The results of the 2022 U.S. midterm elections may have come as a surprise to some, as the anticipated ‘red wave’ was actually a very close contest with the Republicans narrowly taking the House and the Democrats narrowly maintaining control of the Senate. However, given both the role of the U.S. globally coupled with increasing polarization, which has crossed over from purely domestic issues to matters of foreign policy, this election, in addition to setting the stage for the 2024 presidential election, also has foreign policy implications. The split in the Republican party between those who still support either Mr. Trump, or a seemingly less outwardly abrasive version of the ‘America First’ agenda and those who would like to see the party rid of him and his most ardent supporters. The next two years will be as much about the upcoming Congress as it will be about the next presidential election. Due to the increasing polarization in the United States as well as the future of the Republican party, competing policies and fault lines which develop prior to 2024, foreign policy will play an important role in party competition. China, Russia, and Ukraine will likely be talking points for both parties when the presidential campaign begins and can also serve to score some points domestically.
When it comes to Europe, NATO will remain the pillar of U.S. policy. This is unlikely to change, even if the ‘America First’ component of the GOP (the “Grand Old Party”) contains some more vocal elements, critical of the transatlantic alliance, especially when it comes to financial commitments (Ettinger, 2020). There are two likely outcomes to expect from the Republican-controlled House: a stronger push for more aid to Ukraine to come from the Unite States’ European allies, which might come in the form of a rebuke from the more isolationist component of the party, or continued support for Ukraine, albeit with grumbling from the more isolationist, ‘America First’ faction of the party.
The ongoing war in Ukraine and especially the aid and support which comes from the US is likely to be a topic of discussion for the GOP. America’s allies can expect more questions about how aid is used and a push for Ukraine to negotiate an end to the war, through peace talks with Russia, something which Ukraine has stated will only happen when Vladimir Putin is no longer in power.
Though it is likely that nothing will change and support for Ukraine will continue, it is also likely that some in the GOP will raise the issue of continued support to Ukraine. For the most part, the more vocally supportive pro-Kremlin elements of the GOP, such as Dana Rohrabacher are gone or quiet, Trump and his future within the party aside, as this is yet unclear.
What is a problem, may not be a known direct link between the Kremlin and lawmakers and conservative influencers, but is what one Republican lawmaker calls ‘the Tucker Carlson effect’. This is where Russian disinformation makes its way to the political mainstream, but not necessarily parroted out of loyalty from the Kremlin. Either way it is dangerous and some worry that this line of thinking will dissuade some in the GOP from backing continued support to Ukraine which, despite conventional wisdom from Arizona Rep. Paul Gosar, is an American ally. So much so that efforts are already being made by Republicans committed to Ukraine and to national security to educate their skeptical colleagues by launching a campaign to ensure that the United States remains committed to supporting Ukraine.
This effort will see members from the Trump administration, such as Mike Pompeo into the fold. This is likely to dissuade some of the more skeptic members of the GOP, but not the hardcore, ‘America First’ crowd, who will likely see even some former Trump administration individuals as part of the ‘deep state’. Yet, arguably the most telling sign of a GOP which remains committed to matters of national security, and, in this aspect, Ukraine, which still faces an ongoing war, is the prominence of the ‘three Mikes’ – Turner on Intelligence, McCaul on Foreign Affairs, and Rogers on Armed Services – all committed to leading the pro-Ukraine effort.
Even if Republican support for Ukraine is divided, and while it is possible for some on the far right of the GOP, such as Georgia Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene to gain influence, due to the razor-thin margin enjoyed by the Republicans in the House, it is not likely to sway the party as a whole on this particular issue. We can expect to see a balancing act from presumptive speaker Kevin McCarthy between establishment Republicans and the pro-Trump faction of the party. It is very unlikely for a uniformed policy stance to change from the GOP, despite any grumblings from the more isolationist component of the party. This may be a sigh of relief for pro-Ukrainian lawmakers in both parties as well as European allies regarding the next two years during a GOP-held House but depending on who wins the presidential election in 2024, American foreign policy is not immune to change.
