Tough lines on Ukraine and China: Seeing policy fallout from US election

Tough lines on Ukraine and China: Seeing policy fallout from US election

World News

As the contours of the new US Congress become clearer, diplomats and policy analysts are trying to discern what it will mean for American support for Ukraine’s fight against Russia, for NATO and for what may be an even tougher line on China.

With the Republicans apparently heading for a narrow victory in the House of Representatives and the fate of the Senate uncertain, the analysts expect at a minimum that Europe will be under more pressure to increase its financial and military support for Ukraine.

But there are also judgments being made about the health of American democracy and about the reach of former President Donald Trump and his election-denying, ethnonationalist appeal, which has had an important impact on European political trends.

“I believe that the bulk of the Republican Party is not sympathetic to Russia,” said Michael Gahler, a conservative German member of the European Parliament, “and in substance we would not see a shift in the US policy toward Ukraine.”

Support for NATO, too, has been one of the few bipartisan causes in Congress, and that is expected to continue, especially in light of Russia’s challenge to the entire trans-Atlantic security order.

Shipments of US weapons, including Javelin antitank missiles, arrive at the airport in Boryspil, Ukraine, Jan. 25, 2022. (Brendan Hoffman/The New York Times)

Nathalie Tocci, the director of Italy’s Institute of International Relations, agreed. Already, she said, “the one thing we do know is that it’s not the ‘red wave’ people feared and a lot of MAGA Republicans didn’t get in,” referring to Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again.”

By themselves, “these two facts have important implications for Europe,” Tocci said. “Regardless of the exact result, I don’t think now that there will be big changes in US foreign policy, especially on Ukraine. There won’t be a strong enough core of Republicans stalling military assistance to Ukraine.”

Leslie Vinjamuri, who runs the US and Americas Program for Chatham House, a London research organisation, said that for Europe, an important thing about the midterm elections was that the results “were not good for Donald Trump, and for the US, whose fate has been tied up with the fate of Trump, this is no small thing.”

Republican gains are not big enough to fuel a radical change in foreign policy, Vinjamuri said. “If the president comes under pressure to roll back support for Ukraine, it is more likely to come from America’s international partners than from Congress,” she said. “Climate deniers have also been denied a platform without challenge. This means the ambition to cooperate as well as to compete with China will continue.”

Taiwanese military personnel participate in an amphibious landing as part of military exercises in Pingtung, Taiwan, July 28, 2022.  (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

The China issue and the way the United States regards Taiwan, a self-governing island democracy, may shift a little but not fundamentally, said Bonnie S Glaser, the director of the Asia program of the German Marshall Fund, a Washington-based research institution. “The only issue with full bipartisan support is China,” she said. “I don’t expect a fundamental game-changer. If anything, there is stronger Republican support for strategic clarity on China” when it comes to committing to defending Taiwan militarily, in other words, rather than the current policy of strategic ambiguity.

But there are potential areas of conflict, she suggested. Rep. Kevin McCarthy of California, the Republican minority leader who would be likely to replace Nancy Pelosi as the leader of the House if the Republicans win a majority, has said that he will go to Taiwan. When Pelosi did, it caused something of a crisis, with China conducting live-fire military drills.

“The Chinese would react strongly” to another such visit, Glaser said, “and would want to do something unprecedented.”

“US-China policy is going to continue along the same trajectory — there won’t be a significant change,” said Oriana Skylar Mastro, a fellow at Stanford University’s Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. “But the Republicans do tend to like enhancing or toughening the rhetoric on things.”

President Joe Biden speaks during a rally for Maryland gubernatorial candidate Wes Moore at Bowie State University in Bowie, Md., Nov. 7, 2022. (Pete Marovich/The New York Times)

President Joe Biden’s administration has called managing Washington’s relationship with Beijing “the biggest geopolitical test of the 21st century” and has defined much of its approach to China with this in mind, focusing policy on concerns over human rights, national security and economic interdependence.

