Elections and U.S. Foreign Policy

U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

U.S. President Barack Obama and Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh

There was a great deal of virtual ink spilled last week to discuss how the midterm elections would affect U.S. foreign policy. Bruce Stokes, Richard Haass, Steve Walt, and Daniel Drezner, among others, all chimed in. The emerging consensus seems to be that it will make little difference. As Daniel Drezner pointed out, the election his neither about foreign policy nor has foreign policy been a central—or even a tangential—concern. A former professor of mine once said that foreign policy will never win an election for you, though it can certainly lose one. This year, it did neither.

In general, there’s a great deal of wisdom here. President Obama still controls the foreign policy apparatus of the United States, and Congress has long been hesitant to intervene. But despite assertions that Republican control of the House and their increased minority in the Senate will make little difference, there are a couple of areas where change may be afoot.

First, the START Treaty—the new arms control agreement between the United States and Russia. The agreement would replace an arms control agreement that expired in December, and would impose new limits on the number of warheads and launchers possessed by both countries. The Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved the agreement by a 14-4 vote in September, which cleared the way for a vote by the Senate as a whole. Harry Reid has previously indicated that a vote on the treaty was unlikely before the end of the session, which forces the ratification vote into the new Congress. Ratification would require 67 votes—a tough feat in a Senate suspicious of administration efforts in this area.

Second, climate change. In June, the House narrowly approved a climate change bill that would develop a version of cap-and-trade in the United States. The initiative stalled in the Senate, and now appears unlikely to receive a vote before the end of the session. Given the lack of support for climate change legislation among Republican lawmakers, efforts to develop a comprehensive policy governing greenhouse gas emissions in the United States appears to be ever less likely. And with that decline, U.S. initiatives to address climate change at the multilateiral level also appears increasingly bleak.

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