The Democrats have also not been uniformed when it comes to support for Ukraine. In October, the leader of the Progressive Caucus, Rep. Pramila Jayapal withdrew a letter which urged Mr. Biden to pursue diplomacy with Russia after facing backlash from her party. Progressive Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez faced backlash from her constituents in the Bronx in October for her vote to approve military aid to Ukraine.
Regarding China, the Biden administration has been either as Hawkish as Mr. Trump, or to an even greater extent. A Republican-controlled House would likely out-Hawk Mr. Biden on China and have the support of both factions of the GOP. During the Trump administration, US foreign policy has become an effective cudgel, employed by the former President to attack his domestic enemies (Ettinger, 2020). This use of sovereignty and putting Americans first, remains amongst his most loyal political allies. It is also a talking point amongst some in the GOP.
Yet, being hawkish towards China is as much a GOP position as that of the Democrats. It may even become a point of competition between the two parties. One talking point from certain Republicans is the accusation that Mr. Biden and his son, Hunter, have a cozy relationship with the People’s Republic of China. It can be expected that a GOP-controlled House will direct domestic attention to going after Mr. Biden on this front, and more drastically, attempt or at least discuss impeachment.
Despite rhetoric intended to rally the base, we can expect a tough stance on China to become an increasingly bipartisan issue. The next chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Michael McCaul, has called for further defense of Taiwan and has taken a particularly strong stance on the tech sector, citing China’s use of technology purchased from the US then being used in advanced weapon’s systems. McCaul is also focused on bolstering the tech sector in the US and has made public his intention on China, Iran, Russia, and North Korea. McCaul won’t be alone, and we can expect more Republicans to pursue a hawkish foreign policy outlook, especially on China and Iran.
The partisan focus of the next Congress will likely be on domestic issues and the foreign policy focus is likely to be primarily bipartisan. Though attention to China will also have domestic cudgels. The GOP is likely to investigate the origins of COVID-19 and link this to Dr. Anthony Fauci, himself an unpopular figure with the Trump base, and almost certainly attempt to connect this with the Democratic party. Should this occur, it is not likely to soothe the tense relationship between the United States and China.
The Middle East is also an area of interest for both parties. It is also likely that a near partisan split might occur when it comes to Saudi Arabia and Iran – Democrats in opposition to Saudi Arabia and Republicans extra hawkish towards Iran. Of course, this split likely will not occur entirely along partisan lines.
Mr. Biden has been tough on both Iran and Saudi Arabia and in this endeavor has enjoyed support from many Republicans. The GOP Congress is likely to becoming increasingly critical towards Saudi Arabia, highlighting Mr. Biden’s failure to negotiate on oil with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS), while the Democrats are likely to do the same, albeit highlighting human rights abuses and the Crown Prince’s role in the region. Though equally likely is that these will not amount to much more than talking points and, at least with Saudi Arabia, it will be business as usual.
Depending on how influential the pro-Trump component of the House is, the Biden administration might respond to being hobbled on domestic policies by shifting focus to foreign policy. Also dependent on how influential the pro-Trump faction of the GOP is, what those shifts will be.
The foreign policy rhetoric for the next two years will not have direct policy consequences as the Democrats maintain control of the Senate and will almost certainly shut down anything the House GOP attempts. But the theatrics that will inevitably occur will set the stage for the next presidential run, likely to be the final referendum on Donald Trump’s future as GOP kingmaker.
Mr. Trump’s most popular rival within the GOP, Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, has not made much known about his policies, only about what he stands against, which is primarily limited to domestic issues. Aside from a few issues, his foreign policy outlook remains much less know than that of Mr. Trump. However, among those issues are support for Israel and opposition to the Iran nuclear agreement.
A pugnacious stance towards Iran is a winning issue with both camps of the GOP. With ongoing protests, Democrats can highlight the regime’s repression of human right, as can Republicans. Republicans, especially the pro-Trump faction will use the Iran nuclear agreement as a point of critique at perceived weak foreign policy from the Biden administration, as well as the Obama administration, which was often a favorite talking point of Mr. Trump’s.
