The Future Outlook of U.S. Foreign Policy After the Midterms

By Ken Wang 

On November 8th, Americans voted to choose the country’s next congressional and state leaders. As the races were being called later that night, Republicans quickly learned that they did not win the large majorities they had hoped for in both the Senate and the House of Representatives; in fact, Republicans failed to take the Senate and only gained a slim majority in the House. 

With Sen. Raphael Warnock winning a re-election runoff in Georgia, the Democrats held onto their simple majority in the Senate. The results of the midterm elections will have huge impacts on domestic politics as well as on foreign policy issues.

Historically speaking, Republicans have been more hawkish in terms of their use of force to deter foreign adversaries (e.g. the Gulf War, War on Terror, etc.). With Republicans controlling the House and only a few votes away from a majority in the Senate, it is likely that the U.S. foreign policy will take on a more aggressive tendency. 

Undoubtedly, Taiwan and China will remain core issues of U.S. foreign policy, especially in terms of defense and economics. Even before Election Day, President Joe Biden said that the U.S. forces will defend Taiwan in the case of a Chinese invasion. This has been the strongest, most straightforward response from President Biden on the issue of Taiwan. 

After the President’s remark, China responded by saying that Biden’s comment violated Washington’s diplomatic policy towards the island, given that Washington cut its diplomatic relations with Taiwan in 1979. If China were to invade Taiwan, it is possible that both Republicans and Democrats would demand economic sanctions on China, and Republicans might take things one step further by demanding a military response to protect U.S. strategic interests in the area. 

Regarding economics, many Republicans in Congress have long held the belief that China has deliberately manipulated its currency to gain an unfair comparative advantage in the global market. Such an argument led the Trump Administration, specifically the Department of Treasury led by former Secretary Steven Munchin, to designate China as a currency manipulator. 

The last time that the United States accused China of foul play as a currency manipulator to increase the U.S.-China trade deficit, Trump initiated a trade war with China that cost 245,000 jobs for Americans. The US must be wary when making future policy responses so that reactions against China do not cause more harm than benefit for Americans. 

Although both Republicans and Democrats have favored some relaxation of tariffs against China to ease the pressure on American economics, with Trump Republicans and his political allies remaining in Congress, it is possible that the United States will simply turn to non-tariff trade barriers that have the same effects as tariffs, such as quotas and adoption of different industrial standards. 

If the United States were to do this, it would further deteriorate already-constrained Sino-U.S. relations. China would be likely to respond with equally strong countermeasures and, although it is not likely, both countries may engage in a second trade war in the foreseeable future. 

Considering how costly the first trade war was, a second one has huge potential to harm Americans. Based on one study, if the first war becomes a second it could reduce the U.S. GDP by $1.6 trillion, which is roughly 7% of the $23 trillion that made up U.S. GDP in 2021, and cost America more than a million jobs by 2025. After an economic recession because of the pandemic and given Biden’s low approval rating, a second trade war is neither economically nor politically feasible for the White House to execute. 

On top of issues with China, Russian President Vladimir Putin refuses to concede a loss in Ukraine and the war continues. Republican support for Ukraine has weakened despite an overwhelming amount of material and moral support for Ukraine from the United States and the European Union throughout the past months. As Republicans still have a strong presence in Congress, this growing frustration with funding the war may affect U.S. policy.

If Democrats and Republicans cannot present a united front on providing support for Ukraine, it may weaken the current strength of sanction packages spearheaded by the European Union and the United States. Effective sanctions require three things: correct timing, multilateral actions, and consistency. If the United States softens its support for Ukraine by lifting current sanctions, then the threat of sanctions from the United States loses efficacy, and the EU alone cannot ensure the success of sanctions. 

If the United States were to relax some sanctions against Russia, despite the White House’s current position making this unlikely in the short term, the United States would also lose its credibility and leadership among NATO allies. Given the preference of the United States to act unilaterally when executing foreign policy (e.g. the drone strike on the Iranian General Qassem Soleimani), if these sanctions hurt the U.S. economy, the United States will stop presenting a united front with its European allies, which may endanger strategic objectives in Europe. 

While Americans focus on salient domestic issues such as abortion and healthcare, the effects of the 2022 midterm election on U.S. foreign policy are also vitally important and will influence how the United States should coexist with its two biggest geopolitical adversaries—China and Russia. In the next few years, we can expect the possibility of the United States to be firm on Taiwan, use non-tariff barriers against China, and have a somewhat softened position on Russia, thanks to the increased Republican control in Congress.

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