Biden’s Foreign-Policy Agenda Is Still Alive

After disastrous midterms, Republicans will likely be consumed with infighting.

hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
hirsh-michael-foreign-policy-columnist
Michael Hirsh
By , a columnist for Foreign Policy.
Early morning fog envelops the U.S. Capitol.
Early morning fog envelops the U.S. Capitol.
Early morning fog envelops the U.S. Capitol in Washington on Nov. 4. Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The wacky, wildly fluctuating needle of American politics appeared to tip back toward sanity Tuesday night. Trumpism took a serious blow in the still-emerging U.S. midterm election results, but former U.S. President Donald Trump himself is almost certain to stick around and vie for the 2024 nomination—to the lament of many Republicans. That, in turn, all but guarantees serious GOP infighting over the next two years leading up to the 2024 presidential election.

And what this means is that while Republicans battle among themselves, U.S. President Joe Biden will likely have a freer and stronger hand to conduct foreign policy than many people suspected before the election—no matter how the final results shake out.

Why? One can only draw preliminary conclusions at this point, with Senate control still in question and the final House tally yet to come. But at the very least, it is likely that Republican House leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, if he becomes the next House speaker, will have his hands full keeping his raucous caucus on the same page. Like his predecessors former Reps. Paul Ryan and John Boehner, McCarthy will have to placate a hard-right wing of the party—in this case, Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement, which has assumed control of the Freedom Caucus that so troubled Ryan and Boehner. But because McCarthy’s anticipated majority—if it’s confirmed—would be very narrow, he would probably spend much of his time wrangling over domestic issues, such as budget bills and committee assignments as well as MAGA demands to investigate Biden and his family, especially his son Hunter.

The wacky, wildly fluctuating needle of American politics appeared to tip back toward sanity Tuesday night. Trumpism took a serious blow in the still-emerging U.S. midterm election results, but former U.S. President Donald Trump himself is almost certain to stick around and vie for the 2024 nomination—to the lament of many Republicans. That, in turn, all but guarantees serious GOP infighting over the next two years leading up to the 2024 presidential election.

And what this means is that while Republicans battle among themselves, U.S. President Joe Biden will likely have a freer and stronger hand to conduct foreign policy than many people suspected before the election—no matter how the final results shake out.

Why? One can only draw preliminary conclusions at this point, with Senate control still in question and the final House tally yet to come. But at the very least, it is likely that Republican House leader Rep. Kevin McCarthy, if he becomes the next House speaker, will have his hands full keeping his raucous caucus on the same page. Like his predecessors former Reps. Paul Ryan and John Boehner, McCarthy will have to placate a hard-right wing of the party—in this case, Trump’s Make America Great Again (MAGA) movement, which has assumed control of the Freedom Caucus that so troubled Ryan and Boehner. But because McCarthy’s anticipated majority—if it’s confirmed—would be very narrow, he would probably spend much of his time wrangling over domestic issues, such as budget bills and committee assignments as well as MAGA demands to investigate Biden and his family, especially his son Hunter.

Beyond that, Tuesday’s results suggest that the Republicans will be even less consistent in their criticism on foreign policy than they have been—especially on issues such as aid to Ukraine. That could weaken the party’s influence on policy. “I don’t think the Republicans really have a unified message on foreign policy,” said Todd Belt, a politics expert at George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management. “For example, half of the Republicans seem to support Ukraine aid and half are against.”

Before the election, McCarthy suggested there would no longer be a “blank check” on aid to Ukraine, but the Republican majority is still likely to support further assistance, albeit with more checks on weapons and money. (One wild card: With such a thin majority, far-right extremists like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a Kremlin media favorite, who oppose aid to Ukraine could actually gain influence.) House Republicans will also likely use their new platform to criticize European allies for insufficiently paying for joint defense of Ukraine; the United States has contributed more toward Ukraine’s defense than all of its European partners combined.

On other key issues—such as China, Iran, and relations with Saudi Arabia—Biden is already pursuing a tough line, often with Republican support. And if McCarthy does assume the speakership with a much-slimmer-than-expected majority, he will face problems in finding enough like-minded Republicans to fill standing and investigatory committees—thanks to a rule that members can’t serve on more than six panels. “Because of that, any defection on any piece of legislation or any budget bill from the right wing could really affect his ability to govern,” Belt said.

