A divided Washington

The United States’ Opposition Democratic Party, which had been locked out of power in Washington after its shock loss in the 2016 presidential election, has come roaring back in the mid-term elections, seizing control of the House of Representatives after being in the minority in that body for eight years. The Republicans, meanwhile, strengthened their lead in the United States Senate — an imperfectly representative body that nevertheless has huge powers for foreign relations and domestic institutional oversight. For the Democrats, this will be a much-needed shot in the arm. 

The new Democratic representatives are a diverse lot, and the House that will be sworn in come January, will be the first to have over 100 women. The polarisation in American politics between older, worse-educated white males — the bedrock of Donald Trump’s support — and the younger, better-educated, multi-ethnic coalition that backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 will continue, and will now be reflected in the politics of Washington. Nancy Pelosi of California, who was between 2006 and 2010 the Speaker of the House of Representatives and likely will be again, spoke of bipartisanship, but many in her caucus will want to move forward on confrontational acts, including subpoenas for Mr Trump’s taxes and even perhaps impeachment depending on the final report from Special Counsel Robert Mueller.

What will be the impact on the US’ place in the world, its foreign relations, and particularly on the strategic choices that countries such as India will have to make? It is important to not overstate the changes. In the US, the Senate and the White House are far more impactful when it comes to foreign affairs. In fact, the departure of Senator Bob Corker from Tennessee after this election — the Republican head of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee was a major opponent of Mr Trump’s foreign-policy instincts — might make things easier for the White House going forward, especially since John McCain is also no longer around. Indeed, in the past, presidents who have lost consequential mid-term elections have instead chosen to pursue their chosen policies with even greater determination. After Republicans lost the 2006 mid-term partly because of the Iraq war “quagmire”, President George W Bush actually chose to send more troops to Iraq. The loss of a Democratic majority in 2010 did not deter President Barack Obama from his openness to a deal with Iran.

Yet there are other ways in which a new cautiousness and inward focus may inform US actions. Trade is one such arena — any new arrangements on trade will have to face a vote in the Democratic House. It is as yet unclear whether the Democratic majority will coalesce around the anti-Beijing moves that have been one characteristic of Mr Trump’s trade negotiators. Yet, a divided Washington certainly suggests that there is now a check, even if relatively small, on Mr Trump’s attempts to rewrite the post-War world order. An American capital that is focused on partisan wrangling is also one that is less likely to devote energy to the rest of the world — including in the Indo-Pacific region, where India hopes for continued US engagement.

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