US midterms: why the world fears ‘Trumpism’ is here to stay

The elections will be seen as a test of whether Donald Trump has permanently changed America

Gideon Rachman in London


The world outside America is used to staying up all night to watch the US presidential election.

The midterm elections, however, are not normally regarded as a global event.

But this time is different. The results of the 2018 midterms will be seen all over the world as a crucial test of whether Donald Trump has permanently changed America. The stakes have not been higher in a generation.

If the Republicans do well, then many will conclude that “Trumpism” is here to stay. The rest of the world would have to make a long-term adjustment to an America that is highly protectionist and suspicious of treaties on principle — whether they deal with climate change, arms control, refugees or migration.

However, if the Democrats prosper on Tuesday night, then the US president’s foreign critics will cling on to the hope that the Trump years may yet turn out to be an aberration — and that the old America is waiting in the wings to return.

Countries that have been targeted by sanctions or tariffs by the Trump administration — such as Iran and China— will be keen to see the president receive a bloody nose at the ballot box. It is unlikely that significant Democratic party gains would be enough to resurrect the Iran nuclear deal or to roll back tariffs on China — not least because many Democrats also lean towards protectionism and are hawkish on Iran. But a big political setback for the president would weaken the sense of momentum behind the Trump agenda.

President Vladimir Putin has not been able to move Donald Trump's policy on Russian sanctions but remains supportive of Republican control of Congress © Reuters

There will also be some traditional American allies that are quietly hoping for big gains for the Democrats. The EU, as an organisation, has struggled to come to terms with the fact that Mr Trump is the first ever US president who seems hostile to the very idea of European unity. In part, this is because Mr Trump objects to the trade surplus of more than $100bn that the EU enjoys with the US. He also regards low levels of European defence spending as freeriding on the American security guarantee offered through Nato.

But there is also an ideological element in Mr Trump’s hostility to the EU that concerns officials in Brussels, Berlin and Paris. The US president likes to denounce “globalism” — a term that he and his aides use to describe the encroachment of supranational institutions on national sovereignty. But the EU is the world’s most successful “globalist” organisation, since its organising principle is the creation of international laws that limit the sovereignty of national governments.

Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, says European policymakers are also concerned by evidence that support for alliances is becoming a partisan issue in the US. She cites a Pew Research Center poll earlier this year which showed that only 36 per cent of Republicans think the US should take into account the interests of allies, if that means making compromises. By contrast, 74 per cent of Democrats think that taking allied concerns into account is important.

Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner sit with Israel's prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, second left, at the opening of the US embassy in Jerusalem in May © AFP

“That something as fundamental as support for alliances is becoming a partisan issue is highly concerning,” says Ms Franke. “If it continues, it would mean that Europeans might have to support Democrats by default. And it means we are entering a new, very unstable world in which American friendship depends on who is in the White House.”

Concern about the Trump administration’s attitude to allies is shared by many other traditional American friends. Canadians were stung that their country was labelled as a “national security threat” to the US, to justify the imposition of sanctions on steel and aluminium. The government of Justin Trudeau was put under tremendous diplomatic, economic and rhetorical pressure by the Trump White House during the renegotiation of the North American Free-Trade Agreement — something that will be long remembered in Ottawa.

But there are also a considerable number of governments that will be hoping for Republican success in the midterms. Mr Trump’s period in office has given a shot-in-the-arm to nationalists and cultural conservatives around the world — several of whom are now in power. These governments will be hoping for a big Republican victory, to confirm that they are on the right side of history. Mr Trump’s cheerleaders will include Jair Bolsonaro, the newly-elected president of Brazil, who said during his election campaign that — “Trump is an example to me . . . and in many ways to Brazil”.

Even inside the EU, there are nationalistic and populist governments that see Mr Trump as an inspiration — including Italy, Hungary and Poland.

A message of thanks projected on the wall of the Old City to mark the move of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem © Getty Images

The nationalist and culturally conservative government of Poland is facing disciplinary proceedings from the rest of the EU for violations of the rule-of-law. But the Polish government has cultivated a special relationship with Mr Trump’s America. Warsaw was the location for his first big speech in Europe and Poland was one of four countries named in a special shout-out in Mr Trump’s recent UN address.

The other three were India, Saudi Arabia and Israel — and each of these governments have their own reasons for looking favourably on the Trump administration. The Netanyahu government in Israel was delighted that Mr Trump delivered on his promise to renounce the Iran nuclear deal, and to move the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The Saudis have also welcomed the Trump administration’s much more punitive approach to Iran — and know that they are much more likely to weather the current row over the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi with a friendly president in the White House.

The Indian government led by Narendra Modi dislikes the US president’s protectionism. But it has appreciated the increased strategic importance that his administration has assigned to India, as America positions itself to deal with a rising China. This was symbolised by the US military’s decision, last May, to rename its Pacific Command (responsible for all military activity in the Pacific), as the Indo-Pacific command.

The Russian government is one of the few administrations with a direct stake in the outcome of the midterms. If the Democrats take control of the House, there are almost certain to be congressional hearings on alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US presidential election— as well as an effort to impeach Mr Trump. Any such hearings could be embarrassing for the Kremlin, and might even lead to further economic sanctions on Russia.

Despite Moscow’s eagerness to see Mr Trump elected in 2016, his administration has been something of a disappointment to the Putin government. Indeed the US has intensified economic sanctions on Russia and expelled Russian officials in the wake of the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in the UK. Recently, Mr Trump even announced America’s intention to pull out of the 1987 Intermediate Nuclear Forces arms reduction treaty.