A Republican-controlled House could harden an already tough stance on American companies by calling for restrictions on exports to the Xinjiang region, where Beijing is accused of detaining hundreds of thousands of Uyghurs and other members of largely Muslim groups in indoctrination camps.

That could place companies like Elon Musk’s Tesla in a tricky position, said Isaac Stone Fish, the CEO of consultancy firm Strategy Risks. Tesla came under political fire this year for opening a dealership in Xinjiang, but was not restricted from doing so by US law. A Republican-controlled House could change that.

Republicans could also push for further limits to Chinese involvement on Wall Street, in corporate America and on college campuses. “The Republicans are more comfortable restricting Chinese investment in the United States and restricting the ability of Chinese scholars and scientists to be here,” Stone Fish said.

Former President Donald Trump speaks during his ‘Save America’ rally in Miami, Nov. 6, 2022. (Scott McIntyre/The New York Times)

The antagonistic messaging and actions by US lawmakers, especially on Taiwan, is nevertheless creating a greater opportunity for misunderstanding from the Chinese side that could elicit an overreaction, said Amanda Hsiao, a senior analyst for China at the International Crisis Group.

More broadly, the fact that the race between Republicans and Democrats in the Senate is so close might give Biden more room to try to ease tensions with China and make some adjustments in the relationship that would have previously been criticised by Republicans campaigning for election, said Scott Kennedy of the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

But worries about the health of the American democracy have hardly gone away, with various election deniers voted into office and some tense recounts inevitable.

Biden on Wednesday reacted to Democrats’ better-than-expected results, calling Election Day “a good day for democracy,” but others see a worrying structural shift in American political culture that does not bode well. Alexandra de Hoop Scheffer, a Paris-based senior vice president in charge of geopolitical issues at the German Marshall Fund, said that it was Biden who appears to be a parenthesis in American political culture, not Trump.

“I don’t know if these elections elevate the European appreciation of American democracy,” she said. “We, in Europe, have to get over this denial of Trumpism.” The severe polarisation in American politics and culture and the tendency to doubt the validity of elections are part of “a longer sequence of the Trumpification of US politics and society,” she said in an interview.

The midterms “should encourage Europeans to take seriously the anchoring of Trumpism in American society despite Republican results that are more modest than expected,” she wrote Thursday in Le Monde. “He rather embodies the structural changes within American democracy and the questions it is facing about its place in the world.”

De Hoop Scheffer cautioned that it remained possible that the Republicans will still take both houses of Congress. “It’s not a red wave, but if they do, Biden will have a very difficult time.” As will America’s European allies, both on Ukraine and China, she said, where Washington will more aggressively push the Europeans to do more to finance Ukraine and to line up more firmly with Washington on limiting dependency on China.

“The Republicans will put more pressure on Biden and put more pressure on us,” she said.

Tocci also sees an important moment in the political discussion of populism, given the strong influence of American political trends on Europe. About a month ago, with far-right populist parties doing well in Sweden and Italy, “there was a sense that national populism was on the rise again,” she said. “If there had been a MAGA red wave, it would have had a strong effect in Europe. But it looks like there is a certain resilience to democracy in the US, and that’s existential for Europe as well.”

In addition, she said, despite the criticism of Biden, he has delivered important domestic policy legislation and shown “rather effective management of Ukraine, the deepest European security crisis since World War II.”

So “it’s reassuring for democracy that policy matters, that if you govern pretty well, you’re kind of rewarded for it, or at least not punished for it,” she said.

But no one is ruling out a Republican presidential victory in 2024, or a Trump return.

“If Trump gets reelected, let’s face it, it’s going to be far worse than in the 2016-2020 period,” said Rosa Balfour, the director of Carnegie Europe. “I think all the things that Europeans care about internationally would be totally upended.”

Europe, preoccupied with Ukraine, may be a bit complacent, she said. “The EU’s response to Ukraine is a massive undertaking, and while I think the EU has done a good job, it does crowd out the possibility of thinking a little bit more strategically about the future — especially in the matters of security and defense.”

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