No doubt, a Republican majority in the House would supply the party with a major—and disruptive—megaphone heard around the world. Relations with China, already extremely tense, could worsen as new prospective Republican committee heads take over—in particular, Rep. Michael McCaul, who has called for more defense of Taiwan and could chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee, and Rep. Mike Rogers of Alabama, who would head the House Armed Services Committee and is pushing for more Indo-Pacific defense measures. Some of these newly empowered Republicans are likely to emulate current Speaker Rep. Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taiwan, which all but shut down U.S.-China climate talks this year.

But Biden is already leading a hard-line bipartisan approach, including helping arm Australia and Japan; forming the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue with Japan, India, and Australia; and sponsoring a protectionist industrial policy aimed at boosting U.S. competitiveness against China, including in semiconductor manufacturing. As China expert Jon Bateman recently wrote in Foreign Policy, it’s going to be hard to out-hawk Biden after his administration imposed new controls on technological transfers that “reveal a single-minded focus on thwarting Chinese capabilities at a broad and fundamental level. This shift portends even harsher U.S. measures to come, not only in advanced computing but also in other sectors (like biotech, manufacturing, and finance) deemed strategic.”

“I don’t think there’s a ton of daylight on a lot of issues between Republicans and the Biden administration when it comes to China policy,” said Anna Ashton, a China expert at Eurasia Group, in a forum on Wednesday.

And if the Democrats end up retaining their razor-thin control of the Senate—races in Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada are still undecided—Biden will be able to push through crucial appointments for ambassadors, judges, and other important policy positions while “the House will look increasingly fractious, obstructionist, and extreme” by comparison, said Lara Brown, a political scientist and author of Jockeying for the American Presidency: The Political Opportunism of Aspirants. “And if Republicans continue to go down the road of investigations and impeachment of Biden, Republican senators are not going to want to do that.”

More even than in the last election, the Republican Party appears to be seriously fractured. Although a number of Trump-endorsed election deniers—those who echo Trump’s false claims about winning the 2020 election—won on Tuesday, a larger number of the highest-profile candidates aligned with Trump lost. Among them were key Senate races, including Mehmet Oz in Pennsylvania and Don Bolduc in New Hampshire. In the House, at least eight Trump-endorsed candidates lost, among them such key races as Ohios 9th District, where longtime Democratic Rep. Marcy Kaptur defeated J.R. Majewski despite Republican redistricting, and Virginias 7th District, where Yesli Vega lost to Rep. Abigail Spanberger. Other prominent election-deniers fell in gubernatorial races—among them Tudor Dixon, who lost to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer in Michigan; Doug Mastriano, who fell to Josh Shapiro in Pennsylvania; and Rep. Lee Zeldin, who lost to Gov. Kathy Hochul in New York. In Arizona, election denier Kari Lake, one of Trump’s most loyal acolytes, narrowly trails her Democratic rival, Katie Hobbs.

Following the election, many conservative pundits openly portrayed Trump as an albatross holding the party down. Ken Griffin, CEO of investment firm Citadel and one of the Republican Party’s biggest donors, told Politico it’s time to “move on” from Trump. Appearing on Fox News, conservative columnist Marc Thiessen said the fact that the party didn’t do better despite Biden’s low approval ratings and high inflation was an “absolute disaster.” Even the conservative media conglomerate run by Rupert Murdoch, which once backed Trump, responded by suggesting he step aside. The Murdoch-run New York Post featured a picture of the night’s biggest Republican winner, Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, with the headline: “DeFUTURE.”

American adversaries overseas, especially the Kremlin, pinned their hopes on a red wave that they believed could end U.S. support for Ukraine while furthering divisions in U.S. society; they are still coping. Julia Davis, a journalist who runs the Russian Media Monitor, quoted Andrey Sidorov, deputy dean of world politics at Moscow State University, who said before the vote that “Trump generates a lot of hatred in America’s society. From my standpoint, the more they hate each other, the better it is for us.”

Meanwhile for U.S. allies, the midterm results reflect a hope that the nation will be able to finally move beyond Trump’s extremism, isolationism, and enmity toward NATO and other international compacts. “At some level, Trump’s biggest achievement was in convincing Republicans that he was a winner,” Brown said.

That no longer seems the case.

Michael Hirsh is a columnist for Foreign Policy. He is the author of two books: Capital Offense: How Washington’s Wise Men Turned America’s Future Over to Wall Street and At War With Ourselves: Why America Is Squandering Its Chance to Build a Better World. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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