Daniel W. Drezner

Long-term thoughts about the midterms

I see I wasn’t the only one to muse about the effect of the midterm elections on American foreign policy. See Bruce Stokes, Richard Haass, James Lindsay, Daniel Larison at various other parts of the interwebs, as well as FP’s own Phil Levy, Marc Lynch, Peter Feaver, and Steve Walt. Reading all of this accumulated wisdom doesn’t ...

I see I wasn’t the only one to muse about the effect of the midterm elections on American foreign policy. See Bruce Stokes, Richard Haass, James Lindsay, Daniel Larison at various other parts of the interwebs, as well as FP’s own Phil Levy, Marc Lynch, Peter Feaver, and Steve Walt.

Reading all of this accumulated wisdom doesn’t change my mind all that much. For example, I don’t disagree that a more conservative Congress will be even more obstreperous in blocking Obama’s foreign affairs appointees than it was previously. To be sure, this has a profound effect on individual lives and careers — but it doesn’t really matter all that much in the grand scheme of things. The cumulative effect might be problematic, in that a more obstructionist Congress might lead to some policymakers staying in office for a longer-than-optimal period of time.

On the other hand, I find the notion that a resurgent GOP will contribute to a more adventuresome foreign policy in the Middle East to be pretty absurd. First, to repeat, the administration holds almost all of the policy levers. Sure, Congress can sanction Iran — again — but it’s not like that’s going to change anything.

In his post, Lynch implies that Congress can browbeat Obama into supporting regime change in an echo of the Iraq Liberation Act. I’d point out that it’s not 1998 anymore — Obama is unlikely to fall for the same trap that befell Clinton. Oh, and by the way, the American public is really sick of the current wars, ain’t looking for a new one, and clearly wants Washington to focus on the economy and job creation. Republicans know that they didn’t get elected because of their foreign policy views. If they start making noise about Iran, I’d imagine the administration lambasting them for taking their eye off the economy.

No, the more I think about it, there is one obvious effect and one longer-term effect that the midterm swing will have on American foreign policy.

The obvious effect is that gridlock will make it that much more difficult for Washington to get a grip on long-term policy problems like debt reduction and global warming. There’s no way that any climate change legislation will get through, and I’m pessimistic that the deficit commission will trigger a grand bargain on getting America’s financial house in order. None of this will matter much over the next two years, but it will start to matter more over the next two decades.

The more subtle, pernicious effect is that paralysis in the elected branches will lead to more populist outrage at the unelected portions of the U.S. government. Consider, for example, the Fed’s decision yesterday to engage in $600 billion more of quantitative easing (translated into plain English here). In today’s Washington Post op-ed explaining this action, Ben Bernanke had an interesting comment in his closing section:

The Federal Reserve cannot solve all the economy’s problems on its own. That will take time and the combined efforts of many parties, including the central bank, Congress, the administration, regulators and the private sector.

He’s right, but think about this for a second. If Congress and the administration can’t agree on anything, then the only public actors capable of taking concrete action on the economy are the central bank and the regulators. These institutions are already ridiculously unpopular. Being forced to take imperfect actions because of elected branch paralysis won’t help matters (compared to fiscal and tax policies, there’s only so much that quantitative easing can do to stimulate the economy). If you think hostility to elected elites is high, wait until the focus switches to unelected elites.

Note that all of this is contingent on the economy continuing to stink. Robust economic growth will ease populist anger, which will blunt some of the effects I just discussed.

So, in the short term, I still don’t think U.S. foreign policy will change all that much. The long-term effects of gridlock combined with a persistently sour economy, however, could be very worrisome.

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School. He blogged regularly for Foreign Policy from 2009 to 2014. Twitter: @dandrezner

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