It's Debatable

Intervention or Restraint? A Washington debate on pressing issues for policymakers.

Will U.S. Midterm Results Affect Washington’s Foreign Policy?

A Republican-led House could mean a more hawkish stance on China and less aid for Ukraine—or more of the same.

By , a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, and , deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security.
Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate J.D. Vance greet supporters during the rally on Nov. 7 in Vandalia, Ohio. 
Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate J.D. Vance greet supporters during the rally on Nov. 7 in Vandalia, Ohio. 
Former U.S. President Donald Trump and Republican candidate for U.S. Senate J.D. Vance greet supporters during the rally on Nov. 7 in Vandalia, Ohio.  Drew Angerer/Getty Images
It's Debatable

Emma Ashford: Welcome to It’s Debatable, Global Edition! Matt—where are you joining us from today?

Matthew Kroenig: Greetings from Bali, Indonesia! I am here with the Atlantic Council putting on an official G-20 sideline event on food security. It is a typical think tank conference with panels, expert roundtables, tropical beaches—and a musical performance by the award-winning singer-songwriter John Legend. Join us virtually!

Where are you?

Emma Ashford: Welcome to It’s Debatable, Global Edition! Matt—where are you joining us from today?

Matthew Kroenig: Greetings from Bali, Indonesia! I am here with the Atlantic Council putting on an official G-20 sideline event on food security. It is a typical think tank conference with panels, expert roundtables, tropical beaches—and a musical performance by the award-winning singer-songwriter John Legend. Join us virtually!

Where are you?

EA: While you surf with celebrities, I’m in cold, snowy Rovaniemi in Finland, talking to Finns about energy security and the war in Ukraine. Rovaniemi is the capital of Lapland but is better known as the official home of Santa Claus. While I’m here, perhaps I should take the time to ask Santa for a mild winter and a milder European energy crisis?

MK: A mild winter would make for a nice Christmas present. It will also help all the U.S. politicians who will be out in the cold after losing their election bids on Tuesday.

What is your take on the results and what it will mean for U.S. foreign policy for the next two years?

EA: Once again, it seems that we’ll be waiting for final election results for several weeks. It’s not just the abysmal American habit of slow vote counting, but also the fact that the Senate race in Georgia will once again go to a runoff election in early December.

But the one thing we do know is that the prophesied “red wave” failed to materialize. Instead, we’ve got what looks like a razor-thin Republican margin in the House and a toss-up in the Senate. That seems to have been as much a reflection of the low-quality candidates that Republicans ran as anything else, given Joe Biden’s terrible presidential approval ratings.

Foreign policy seems to have played very little role in the election. On one level, that shouldn’t have been a surprise; voters almost never prioritize foreign-policy issues in elections. And even the intersection of inflation, gas prices, and the war in Ukraine seems not to have swung voters substantially as an issue.

A narrower Republican victory in the House may give more power to conservative Republicans who favor things like cutting back on aid to Ukraine and pushing burden-sharing among allies.

But that doesn’t mean that foreign policy won’t be impacted by this election. Somewhat ironically, a narrower Republican victory in the House may give more power to conservative Republicans who favor things like cutting back on aid to Ukraine and pushing burden-sharing among allies. And the election of [Senate candidate] J.D. Vance in Ohio seems notable; Vance was an outspoken advocate of an “America First” approach to foreign policy, including limiting aid to Ukraine and pushing burden-sharing among U.S. allies.

Also notable on that front was Sen. Mike Lee’s win over Evan McMullin in Utah. Lee has been an outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy in recent years, while his opponent was known for his strong ties to [George W.] Bush-era neoconservatives like Bill Kristol.

MK: We could speculate what a Republican House might mean for U.S. foreign policy, or we could just listen to what Republican leaders are actually saying. Kevin McCarthy, the likely future Speaker of the House, said his statement about there being no “blank check” for aid to Ukraine was taken out of context. He was not making a policy statement but an obvious point about checks and balances with a Republican House exercising more oversight over a Democratic White House. McCarthy said his policy priority will be border security.

EA: It was taken out of context, perhaps, but there’s a definite trend among House Republicans toward skepticism of Ukraine aid. I suspect weapons and military aid will continue quite easily, but it’s going to be more difficult for the administration to get any more large packages of direct fiscal support through. McCarthy’s remarks were quite literal: Ukraine aid will continue, but from here on, it’s unlikely to be the blank check it’s mostly been so far.

Though, of course, I also expect a Republican House majority to spend a sizable chunk of its time investigating Biden and writing anti-China legislation.

MK: That is correct. Mike McCaul, the likely chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, explained to me at an Atlantic Council event that his priority will be strengthening export controls to prevent China’s intellectual property theft. This will include a review of the U.S. Department of Commerce, which still waves through more than 90 percent of tech exports to China.

