What the midterm elections will signal to the world

By Tara Sonenshine, Professor of Practice of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University

As Nov. 8 nears and American voters prepare to go to the polls, some of us worry about domestic issues like the economy, immigration and health care. Others worry about international affairs like the economy, immigration and, well, health care. 

The truth is most issues are interrelated. What happens in this country affects the rest of the world, and vice versa. 

Think about it: Health issues such as COVID-19 cross national boundaries.  

Climate change affects every citizen in every corner of the globe, but approaches to it differ depending on national policy. 

Immigration is not just an American issue given that we share a border with Mexico and that immigrants are flowing out of many countries into the United States.

Inflation is not just about what the Federal Reserve does with interest rates; it relates to everything from the chip shortage to the price of grain and a barrel of oil.

Election integrity is not just about the fair counting of ballots at home but interference by Russia and other countries abroad.

All of this means that pundits and pollsters should stop referencing domestic and international affairs as though they were separate topics.  

Today we face what can be called “intermestic” issues. When the results of the upcoming midterm elections become clear, certain things might change inside America, and those changes will impact how America is both viewed around the world and affected by global affairs.

Take, for example, the war in Ukraine. Already we are seeing partisan divides emerge within the United States electorate on the Biden administration’s approach to Russia and Ukraine. 

Recently, a letter that progressive Democrats wrote to President Biden criticizing our Ukraine policy was sent and then retracted after it leaked to the press.

Some Republicans are also starting to question U.S. policy on Ukraine. House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested that he may block further defense and humanitarian aid to Ukraine if he becomes speaker of the House next year.

A strong midterm showing for Trump supporters could reinvigorate the “America First” approach that the former president articulated.

Congress has a strong voice when it comes to war powers, meaning that the makeup of the House and Senate way determine how much support there is for responding to Russian moves, including the use of a so-called “dirty bomb” in Ukraine or the use of tactical nuclear weapons. How the U.S. and NATO respond to any escalation of the war will include how Congress and the executive branch interpret the meaning of “war.”

Committee assignments could change on Capitol Hill, including in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will impact how slowly or quickly President Biden’s remaining nominees for office will get through. 

China is another area where Congress has a voice. To date there has been some bipartisan agreement on U.S.-China policy, resulting in the CHIPS and Science Act and the infrastructure law — both of which seek to bolster U.S. competition against China in things like semiconductors.

But a new Congress could reveal differences within the parties on areas like Taiwan or America’s posture in Asia.

Of course, the power of the purse is key. Congress has budgetary authority over military spending, which would reflect new sentiments depending on which members are elected. (In May, 57 House Republicans voted against a $40 billion Ukraine aid package. Eleven Republicans voted against the measure in the Senate.)

Congressional spending on everything from COVID vaccination in the developing world to sanctions on Russia can change America’s economy. A Republican midterm victory in both the Senate and the House would have ripple effects for Europe and NATO just as the war is intensifying.

Lastly, there are moral questions at stake in this election. The U.S. is judged around much of the world as a beacon of democracy. But that perception is under threat. The midterms will signal what Americans value, sending a message about our national narrative and priorities — whether democracy is a theory or a practice and whether America can still claim ownership of it.

This piece is republished from The Hill.

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