Four Ways Foreign Policy Could Change, and One Way It Won’t

Now that they have the House, Democrats may well force a shift in Washington’s approach to the world.

Nancy Pelosi at the House Democratic watch party in Washington, D.C.
Alexander Drago / Reuters

The blue wave that crested over the U.S. House of Representatives yesterday was just large enough to usher in a Democratic majority for the first time in eight years. Because the president retains extraordinary powers to manage international affairs, foreign policy and national security may seem like the least likely areas to look for change in the new era. But Democrats may well force a shift in Washington’s approach to the world.

First and most obvious, they could make their presence felt on trade. President Donald Trump will face an early test when he seeks passage next year of the United States–Mexico–Canada Trade Agreement, the successor to NAFTA. Democratic support for the pact (especially among members from farm states), particularly in light of Trump’s threat to withdraw from NAFTA, is probable but uncertain.

In trade talks with Japan, a Democratic House may induce the administration to seek higher labor and environmental standards to attract sufficient support, especially if Trump also hopes for subsequent deals with the European Union and the United Kingdom. And Representative Richard Neal, likely the incoming chair of the House Committee on Ways and Means, has already signaled his opposition to any deal with the Philippines, given Manila’s human-rights record.

Second, the administration should expect more pressure to enforce Russia sanctions, and perhaps add more. Along the same lines, the House will take a closer look at past and present Russian meddling in U.S. elections. These investigations could be constructive, and closer House-Senate cooperation would go a long way toward presenting a united political front in the face of Moscow’s continuing efforts to undermine American democracy.

Third, Democrats in the House may seek to condition weapons sales to Saudi Arabia on progress in ending the Yemen war, and to highlight human-rights abuses in places such as Burma (also known as Myanmar).

Fourth, the Democratic House may insist on lower defense spending. Trump has already announced that he’ll request a Pentagon budget for the next fiscal year that is some $16 billion lower than the current level. A Republican Congress would likely have pushed the number back up, but Democrats may reduce it further. Representative Adam Smith, who will chair the House Armed Services Committee, has publicly said that defense spending is too high. If the Democratic House and the Republican Senate are unable to work out a new budget deal that covers fiscal years 2020 and 2021, the “sequestration” spending caps will kick back into effect.

One area that will likely not change is the U.S.-China relationship. The president encounters pushback on nearly every other foreign-policy issue—his approaches to North Korea, Iran, trade, NATO, North America, and more have each generated angst and counterreactions. Both Democrats and Republicans, however, have largely welcomed Trump’s more confrontational approach to Beijing, and the business community has offered quiet support.

While many lawmakers disagree with the president’s objectives—focusing on the trade deficit, for instance, instead of unfair investment rules, the manipulation of state-owned enterprises, forced technology transfer, and the theft of intellectual property—they generally concur on the need for a reckoning. Beyond economic matters, Democrats, Capitol Hill Republicans, and the administration are all concerned about Beijing’s conduct in the South and East China Seas, its deteriorating human-rights practices (including reeducation camps in Xinjiang), and its military modernization. Trump therefore has a relatively free hand to remain tough on Beijing. Indeed, worries that he will cut a symbolic trade deal and relax the pressure currently exceed anxiety about the dangers of a U.S.-China confrontation.

Taking a bird’s-eye view, the Democrats’ House victory may also affect how America is perceived in the world. Our traditional, democratic allies, who followed campaign developments closely, may be relieved that the American electorate has delivered a check on a leader that they view as impulsive and unpredictable.

Yet the newly divided government will do nothing to quell concerns that the United States is politically dysfunctional: unsure about its international role and riven by tribal divisions that impede its ability to project power. It’s conceivable, but improbable, that the two major parties will work together on a series of bipartisan deals. More likely is greater gridlock, deeper disagreement on national identity and standing, and an increased inability to inspire international support.

Our political leaders would do well to embrace a modicum of cooperation; the possibility that they will not is why the world focused so intently on an off-year election.