The midterms are over — but control of both houses of Congress has yet to be decided, and that leaves significant questions involving the future of U.S. policy toward Ukraine, China and other global flashpoints still up in the air.
U.S. foreign policy decisions have historically been made largely by the executive branch, but the House and Senate can still exert pressure on the White House’s international agenda or withhold the resources it needs to implement policy. A flip of control of the Senate and House to the Republicans might carry significant implications for some of the thorniest global issues of the moment.
This week’s Global Grid conversation took place on the day after the midterm vote, and looked at how the results may impact U.S. foreign policy. Global Editor Tom Nagorski spoke with Global Security Reporter Joshua Keating and China Reporter Lili Pike to examine these questions, which — as Keating put it in a story recently — help explain why “these elections may be watched almost as closely in Brussels, Moscow and Beijing as they are in Washington.”
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Tom Nagorski: In the run-up to the midterms, there were various questions raised, particularly by House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, about — as he put it — whether there would be a “blank check for Ukraine” going forward in a Republican Congress. Thus far, those checks have been very substantial, and there have been many of them. More than $60 billion thus far in U.S. aid to the Ukrainian resistance. So Josh, let’s just start with a fundamental question. What might change in terms of that blank check if the House or Senate do flip?
Josh Keating: It’s interesting. There’s a real divide growing within the Republican Party. Traditionally, Republicans have been Russia hawks. If you go back to the Obama era, Republicans were challenging the Democratic president for not being strong enough on Russia. But particularly since the Trump era and all of Trump’s travails, many of which involved Ukraine, there’s been a shift, mainly in the base of the party.
Right after the invasion happened, polls among Republicans showed that only 6 percent thought the U.S. shouldn’t do more to aid Ukraine. Now that number is up to 48 percent. So, there’s been a shift, driven in the media by figures like Tucker Carlson and by former president Donald Trump himself. You see people like [Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia], this very Trumpist Congresswoman who was just reelected — she came out and said Ukraine would not get another penny if Republicans took over the house. I think that there’s going to be a stance that a lot of older-line Republicans are a little uncomfortable with.
You hear people like [Rep. Michael McCaul of Texas], who, if Republicans take over, is going to be the Chairman of the [House Foreign Affairs Committee]. He says this isn’t about cutting aid to Ukraine, this is about adding more scrutiny to it, making sure that the money is spent properly. I think that there are going to be debates within the Republican Party.
The other thing we’re likely to see is, in the lame-duck session before any actual change of Congress in January, that they’re likely to push for a big kind of omnibus Ukraine funding bill. Some reports say this could be as much as $50 billion. That could, if they’re able to pass it, at least kick this issue down the road for a few months. So it’s something they wouldn’t have to argue about in the new Congress, at least not right away.
TN: The Republican J.D. Vance, to take a name that’s in the news at the moment, won the Ohio Senate race on Tuesday. He said in a recent interview that he thinks we’re at the point where we’ve given enough money in Ukraine, the Europeans need to step up. To your point about the Republican divide, you’d think that standing up to [Russian President Vladimir] Putin would seem a very classically Republican position. But wouldn’t what J.D. Vance said catch a little fire among Republicans — and maybe Democrats too? $60 billion going to a war in Europe, when we have a lot of issues on the domestic front?
JK: Absolutely. During the campaign, early on, this wasn’t as much of an issue. But in the closing weeks, even here in D.C., we’d get the ads from Virginia, and you would see more of these questions: Why are we sending billions of dollars to Ukraine and risking nuclear war in the process, when we should be spending this money on border security, on fighting inflation, pick your priorities.
So I think that there is that sentiment growing. J.D. Vance is tapping into that. The second part of that quote you mentioned, that the Europeans need to step up, I think that’s the critique you’re going to hear more of going forward. Why is this our responsibility? This war is in Europe, the Europeans should be the ones bearing the burden for it. What you may see on the other side in the next few weeks is the Biden administration trying to make the case for why this is a core national security priority, not just for Europe, but for the United States. Why it matters that a nuclear power just can’t go around invading other countries and changing borders by force, that this leads to a more dangerous world. And that’s going to mean threats to Americans down the road as well.
You’re going to hear more lobbying from the White House probably as we go forward — that’s maybe targeted at the left of their own party in addition to the Republicans. And I would expect you’ll hear more from the Ukrainians too. For all their unexpected battlefield success, what’s been almost as impressive has been the effectiveness of their international lobbying. This effort they’ve made to bring the United States in particular, and much of the West, into the war on their side. I wouldn’t be surprised if we saw [Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy] on TV in the U.S. a lot more, maybe addressing Congress again. Assuming the polls hold and Democrats lose the house, if not the Senate also, I don’t think that they can take the aid for granted to the extent that they have before. The pace and energy around lobbying has definitely stepped up.
