How will the results of the midterm elections in the United States – which saw the Republicans regain control of the U.S. Senate – influence Washington’s foreign policy toward Russia? Maybe there’s not a reason to be concerned.
Katie Granger leaves the Republican election night festivities party with a photo cutout of former President George W. Bush, Tuesday, Nov. 4, 2014, in Phoenix. Photo: AP
In the U.S. and in many other countries, people generally regard the results of the midterm elections in the U.S., which saw a wave of Republicans swept into office, as a personal defeat for Barack Obama. The consensus opinion appears to be that the president’s low popularity rating and the absence of voter support for his domestic policies have caused serious damage to the Democratic Party and could lead to changes in U.S. foreign policy.
However, a few days after the midterm elections ended, the tone of the comments made by American experts also began to change. In many ways, this has been the result of the position taken by Obama after the elections, including his announcement of being willing to cooperate with the Republican Party on key domestic and foreign policy matters.
Will the Republicans support hawkish policies toward Russia?
The Republican victory has already led to some alarmist responses from the Russian State Duma. For example, the Chairman of the Committee on Foreign Affairs, Alexey Pushkov, believes that, “Although the results of the recent elections will not have a noticeable influence on American foreign policy, they will reinforce the unfavorable vector in relations between Russia and the United States, given the hawkish mood in Congress.”
In support of their position, Russian politicians and some political scientists refer to the views expressed by the prominent American diplomat Strobe Talbott, affiliated with the Washington, D.C.-based Brookings Institution. Talbott argues that midterm elections are an important milestone that will lead to changes in Obama’s policies toward Russia.
The Russian news agency RIA Novosti quotes Talbott, who comments on the midterm elections: “Since the GOP is most likely to maintain control of the Congress, it may give the momentum for ‘a successful Russia-Ukraine policy’… The GOP victory could elevate to leadership positions senior senators, such as John McCain and Mitch McConnell, who are likely to support forward-leaning American engagement.”
According to Talbott, “Both Republicans and Democrats should be seriously worried about Russia as a major threat to international security and as a daunting challenge to U.S. leadership.”
However, not all experts agree with this position. According to Michael Cohen, for example, “Even on Russia, he [President Obama] has defied those who argued that the United States should be more forceful in response to Moscow’s actions in Crimea.” Cohen says that Obama must strictly maintain this course in the remaining two years of his presidency.
It appears that Barack Obama’s second term – which has already received the label “lame duck” – is far from over. As The Washington Post points out in an editorial, Republicans “can no longer behave like a petty opposition party, if the GOP wants to prove before 2016 that it is better at governing than the Democrats. This is its chance to address a backlog of problems – to seek results, rather than to continue to blame others for failure.”
The Republicans, who have gained full control of Congress, are being called upon to become more responsible, primarily when it comes to domestic politics. The previous composition of Congress was the least productive in modern history, in terms of the number of enacted laws.
Instead of lawmaking, Republicans in Congress were engaged in trying to put spokes into the wheels of the executive power, blocking virtually every economic and social initiative of President Obama, which, as we all remember, led to the multi-day shutdown of federal departments and a budgetary impasse.
Now there is hope that the GOP, having gained control of both houses of Congress, instead of disorderly actions typical of an opposition party, will start feeling like a master of the situation, and will take on a much greater responsibility for the future of America. According to columnist Daniel Altman, under the leadership of Republican Mitch McConnell, the U.S. Senate may become interested in promoting a number of important socio-economic laws, which President Obama would be glad to sign.
Republican Florida Governor Rick Scott celebrates his re-election during a U.S. midterm elections night party with supporters in Bonita Springs, Florida, Nov.4. Photo: Reuters
President Obama, still in control of U.S. foreign policy
Foreign policy has always been and remains the responsibility of the White House. According to Fyodor Lukyanov, the chief editor of the magazine Russia in Global Affairs, “Strictly speaking, we should not expect any changes in foreign policy. Thus, in relation to Russia, perhaps we will see only a partial change in rhetoric coming from the USA, under pressure from the Republican majority in Congress.”
We should also not rule out that, if greater harmony should be achieved between the executive and legislative branches of the U.S., this would lead to positive changes, not only in the domestic policies, but also in the foreign policies of America.
This may also apply to Obama’s policy toward Russia. Indeed, in recent years a number of influential senators like Marco Rubio, John McCain, Bob Corker, and others, have spoken very harshly about Moscow’s actions in Ukraine and in the whole world, and pushed for providing military support to Kiev, which would include the delivery of heavy weapons to Kiev.
One positive change in foreign policy would be a greater willingness for President Obama to work together with the Republicans. For example, during a press conference one day after the elections ended, President Obama said that he would turn to the U.S. Congress with a request to allow him to use American armed forces to combat jihadists from the Islamic State. This move was literally a 180-degree reversal of his previous position on this issue. Prior to that, Obama had repeatedly stated that in the fight against Islamists, he had no need to ask permission from Congress.
As Michael Cohen reminds us in an article published for Foreign Policy, the midterm elections were not a referendum on Obama’s foreign policy: “The midterm drubbing was not a referendum on Obama’s foreign policy. In the next two years, he should double down and stick to his guns.”
And, judging by everything, Obama has no intentions of backing down on his fundamental foreign policy positions. In particular, on the eve of the decisive round of negotiations of the “P5+1” with Iran, scheduled for Nov. 24, he is determined to maintain his course of partial lifting of sanctions against Iran, in exchange for Iran’s willingness to freeze its nuclear program.
Keep in mind, the Republicans are still very far from the highly coveted 60 seats in the Senate – the amount of votes required to override presidential vetoes. It is fully possible that, given the greater responsibility that is expected in America from the country’s legislators, the U.S. Congress and White House will come to some kind of a consolidated position, which will prevent any further aggravation of relations with Russia.