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Six Implications from the Mid-Term Elections for U.S Policy Towards East Asia

By Troy Stangarone

The 2014 mid-term elections will likely mark an important turning point in U.S. foreign policy and the Obama Administration. While presidential elections can bring in entirely new administrations, mid-term elections, especially those in the second administration of a presidency, can also serve as decisive moment. As administrations look to cement their legacy and power begins to wane as lame duck status sets in, administrations have often looked to foreign policy where they are less encumbered by Congress and have more freedom of action to build a legacy.

With Republicans winning a majority in the Senate for the first time in eight years, President Obama will face a Republican Congress for his final two years in office. The shift in power raises six issues for foreign policy in general and East Asia more specifically for the last two years of the Obama Administration.

Is Obama Already a Lame Duck?

Generally presidents look to foreign policy for achievements in their final two years in office and we should expect President Obama to do so as well. With a series of international issues to address such as a resurgent Russia and the crisis in the Ukraine, dealing with the Islamic State and the Assad regime in Syria, the nuclear negotiations with Iran, and North Korea, as well as economic issues such as trade policy, there should be a host of issues for the Congress to work on with the President.

Ronald Reagan and Harry Truman successfully worked across the aisle to advance important foreign policy objectives after mid-term losses with Reagan pushing arms control deals with the Soviet Union through Congress and Truman working with Republicans to lay the foundations of U.S. foreign policy after World War II with the passage the Marshall Plan and aid for Turkey and Greece.

However, as President Obama prepares to head off a series of summit meetings in Asia, the circumstances facing President Obama may be different than those Truman and Reagan faced. In exit polling from the elections, six out of ten voters said that they had negative feelings about the administration and for every two who voted to support it three voted to express opposition. This reservoir of concerns about the Administration’s policies could spill over into foreign leader’s perceptions of the Administration, as there are already suggestions may be the case in Europe and China. The international climate is different as well. China is seen by many as a rising power and the United States as one that is waning.  If President Obama is seen by foreign leaders as someone who is losing influence in the United States, coupled with concerns about the United States’ influence to play a role abroad, they pay less heed to him, making it difficult for President Obama to have similar foreign policy successes in his last two years in office.

The President’s upcoming trips to the annual APEC summit in Beijing, the East Asia Summit in Myanmar, and the G-20 summit in Australia may give us some initial insight into how President Obama’s new status is perceived abroad.

Governing the Senate Might Not Be So Easy

In initial comments after their victory Republicans touched on many of the right notes by expressing a desire to move past the “gridlock and dysfunction” of recent years and to be seen as a party that can govern, while the President identified trade, tax reform, and infrastructure spending as areas where he is willing to compromise with Republicans.

If Senator McConnell and Speaker John Boehner are able to work with Obama on an agenda that ends the gridlock, it could help to enhance the President’s position abroad by countering the narrative that his lame duck period has set in. With eyes soon set to turn to the 2016 elections, there is also an incentive for Republicans to demonstrate that they can do more than oppose Obama to enhance their chances of retaining the Senate and creating a favorable political environment for the Republican presidential nominee. However, governing the Senate might not be easy.

While Senator McConnell will likely have a 53 or 54 seat majority in the Senate, passing most legislation requires 60 votes to end debate. This means that Republicans will have to convince Democrats to cross the aisle to work with them to pass legislation. While some moderate Democrats such as Senator Joe Manchin could be expected to work with Republicans, the traditional pool of Senators expected to face tough elections in the next cycle may not be very promising for Republicans.  With 26 Republicans, as opposed to just 10 Democrats, up for reelection in 2016, there is a strong incentive for Democrats to block legislation not to their liking in an effort to win back the Senate in the next cycle. While retirements and other factors could change this, perhaps only two or three of the 10 Democrats up in 2016 will face tough reelection battles. In contrast, six Republican Senators are from states that President Obama won twice. In fact, two GOP Senators up for reelection in 2016 represent states that have consistently voted for the Democratic presidential nominee since 2000. Additionally, if Republicans are unable to develop a working agenda with President Obama and he moves into a lame duck period, Democrats will increasingly become less beholden to the White House and more focused on their own interests and the next election.

Beyond the challenges Senator McConnell may face from Democrats, he will have to deal with obstacles in his own party. Senator Ted Cruz can be expected to continue to push maximalist positions which would make compromise with Democrats more difficult and potentially divide more moderate and conservative members of the party. There will also be the desire of potential presidential candidate such as Senator Cruz, Senator Marco Rubio, and Senator Rand Paul to make their mark.

Republicans Might Be More Helpful on Trade, But It’s Still a Difficult Road Getting There

The prevailing logic is that Republicans are more supportive of free trade than Democrats, so a Republican Senate means that the President is more likely to receive the new grant of Trade Promotion Authority (TPA) that is needed to push key trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) across the finish line. However, the likely path for TPP, let alone the conclusion of TPP and TTIP is likely to be more complex.