TN: I heard Jake Sullivan, the national security adviser, gave a talk the other night in which he spoke generally about having to build and sell a foreign policy for the middle class of the United States, which is a complicated case to make, but it goes directly to your point of explaining to the public in this country why this is in their interest.
Back to the security issue, you’ve written and reported so much about the various weapons systems that have gone into Ukraine, and there are a lot of them. But if the U.S. stopped writing those “blank checks,” what are the ways in which the prosecution of the war from the Ukrainian side or the resistance to the Russians would appreciably change?
JK: It’s a tough one because the needs change as the battle changes. Over time, the weapons systems that are needed aren’t the same things that they were talking about earlier in the war. Right now, the emphasis is on air defense because of the ongoing campaign of missile and drone strikes targeting Ukrainian cities and infrastructure. The U.S. sent two of what are called NASAMS air defense systems this week, and there are four more on the way. There’s going to be a lot of emphasis right now on upgrading and bulking up Ukraine’s air defense capabilities.
But in the long run, I think the issue is less about what new high-tech systems we can send to the Ukraine and more on ammunition. Because of this almost conventional World War II style conventional war, the pace at which they are burning through stocks of ammunition is just something that we’re not used to in war in the 21st century. To the point where it’s even starting to put a strain on the stocks of the countries supplying Ukraine. We’re not running out of rockets and bullets here in the U.S. yet, but it’s something the Pentagon planners think about. In terms of long run challenges, the aid that Ukraine is going to need if this war stretches deep into 2023 or beyond, it’s going to come down to almost the bullets more than the guns.
TN: Let’s pivot for a moment to China and to Grid’s China reporter, Lili Pike. Josh had a line in a story a couple of weeks back in which he said, “Want to pass ambitious legislation in today’s gridlock Congress? Try slapping an anti-China label on it on.” China bashing is as bipartisan issue as you’ll find on Capitol Hill today. So what difference will control of the House or Senate make, when it comes to China?
Lili Pike: I’d start off by highlighting the degree to which anti-China or China bashing has become something of a consensus across the aisle. Just looking back over the past year, we’ve seen major pieces of legislation, whether it be the Chips Act, supporting semiconductor development in the U.S., or the Inflation Reduction Act. A lot of them used the framing of being anti-China and trying to reduce U.S. reliance on China in order to push that legislation forward. We’ve seen that framing used both by Democrats and Republicans.
In the October national security strategy, Biden called China the most consequential geopolitical challenge that the U.S. has faced in this post-Cold War era. So, competition with China is seen as still this overarching priority for the U.S. and has been even so under the Democrats.
Among experts I’ve surveyed and spoken to, the feeling is that there will not be a large change in direction because of this consensus, but there might be a change in degree, depending on the ultimate balance of power in the Senate and House. We’ll see to what extent Republicans try to move toward a more aggressive style of pushing for U.S. independence from Chinese supply chains and just more aggressive rhetoric about the threat that China poses to the U.S. The Republicans may push for the administration to take an even more aggressive approach to China.
We can look to proposals that have been made while the Republicans have been in the minority position. They take a more aggressive approach to things like the way that U.S. universities should approach Chinese students, whether U.S. companies that have operations in China should be able to receive federal subsidies, and whether U.S. companies that have ties to Chinese military should receive subsidies. These proposals would start to basically reduce the ability of federally funded companies and universities to receive those funds if they had those strong ties with China. That would be a step past what we’ve seen so far from the Democrats.
TN: What is the counter argument? What’s the case to be made to not — in some of the specifics you just outlined — be quite so aggressive against the Chinese?
LP: That’s a really important question. I think what we’ve seen in terms of the difference between Republicans and Democrats on China policy is a difference in tone and the degree of this rhetoric. I think one of the main consequences that many Democrats have highlighted is the impact on the Asian American community in the U.S. If the language is that China isn’t just a competitor, but an enemy, that framing may lead to greater amounts of violence against Chinese Americans who are living here in the States. That’s one of the main threats that the Democrats are much more aware of and careful about.
You see similar things in terms of the way that the Biden administration has tried to slightly tone down U.S. rhetoric toward Taiwan. In the Taiwan Policy Act that has progressed in Congress over the last few months, initially, there was basically a stronger push to try to identify and support Taiwan independence within the framing of that bill. Behind the scenes, it was reported that the Biden administration tried to tone down that rhetoric — so that while the bill would give billions in foreign aid to Taiwan, the rhetoric wouldn’t be as antagonistic toward China and as inflammatory. I think you see these tweaks at the margin that are significant when relations are as fraught as they are right now.
TN: How much tougher can a Republican House or Senate actually get on Taiwan?