Nonetheless the Putin government has not given up on Mr Trump. Alexander Gabuev, a senior fellow of the Carnegie Endowment in Moscow, says he thinks “Putin’s preferred outcome” would be for the Republicans to maintain control over both the House and the Senate, giving Mr Trump more scope to push agreements with the Kremlin. The expectation of a potential second term for Mr Trump is also rising in Russia.

However, even a result where the Democrats win the House but not the Senate “doesn’t look bad from Moscow’s viewpoint”, he says. “A split Congress will make Trump’s impeachment unlikely, and at the same time it will add dysfunctionality to the US political system, so the country might become even more divided and inward-looking . . . Something that weakens your opponent is good for you, that’s the logic.”

Donald Trump has forged close links with the ruling party in Poland and made his first big European speech there © EPA

There is also a group of governments that will be either neutral or simply confused by the current American political scene and the midterms. These neutrals include — for rather different reasons — Britain and Japan.

Brexit Britain is sometimes regarded as a natural ally of Mr Trump’s America. But the government of Theresa May has opposed many of the controversial positions taken by his administration on a range of issues, from climate change to Iran.

Early British hopes that the US might be amenable to doing a swift trade deal with the UK have also faded as the protectionist nature of the Trump administration has sunk in. On the other hand, the White House is, at least, rhetorically committed to the idea that Brexit is a good thing — while the Brexiters have never forgotten or forgiven the dismissive attitude of Barack Obama towards their pet project.

The Japanese prime minister, Shinzo Abe, has done his best to build a special relationship with Mr Trump. But the Trump administration has delivered a series of snubs to Japan. On his first day in office, Mr Trump pulled America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a large trade deal that Mr Abe had championed. And Mr Trump is still threatening Japan with big tariffs on car exports. Tokyo has also struggled to get its concerns factored into the president’s fast-evolving approach to North Korea.

But despite all that, a conservative Japanese administration — such as that of Mr Abe — remains appreciative of the tougher US stance towards China.

It is possible, however, that all of these governments are making a similar analytical error — by over-estimating the significance of the midterm elections. It is quite normal for a president to experience a backlash against their party in the first term, but that does not necessarily reflect a long-lasting shift in US politics. Both Mr Obama and Bill Clinton lost the midterms during their first term in office — but went on to win second terms as president.

Losing control of Congress has a significant impact on a president’s ability to pass domestic legislation. But it may not change foreign policy all that much. The main impact of Congress in this area comes through its power to approve or reject trade deals and treaties. But since Mr Trump sees both trade and treaties as manifestations of “globalism” — he is unlikely to be pushing hard in that direction.

Congress also has the right to vote on declarations of war. But unless there is some unexpected global crisis, the War Powers Act is unlikely to be invoked before the next presidential election. And Mr Trump has already shown that he is willing to use force at a lower level — for example by launching bombing raids on Syria — without seeking congressional approval.

German chancellor Angela Merkel and Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister, speak with US president Donald Trump at the G7 summit © EPA

Even if the Democrats make big gains in the midterms and retake the presidency in 2020, the outside world might be wise to assume that elements of “Trumpism” are here to stay. The American left has also been moving towards protectionism for some time. Bernie Sanders, the left’s champion in the last presidential election, opposed the TPP — and forced Hillary Clinton to repudiate it as well, despite the fact that the Democratic candidate had championed the trade pact as secretary of state.

Suspicion and even hostility towards China is also becoming a bipartisan trend. The last two years of the Obama presidency saw growing anxiety within the US military establishment about China’s increasingly assertive claims in the South China Sea. It was the Obama administration that stepped up “freedom of navigation” operations by the US Navy to challenge Beijing’s claims in the Pacific. Meanwhile Democrats such as Kurt Campbell, Mr Obama’s assistant secretary of state for Asia, have joined the chorus of voices arguing that US engagement with China has failed in important respects — and calling for a more confrontational policy.

Although neither Mr Obama nor Mr Trump would care to acknowledge it, there are also important elements of continuity in their policies towards Europe and the Middle East. Robert Gates, secretary of defence to both Mr Obama and Mr Bush, made a landmark speech in Brussels in 2011 warning that US support for Nato would inevitably decline if European allies did not spend more on defence.

India under Narendra Modi is seen as a potential Asian bulwark against the increasing influence of China © AP

Mr Obama was attacked by his critics for standing aside from the Syrian conflict and allowing US influence in the Middle East to dwindle. But Mr Trump has done little to shift this stance. His decision to authorise a missile strike, in response to the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons, was a symbolic repudiation of Mr Obama — who had refused to take that step in 2013. But the Trump administration has made little effort to take a more assertive stance on Syria and continued to allow Russia to fill the military and diplomatic vacuum.

Mr Trump has certainly adopted a much more overtly pro-Israel policy than Mr Obama. But, like all US presidents since Mr Clinton, he has been unable to change the underlying dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Meanwhile, America’s influence in the wider Middle East, while still formidable, continues to diminish.

To some extent, this gradual erosion of America’s role as the “world’s policeman” is the product of conscious policy decisions. Mr Obama promised to concentrate on “nation-building at home”; Mr Trump has pledged to put “America First”.

Both presidents were signalling, in their very different ways, that the US is tiring of the burdens of global leadership. That trend is unlikely to change — whatever happens in the midterm elections.

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