“It’s official: the 2018 midterms are about health care,” declared Wesleyan Media Project – one of America’s most credible research centers – prior to the midterm elections in a reference to the Affordable Care Act (better known as Obamacare), which Donald Trump is keen to remove all traces of. Wesleyan was right. Pre-election discussion and post-vote analysis were in agreement that the majority of the electorate had an interest in what happened to Obamacare. At the same time, however, it was noteworthy that foreign and trade policy were almost completely absent from the debate. Both areas have featured significantly in the first two years of Trump’s presidency.
In the first White House press conference held after the vote, 45 minutes went by before a (Japanese) journalist asked a question related to international policy.
It is not unusual for local issues to dominate political discussions during the midterm elections. Ever since the conclusion of the Cold War, campaigning on strategic issues no longer wins seats. In 1992, George Bush, the 41st president of the United States, who had liberated Kuwait and defeated Saddam Hussein, as well as overseen the re-unification of Germany and the end of the USSR, all without World War III breaking out, was beaten by Bill Clinton on the economy.
Yet today’s world is not so far away from the Cold War years. We are effectively living through a second Cold War, one that is more chaotic and has multiple protagonists. These include China; Japan, with its softening attitude toward nuclear weapons; the many aggressive Middle Eastern states and a Europe ever further from being a safe haven for both democracy and the Atlantic Alliance. The behavior of Donald Trump, who uses military force, economic sanctions and tariffs with no overall vision of how they are all connected, makes our future more uncertain.
Very few world leaders were hoping for electoral success for Trump in the midterm elections. It is not difficult to imagine who they were: Vladimir Putin, the Saudi Arabian crown prince, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. For different reasons, each one needed the American president to consolidate his position in Washington.
For other world leaders that would prefer a more internationalist president – one more careful about climate agreements and less prone to trade wars – the elections brought a measure of satisfaction. A few weeks before the midterm elections, a survey conducted by Washington’s Pew Research Center revealed a drop in America’s reputation from 2016, the year of Trump’s inauguration. Of those interviewed throughout the 25 countries that participated in the survey, 70 percent had no faith in the president. The decline was greatest among the United States’ closest allies: only 25 percent of Canadians, 10 percent of Germans and nine percent of the French had any measure of approval for Trump.
However, a positive opinion toward the United States and the values it represents remained above 50 percent in all countries. If, as geo-politics and the geo-economy suggest, we are heading toward a fragmented world shared among the Russians and, above all, the Chinese, then the majority of Europeans still see their future as being alongside the United States.
With similar concerns as the Americans for their domestic affairs and for the state of the world, the international community is also asking what effect the midterm elections had on the president. After his defeat in the House of Representatives, would he be more moderate, more inclined toward diplomacy, more respecting of alliances and more open to his rivals? Judging by the tone he used during his press conference on Wednesday last week, the answer would be negative. During Donald Trump’s next two years (and possibly longer), he will not soften his tone in the domestic battle with a Democrat-controlled House, and the same will hold for his approach overseas.
His imminent visit to France to commemorate the 100 years since the end of World War I will give us a first taste of any differences following the midterm elections. The president will meet allies in Paris, some potential enemies, and Vladimir Putin, currently neither Trump’s friend nor his foe.*
According to Ian Brzezinski, an expert in strategy for the Atlantic Council and the son of Jimmy Carter’s national security adviser, “[W]hen you look at the United States, you should go beyond the president and look at Congress.”** In that context, the result of the midterms is a positive one. The House of Representatives is now some way removed from the reasons that Netanyahu, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and Vladimir Putin wished for a Republican win. The Democratic majority is opposed to scrapping the Iran nuclear deal and allowing the young Saudi leader to sow chaos in the Middle East, and is committed to investigating to what extent Russia was mixed up in the 2016 presidential election. It also wants to combat the American trade imbalance without imposing duties on the rest of the world. As is generally the case in every midterm election, the president usually loses control of at least one of the houses and learns his lesson, modifying his behavior.
Will Trump do the same or, his pride knocked, will he behave on the international stage like a wounded beast? In his last few days of campaigning, while his advisers implored him to ignore the migrant issue and talk of economic growth, Donald Trump continued to whip up falsehoods about the former, talking about the economy as “dull,” a curious approach for a president that had a background as a businessman and that had explained his vocation for dealing with negative and divisive themes over positive ones. This is the temperament that friends and foes will have to deal with over the next two years. Where it is possible to postpone decisions and agreements until after the next presidential election, no one will want to invest or risk more than necessary in the America of Donald Trump.
*Editor’s note: This visit took place on Nov. 10, 2018.
**Editor’s note: This quote, correctly translated, cannot be verified.