Mike Turner, likely future chairman of House Intelligence Committee, told the Atlantic Council that he wants to depoliticize intelligence after the controversies of the Trump years and reorient the intelligence community for great power competition with China.

And Mike Rogers (apparently Mike was the go-to name for conservative families circa 1960), likely future chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, wants to increase defense spending to the Indo-Pacific to focus on—you guessed it—competing with China.

In short, I see a Republican majority in Congress pursuing pretty standard right-of-center policies that should cause the Biden administration and the United States to intensify its focus on China.

EA: You’re undoubtedly right about China. My point is that U.S. policy toward Europe—and particularly Ukraine—is where we’re going to see the controversy. And on the Democratic side of the aisle, there was the election of a set of young, new progressive voices to the House, who might also be interested in a more critical stance on foreign policy, the way that their progressive colleagues Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar already are.

Of course, America’s not the only place where we’ve seen Trump-like candidates lose out recently. Since our last column, Brazilian firebrand Jair Bolsonaro managed to lose his reelection campaign, putting the left-wing candidate, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, back into the presidency. Do you think this will matter for foreign policy? Should U.S. policymakers be happy or not?

MK: It’s a mixed bag. Lula has promised to stop deforestation and address climate change, which is good for humanity. But he has also been a champion of the BRICS bloc of nations, which includes Russia and China. Brazil just demonstrated that it is a consolidated democracy with its peaceful transfer of power; it should act like one in foreign affairs by joining the free world and ditching the rogue states. I am not hopeful that will happen, though. I have been making the same case to my hosts in Indonesia and not making much progress. Both countries seem happy with their nonaligned stance.

EA: There are some good reasons for it, particularly for states that want to maintain good trading relations with China. Lula has also been supportive of peace talks in the Ukraine conflict and suggested—rather controversially—that Kyiv may be as much to blame for the conflict as Moscow. He isn’t likely to take a more pro-Ukraine stance than Bolsonaro. It seems we’re unlikely to see substantive change in Brazilian foreign policy, despite the ideological shift in government.

MK: In other news, there’s also the COP27 conference happening right now in Egypt.

I fear that the continued shift toward a confrontational stance on China may sound the death knell for any attempt to find a climate solution in the next few years.

EA: Yes, unlike last year’s event in Glasgow, there aren’t particularly high hopes for this conference. We talked a bit last column about the contradictions in the Biden administration’s National Security Strategy on climate, with the administration arguing that they can both pursue competition with China and cooperation on climate issues. That seems like a real stretch to me, and I’m just not sure that John Kerry will be able to achieve that much here in his role as climate envoy.

Frankly, I fear that the continued shift toward a confrontational stance on China may sound the death knell for any attempt to find a climate solution in the next few years. Depending on how one views the threat from China, that might be a worthwhile price to pay, but to my mind, it would be an extremely high price unless the threat from China were overwhelming.

MK: The hope of cooperating with China on climate change was always misplaced. China needs to be part of the solution, only because China is the biggest part of the problem.

Moreover, during the period of U.S. strategic engagement with China from 1990 to 2017, Chinese greenhouse gas emissions increased fivefold. Clearly, being nice to China didn’t work. Perhaps a more competitive approach will yield better results.

But while we are talking about shared global challenges, can we turn to food security? I am learning a lot about the subject this week. It is a real security issue. One out of every eight humans goes to bed hungry. It will be a major topic at the G-20 summit this weekend.

EA: How do you think countries in the G-20 will deal with that question? There’s a clear split between the countries who are experiencing fairly severe food security issues in the aftermath of the war in Ukraine, and those for whom it is less of an issue, with that latter group largely composed of the states which are most active in the conflict or in supporting one of the parties. I wonder if we’ll see tensions or open disagreements about the continuation of the war and its costs?

Like with semiconductors, oil and gas, and other critical products, the world has built a food system optimized for efficiency, not security.

MK: Interesting question. What is most interesting to me, however, are the parallels with national-security debates about secure supply chains and decoupling. Like with semiconductors, oil and gas, and other critical products, the world has built a food system optimized for efficiency, not security. A few major producers provide a few major crops that are then exported to humanity.

I learned in Foreign Policy’s excellent special issue on the subject that 75 percent of human calories are provided by just nine food sources (wheat, rice, corn, potatoes, barley, sugar, soy, and palm oil). Russia and Ukraine, for example, are the breadbaskets of the world. This works well in a frictionless, globalized, post-Cold War world but collapses when geopolitics intervene. Like with semiconductors, we need to reshore and friendshore, with countries becoming less dependent on food imports and engaging in more local production of fertilizers like urea in Africa and food like millet in India.