Given time constraints for the rest of the year, the current draft TPA legislation seems unlikely to pass in the lame duck session. If it does not, there are a series of factors that could impact the timing and passage of TPA. First, the current draft of the legislation was negotiated by House Ways and Means Committee Chairman David Camp, Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, and Senate Finance Committee Ranking Member Orrin Hatch. Two of the three will be gone in the next Congress. Chairman Camp is set to retire and be replaced by either Representatives Paul Ryan or Kevin Brady. Senator Baucus is now Ambassador to China, having been succeeded by Senator Ron Wyden as Chairman earlier this year. Much as Senator Wyden has sought changes in the current draft, either Congressmen Ryan or Brady could seek modifications as well, if only to address concerns within their own caucus as many of the new members are expected to be more conservative than the ones they are replacing. Regardless, both Representatives Ryan and Brady co-signed a letter to USTR urging passage of TPA before the conclusion of the TPP talks, even if it is an agreement in principle.

Another factor could be immigration policy. Republicans will be watching the President to see if he follows through on promises to issue an executive order on immigration. Given the mistrust of President Obama that already exists among Republicans, especially in the House, any executive order could undermine support for granting President Obama TPA.

There is also the question of whether Republicans are willing to grant President Obama a trade victory. If he were to conclude the TPP and TTIP, those would be victories for the President, and significant ones at that. If the new Congress does not start off on good terms with the President, there could be increasing reluctance to grant him significant victories if other Republican priorities are not being addressed.

Given the potential political need to possibly update the draft TPA legislation, TPA may not pass Congress until the middle of 2015. If that is the case, the conclusion and passage of TPP and TTIP will move increasingly close to the beginning of the 2016 presidential cycle, potentially pushing their passage to the next administration.

More Defense Funding, for the Pivot to Europe?

One of the Obama Administration’s signature policies has been the pivot, or rebalance, to Asia. However, while initially well received by Democrats and Republicans alike for its increasing emphasis on Asia, the policy has come under criticism for being too heavy on defense. There are also concerns that the cuts from sequestration have gone beyond what is needed to adequately fund the pivot.  At the same time, the key economic component of the pivot, the Trans-Pacific Partnership talks, has moved more slowly than hoped, undermining the larger drive for increased economic engagement with the region.

There have also been concerns about the U.S. commitment to the pivot in Asia, where China seems to be the only country that believes it is taking place. With the U.S. being drawn back into the Middle East to deal with the troubles in Iraq and Syria and the deterioration of relations with Russia, questions have been raised regarding whether the U.S. has the resources to become more deeply involved in Asia.

With Republicans now in full control of Congress, efforts could be made to finally address the cuts to defense under sequestration, but some of those increases could go towards strengthening the U.S. commitment to Europe because of Russia’s increasingly aggressive approach with its annexation of Crimea and the increasing frequency of military flights into and around European airspace. While increased defense spending should lead to additional resources for the Asia-Pacific region, the push for the U.S. to deploy more resources to Europe and Middle East will likely continue to raise concerns about the U.S. commitment to Asia.

Strategic Patience May Be Increasingly Challenged

President Obama came to office with a willingness to abandon adversarial relations with states such as North Korea if they would unclench their fists. Early in his term, North Korea rejected efforts at dialogue, though the Administration later tried to engage in dialogue with the Kim Jong-un regime when he came to power. However, despite this willingness to reach out to states such as North Korea, the Administration’s policy towards North Korea has largely consisted of what is often referred to as strategic patience.

Strategic patience is premised on the idea that the cycle of provocations followed by negotiations and rewards for North Korea to not engage in bad behavior needed to be broken.
Additionally, the United States could afford to wait out North Korea while its actions isolated it from its neighbors. However, as North Korea advanced its nuclear program through continued nuclear and missile tests, the policy has come under increasing scrutiny.

Without a Democratic majority in the Senate to defer to the administration’s policy preferences, North Korea policy could increasingly come under greater pressure from Congress. A Republican Senate is more likely to bring up legislation such as the North Korea Sanctions Enforcement Act of 2014, which passed the House earlier this year. Should North Korea engage in further missile or nuclear tests, Republicans would likely place increasing pressure on the Administration to move away from strategic patience towards a stronger sanctions regime.

If the Nuclear Talks with Iran Fail, There Might Not Be Enough Political Capitol to Negotiate With North Korea

While the Six Party Talks have not met to discuss North Korea’s nuclear issue since the Bush Administration was still in office, the Obama Administration has pursued a diplomatic path to try and rein in Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Those talks are not directly related to the North Korean nuclear issue, but they could have an impact on the ability of the administration to pursue talks on North Korea’s nuclear program.

If the talks, which are in the final months of an initial negotiation period, are successful they could serve as a demonstration to North Korea of the advantages if it engages in meaningful denuclearization talks with the United States and its partners in the Six Party Talks. However, should the talks with Iran fail or if Congress rejects any agreement reached in the talks, it is unlikely that that the Administration would have the political capital needed to try and advance talks with North Korea. Republicans are skeptical of the talks with Iran, and remain so in regards to North Korea. If the Obama Administration is unable to successfully conclude a deal with Iran, it is unlikely that the United States will be able to engage in meaningful denuclearization talks with North Korea prior to the next administration taking office in 2017.

Concluding Thoughts

As a result of the mid-term elections, the next two years should be a period of both opportunities and challenges for the Administration and Republicans in Congress that will help to lay the groundwork for the foreign policy debate for the next presidential election.  However, for policy towards East Asia there should still be a degree of continuity as, while Republicans and Democrats may have differing perspectives on some issues, they are largely on the same page when it comes to matters relating to East Asia.

Troy Stangarone is the Senior Director for Congressional Affairs and Trade at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the authors alone.

Photo from The White House’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.


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