Due to the uncertain future of the leadership of the GOP, Kevin McCarthy, the presumptive next Speaker of the House, will be the deciding factor on which direction the party will take in the next Congress. McCarthy will have the decision as to what makes it to the floor for a vote. In addition to the MAGA (“Make America Great Again”) faction of the GOP regarding their ‘America first’ outlook, McCarthy has also expressed skepticism for funding for Ukraine, citing hesitancy to write a “blank check”. This raises questions as to whether this is a middle position, or a balancing act between the isolationist, ‘America First’ component of the GOP, simply a cautious policy preference, or a desire for more transparency, or a combination. McCarthy claims his ‘blank check’ comment was taken out of context and this stance can be interpreted as the new House GOP exercising oversight over the Biden administration.
The MAGA bunch, have already voiced their disapproval of his candidacy for Speaker, and might raise certain foreign policy issues, but are likely to maintain their primary ire for the political establishment in Washington, in both parties. For instance, Rep. Matt Gaetz tweeted on the first of December that, “Tonight Kevin McCarthy had dinner with Hunter Biden at a state dinner with Macron to rally for more US aid to Ukraine. He should not be Speaker.” Senate Minority Leader, Mitch McConnell, equally unpopular with the MAGA crowd is more business-as-usual when it comes to foreign policy and will likely continue as the GOP (perhaps) moves further away from Mr. Trump.
It is noteworthy that there are at least two camps in the GOP skeptical of sending further aid to Ukraine. Those who are simply skeptical about sending aid in large quantity to a foreign country when there are domestic issues which require attention, and those with isolationist tendencies or stances. It will remain to be seen if the Biden White House and the Democrat-held Senate will be able to conduct foreign policy, be thwarted by the GOP-controlled House, or if both sides will agree on a (mostly) partisan outlook, even if for different reasons.
The question is not so much what the foreign policy of the GOP will be, but whether it will be cooperation with the Biden administration, or an attempt at out-hawking. China will be on the radar of both parties, Ukraine and Europe will be the focus of divergence in foreign policy outlook with Republicans wanting European allies to spend more, the more hawkish amongst them taking the isolationist position. Aid to Ukraine is very likely to continue as is, and if there is any change, it will likely be that the packages are not as robust, though still highly unlikely, and Congress will raise the issue of the future of the war more vocally.
 Though not gone completely. See: https://foreignpolicy.com/2022/11/30/gop-house-congress-republican-foreign-policy-priorities/. It is unfortunate that some have called for cutting aid to Ukraine completely, while newly elected, Trump-backed Senator JD Vance has publicly stated that he does not care about Ukraine.
Louis Wierenga is a Lecturer in International Relations at the Baltic Defence College and a Research Fellow at the Johan Skytte Institute of Political Studies, University of Tartu. Louis is a former United States Marine with a background in defence and security, as well as political science. His research topics include the defence and security politics of the Baltic states, and the United States, the internal politics of Latvia and Estonia, NATO and EU security architecture, emerging and disruptive technologies in warfare, populism and the populist radical right in Europe.
Louis Wierenga jest wykładowcą stosunków międzynarodowych w Baltic Defence College oraz pracownikiem naukowym w Instytucie Studiów Politycznych im. Johana Skytte’a na Uniwersytecie w Tartu. Louis jest byłym żołnierzem piechoty morskiej Stanów Zjednoczonych z doświadczeniem w dziedzinie obronności i bezpieczeństwa, a także politologii. Jego tematy badawcze obejmują politykę obronną i bezpieczeństwa państw bałtyckich i Stanów Zjednoczonych, politykę wewnętrzną Łotwy i Estonii, architekturę bezpieczeństwa NATO i UE, nowe i przełomowe technologie w wojnie, populizm i populistyczną radykalną prawicę w Europie.