EA: It sounds rather simple when you put it like that. But that process—of reshaping global supply chains—is far easier said than done. Take the recent U.S. moves on semiconductors. The goal is to foster domestic American chip production, while keeping China from the most advanced chip technology. But some have argued that it might actually incentivize China to push for reunification with Taiwan in order to gain control of the Taiwanese chip industry.

And in less strategic areas, I’m suspicious of the notion that cutting all our trade ties will make us better off. There’s a reason that the world has seen unprecedented levels of prosperity under the open-trading regimes of recent decades. Maybe energy or high technology requires more localized production for security reasons, but the risk of supply disruption in basic commodities like food are better dealt with through resilience—lots of different suppliers globally—than they are through autarky or protectionism.

Speaking of strategic resources, though, I’ve spent the last few weeks in Europe, not just here in Finland but also in the Netherlands and the U.K. And there’s some good news on the energy crisis front: Europe is experiencing an extremely mild winter so far and is using less energy for heating than typical at this time of year. Europe also managed to fill its gas storage units before winter, albeit at a high cost, and at the expense of smaller, poorer states in Asia, many of whom have been forced to fall back on coal to meet their energy needs.

But it’s not all positive: Industrial demand for energy in Europe is down 25 percent, with plants shutting down because they simply can’t afford the energy they need to operate. The cuts are most notable in the automobile and chemical industries, which are pretty energy-intensive. Regardless of whether we see consumer shortfalls in energy, Europe’s industrial base will be ravaged this winter. Given that, I think it’s no wonder that some European leaders have turned their thoughts to how the war in Ukraine might be ended.

MK: I know some Eastern European leaders worry that Russia may be playing rope-a-dope. It is holding back some of its higher-end military capabilities as the West expends its stockpiles of anti-air munitions. Moscow can then freeze out and starve out Ukraine and Europe and then hit back hard in the spring. I am not sure I am persuaded. I think Russia is just losing. But I understand the concern.

EA: I’m not sure it’s that big a concern. I think thoughts everywhere have begun to turn to how to end this war. Recent reports suggest that the White House has been nudging [Ukrainian President Volodymyr] Zelensky to make his demands for opening negotiations with Russia somewhat more reasonable.

I think this is a pretty understandable step. No one is asking Kyiv to make difficult concessions here, and the White House has been successful in getting the Ukrainians to abandon the rather fanciful demand that they will not talk with Russia until President Vladimir Putin is deposed.

MK: Well, maybe we can end on a note of agreement. I think this is the right move as well. Some hawks see talk of negotiations as a willingness to make concessions to Russia, but that need not be the case. After all, the war will end in some kind of settlement. So, what are the West and Ukraine fighting for? What does victory look like? I have long argued they should spell it out. Zelensky did so this week, and the terms are not attractive to Putin: “restoration of territorial integrity, respect for the U.N. charter, compensation for all material losses caused by the war, punishment for every war criminal, and guarantees that this does not happen again.”

Now, Ukraine is clear that it is for peace, too—on the right terms.

Russia will never accept these conditions, but this is still a diplomatically useful statement. The alternative could have been Russia, paradoxically, becoming the side for peace as it offered negotiations and Ukraine taking the side of war. Now, Ukraine is clear that it is for peace, too—on the right terms.

EA: That’s good, but I don’t know that this is really a note of agreement. I’ve also argued that Western leaders should be thinking about what the endgame looks like in Ukraine, but that’s still a pretty maximalist position you’re outlining. The Russians have signaled that they’re ready to talk—which is one sign of how badly the war is going for them—but they’re not going to give up all of their territorial gains, including Crimea, simply to end the war. It’s good to see the White House starting to think about how this ends, but I suspect we have a long way to go yet.

MK: But I better get back to prepping for this food security conference (or buying the Komodo dragon stuffed animal I promised for my son). Until next time?

EA: Nice try, Matt, but we all know you’re just hanging out on the beach in Bali, while I’m putting in the hard work to increase the resilience of Santa’s Christmas supply chain against Russian meddling. You know what I’m calling it?

MK: What’s that?

EA: Elf-Shoring.

 

Emma Ashford is a senior fellow with the Reimagining U.S. Grand Strategy program at the Stimson Center, an adjunct assistant professor at Georgetown University, and the author of Oil, the State, and War.

  Twitter: @EmmaMAshford

Matthew Kroenig is deputy director of the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security and a professor in the Department of Government and the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. His latest book is The Return of Great Power Rivalry: Democracy Versus Autocracy From the Ancient World to the U.S. and China. Twitter: @matthewkroenig

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