WASHINGTON — American elections are largely driven by domestic concerns, but their outcomes have global ramifications. Never has this been more evident than in the wake of this year’s U.S. Congressional elections, which produced an overwhelming Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives and returned a razor-thin Democratic majority in the U.S. Senate.
The Republican Congressional ascendancy reverberates across the Atlantic. Europeans hopeful of cooperation with the United States on Afghanistan, arms control, the global economy, and climate change will notice that Washington is about to become an even more frustrating partner.
The Afghan war was not a Congressional campaign issue. But President Barack Obama has pledged to begin withdrawal of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by mid-2011. Europeans, who largely support reducing the Western military presence in Afghanistan, are joined by only 22 percent of Republican voters in the United States who support such a policy, according to the recent German Marshall Fund Transatlantic Trends survey. When, and if, Obama begins an Afghan pullback, Congressional Republicans will only complicate allied cooperation on Afghanistan.
The Obama administration, along with its European allies, wants to negotiate with Tehran about its nuclear weapons program. But American Republicans support a far more aggressive posture: one-in-five respondents of the Transatlantic Trends survey would take military action now to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons and more than four-in-five would take such action if non-military efforts fail. Republican hawks on Capitol Hill are likely to be sharply critical of any administration pursuit of a negotiated settlement to the Iranian standoff.
There is also a widespread European desire for the White House to advance the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But only 12 percent of Republicans approve of Obama’s handling of the Middle East. Obama’s ability to leverage the Israeli government to make concessions to the Palestinians is likely to meet opposition from Congressional Republicans supportive of an Israeli hard line.
The reduction of American and Russian nuclear arsenals has long been a European goal. But the Obama administration was unable to corral the two-thirds majority needed in the U.S. Senate to pass its recently completed arms control treaty with Moscow. Passage will prove even more elusive next year.
The new Republican Congressional leadership has pledged to cut government spending, suggesting they have more in common with Germans than with Democrats. But austerity-minded Europeans need to be mindful that this belt-tightening may be more rhetoric than reality.
Republicans promise not to cut Social Security (pensions), Medicare and Medicaid (health care for the elderly and the poor), and defense spending, which account for more than three-fifths of the U.S. budget. Moreover, Republicans plan to extend Bush-era tax cuts at a cost of $370 billion a year in lost revenue. Congressional Republicans have also pledged to repeal Obama’s recently enacted health care reform that could save the U.S. Treasury $10 billion a year. European hopes that a Republican House might force a reduction in destabilizing U.S. debt may prove illusionary.
Prospects for meaningful U.S. action on climate change, long a European priority, are even more remote. Obama could not pass climate change legislation this year despite having a nine-seat majority in the U.S. Senate. Next year, U.S. climate change legislation is dead. White House promises to pursue emissions controls through executive regulation are likely to be frustrated by Republican plans to withhold funding for enforcing such rules.
Finally, some Europeans hope that the divided government produced by the election will force American Republicans and Democrats to cooperate in governing. But the trench warfare that has plagued Washington for the last two years is about to get worse. Republicans have promised to begin Congressional investigations of the White House, which are likely to poison Congressional-White House relations, whether or not wrongdoing is found. And Republicans, who have won back the House of Representatives through obstructionism, may decide that two more years of such behavior can win them back the White House in 2012.
Europeans did not get a vote in this year’s U.S. Congressional elections. But they have to live with the results. It could prove a frustrating experience.
Bruce Stokes is a Senior Transatlantic Fellow with the German Marshall Fund in Washington, DC.