LP: That’s a good question. The Taiwan Policy Act that I just referenced is a bipartisan act. If that advances, it will further fund the Taiwanese military and provide further U.S. military support in terms of dollars for weapons in Taiwan. Again, if there is a bipartisan consensus there, what experts have said is that if Kevin McCarthy becomes the majority leader, you could see an even larger congressional delegation visiting Taiwan, perhaps the largest that we’ve ever seen. Something even beyond what [House Speaker] Nancy Pelosi’s trip was in terms of the signal to Beijing about U.S. support for Taiwan. There might be more inflammatory moves and symbols like that if Republicans do in fact control the House.
TN: Josh, is there a security side to this that the people you talk to lose sleep over? As policymakers here may try to one-up each other with a tougher posture vis-a-vis Taiwan, that we may just be marching toward a conflict with China?
JK: As Lili said, a lot of the military support for Taiwan is a matter of bipartisan consensus, but two years from now, in 2024, there will be presidential elections in both the U.S. and Taiwan. In Beijing, they’ve said that one of the changes that would rule out a push for peaceful reunification of Taiwan with the mainland would be actions by outside powers that make possibilities for peaceful reunification impossible. I’m saying this very carefully, but basically, that means that they would consider force if peaceful reunification no longer appeared to be possible.
I’ll leave it to people more knowledgeable than me to talk about the sort of politics of that in Taiwan, and whether they would push for full independence or sovereignty. But on the U.S. side, recently you’ve had figures like former Trump administration Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and [former Defense Secretary Mark Esper], who have gone over to Taiwan and called for abandoning the “One China” policy, the long-standing U.S. policy where we at least officially recognize Taiwan as part of China, saying that we should fully recognize Taiwan sovereignty. That is the sort of move that I think would be seen as extremely provocative in Beijing if it came from the White House, as opposed to Congress.
One of the reasons I think the Pelosi trip was so much more of an issue than these many other congressional delegations that have gone to Taiwan, is she’s from the current president’s party. She’s second in line to the presidency, so it was more difficult for the White House to explain why this shouldn’t be seen as a statement of official administration policy, when it’s somebody who’s so close to the administration doing it.
TN: Lili, you wrote me a note last night saying that some Chinese scholars believe the Communist Party in China sees Democrats as the lesser of two evils in the U.S. Why is that?
LP: If you look back at the Trump presidency and the trade war, the degree of antagonistic rhetoric toward China — you see that under the Biden administration, there’s been a slight toning down of the rhetoric, even if many of the policy goals have remained the same. And of course, under Trump, the Chinese government had a more difficult time anticipating what would happen, it was a more erratic presidency, and they couldn’t predict U.S. China policy as clearly.
I think there’s a concern, as Josh just outlined, about what some of the risks might be from the White House if a Republican president was elected in 2024. I think in that way, the Democrats are seen as slightly more palatable from Beijing.
I just heard from an expert based at Tsinghua University in Beijing this morning, who said he thinks that given the uncertainty in 2024, Chinese policymakers and leaders should use this opportunity in the next two years to try to rebuild some bridges to the U.S., given what might happen after 2024. The fear being that might lead to an even more extreme anti-China policy in the U.S.
TN: Josh, if the Republicans do gain control in the House or Senate, there are likely to be congressional hearings about U.S. foreign policy that may have a big impact. What might be looming?
JK: If Republicans take the House, I think we can expect to see a range of hearings. I think the big one we can expect is hearings on the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan. Michael McCaul, who probably is going to be the new chair of the [House Foreign Affairs Committee], has already written to Secretary of State [Antony] Blinken telling him to preserve documents because they’re going to want to investigate. I think they’re certainly going to be looking into that, calling witnesses from the administration and particularly focusing on the deaths of 13 U.S. service members during the evacuations from Kabul.
TN: Weren’t there calls from some Republicans to impeach Blinken over what happened?
JK: There were, yes. There’s a question as to whether they’ll try to impeach Biden as well. I think we can expect to hear a lot more about Afghanistan and that very messy, ugly withdrawal in the years to come. We saw during the Obama years, the ongoing hearings over Benghazi, how much this can dominate the official narrative in Washington and derail an administration’s agenda when these hearings are on, and when they’re answering very tough questions.
Also, I have to say, when you ask Republican staff members what they’re going to be prioritizing, another thing you hear about is Hunter Biden’s laptop. Which according to Republicans will show the President’s son’s ties to China and other foreign powers and their influence over this administration.
TN: There are also the various international agreements and deals that, going back to the Obama administration, were signed and then abrogated or just left by the Trump administration. There’s the Iran nuclear deal, although it’s worth noting, as we have noted on our site, a new Iran deal does not look really promising for the Biden administration either — even while it holds the House and Senate.
Then, there’s arguably the biggest issue of all, and that’s climate change. Our climate correspondent Dave Levitan is headed to Sharm el-Sheikh in Egypt, where the current climate conference is underway. He’ll be joining us on this platform next week. Obviously, a flip in the House or Senate would change the ability of the United States to move forward on some of the objectives that have been set forth on the climate front.
Thanks to Alicia Benjamin for copy editing this article.