Israel lobby so last night’s vote makes little difference. 
  4. What will determine our foreign policy prospects over the next couple of years are various external circumstances and broad structural forces, and not the outcome of last night’s assorted horse races.  

First and foremost is America’s parlous economic condition: if the economy doesn’t improve, we’ll be pinching pennies across the board and our international clout will decline accordingly. As other great powers have discovered to their sorrow, it is damn hard to run the world when you owe lots of people money and your debts keep piling up and you’re stuck in costly wars. Is divided government means gridlock then this problem could get worse– as Paul Krugman has warned — but the midterm results didn’t create it.

Second, does Obama have the will and/or skill to extricate us from the war in Afghanistan, and does he have to keep a lot of U.S. troops in Iraq to keep it from spiraling back into large-scale sectarian violence? If he can’t get out of these costly quagmires, then his ability to make bold initiatives elsewhere will be limited. 

Third, does he write off the Middle East peace process as a lost cause, does he try a "new" (?!) team, or does he finally bite the bullet and say what he thinks a final status agreement ought to look like? Does he commit himself to ramming a peace deal through, even at the risk of being a one-term president like Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush? (It is no accident, by the way, that former Israeli foreign minister Shlomo Ben-Ami once wrote that Carter and the elder Bush had done more to help the cause of peace than any other U.S. presidents, and incurred the wrath of the lobby in the process). And do any of the local leaders show a little daring and imagination, and actually do something that might make peace more likely?

Fourth, now’s the time when initial appointees start jumping ship, and it will be interesting to see who follows former National Security Advisor James Jones out the door. Pay special attention to appointees from academia, because most universities don’t allow faculty to be on leave for more than two years, and the clock is ticking. Given how little Obama has accomplished in foreign policy so far, a fresh team might be just what he needs.

Finally, do real or potential rivals make things easier by committing some blunders of their own (as China did by overplaying its recent dispute with Japan), or are other states able to take advantage of our current discomfiture in smart ways? If the former, so much the better for us; if the latter, look out.

Those are the sort of things that will determine how U.S. foreign policy gets conducted over the next two years, and not which party gets to wield the gavel in all those committee meetings in Congress.

UPDATE #1:  Through the magic of Google, I can now report that Dekalb County defied national trends, and Democrat Bob Brown has defeated Steve Walt for the District 6 seat on the Dekalb Country board.  I can only hope this result does not herald a national trend against people who are interested in politics and happen to be named Steve Walt.

UPDATE #2:  The most depressing analysis of last night’s events that I’ve seen thus far is from John Judis here (h/t Andrew Sullivan), and I am sorry to say that I also find it quite convincing.  It dovetails with my point about our economic condition being the single most critical element shaping our foreign policy, and really does make me wonder about the future.  

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University. @stephenwalt
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