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Could defeat for Democrats be good for the world?

Analysis: History tells us that presidents turn to foreign policy if they lose Congress.

US election, Barack Obama
U.S. President Barack Obama gestures as he speaks at the Providence Convention Center during a rally for congressional candidate David Cicilline in Providence, R.I., Oct. 25, 2010. (Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images)

WASHINGTON — There was no mention of Aqua Buddhas or witchcraft or the Tea Party. Most of the people in the room had not even heard of Glenn Beck and didn’t quite get the humor in Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear.”

But in the packed auditorium in the U.S. State Department, 100 international journalists visiting from around the world were wondering what today’s election would mean for foreign policy.

President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration ushered in a new era that sought for America to re-engage with the world. Two years later it still stands in stark contrast to eight years of President George W. Bush’s unilateralism and reputation for cowboy diplomacy.

But what happens to the spirit of Obama’s foreign policy if Republicans capture control of Congress?

The short answer, most political analysts believe, is there will likely be no significant change in the direction of the administration’s foreign policy.

In fact, if history is any guide, Obama may indeed turn greater attention to his foreign policy goals if he feels stymied by a Republican Congress. At least, that’s what President Bill Clinton did when he lost Democratic control of Congress in 1994 and it's what President Woodrow Wilson did in 1918 when he pushed ahead with an activist foreign policy after Republicans won control of the Congress in mid-term elections.

Anne-Marie Slaughter, the director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department, wasn’t talking politics to this group of journalists when they gathered here last week. But she presented a very clear blueprint for the Obama administration’s national security policy and specifically noted how it differed from the Bush administration.

Summarizing the National Security Strategy, a document that defines the administration’s view of national interests and strategies for global leadership, Slaughter said, “What’s unique about this approach is that it starts with domestic strategy … We have to rebuild our own foundation … We believe passing health care legislation is as important as prosecuting the war in Afghanistan.”

The other key difference between this administration and the previous eight years of Republican rule, Slaughter added, is a strong belief in “a just and sustainable international order based on rights and international responsibilities.”

So both of these core differences between the Obama team and the Republicans, as Slaughter spelled them out, provide a sense of what to expect in the two years leading up to the next presidential election.

The first is that Obama will focus on a struggling economy and high unemployment. In other words, he will keep his eye on the same thing that voters care about: domestic priorities. Containing the economic crisis and getting America strong again is a matter of national security from the Obama point of view.

And in carrying out his wider foreign policy goals, Obama will look to build international consensus and momentum in the Senate for unfinished business, such as a new nuclear arms control treaty with Russia, closing the military prison at Guantanamo Bay and pushing through a bill that would address global climate change.

Huge looming issues, such as a faltering war in Afghanistan, withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq and nuclear standoffs with Iran and North Korea will be even more challenging for the president than they already are. It won’t be easy to carry out diplomacy abroad, most of the journalists gathered here agreed, with an image as a leader who does not have a broad base of support back home.

This will be particularly true in the Middle East, where the peace process is as stalled as ever. It will also be true in relations with China where there are new strains as both political parties are calling for Obama to do more to rebalance U.S.-China trade policies. The Council on Foreign Relations did an excellent job analyzing how trade policy in particular will be reshaped, presuming the midterm elections go as analysts are predicting.

The first test of this brave new world for Obama will come just days after the election when he departs for a four-country tour of Asia, which will include back-to-back summits with the Group of 20 and Pacific Rim countries. The trip might look like a desperate attempt to get out of Dodge, but most economists and foreign policy experts agree that the meetings, particularly the 21-nation Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Japan, are critically important meetings for an American president to attend.

In fact, APEC is specifically scheduled for November so as not to conflict with U.S. elections. Obama will also be visiting India, Indonesia and South Korea.

Susan Milligan, a veteran journalist who covered Congress for most of the last 25 years and who has reported from many corners of the world, is convinced that the domestic political landscape will lead Obama to focus on foreign policy in the aftermath of the election.