Midterms: US allies breathe sigh of relief, for now

J. Scott Applewhite/AP
Newly elected members of the House of Representatives arrive at the Capitol for an orientation program, in Washington, Nov. 14, 2022. Midterm election results have reassured America’s closest overseas allies, while strengthening President Joe Biden’s hand in dealing with other countries.
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The unexpected results of last week’s midterm elections have reverberated around the world, as America’s friends and foes take stock of their implications.

In the short term, U.S. allies are reassured that Washington’s support for Ukraine will continue unabated. In the longer term, they see Donald Trump’s disappointing performance as a sign that his path to the presidency may be rocky. And that, too, reassures them.

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America’s weight in the world means its midterm elections are of international interest. But the example the nation sets is of even more importance. Allies are reassured by last week’s results.

There had been fears in Europe that a predicted “red wave” would leave Congress in the hands of “America First” Republicans who do not set much store by international alliances or foreign commitments such as Ukraine. Those fears have subsided.

In the longer term, U.S. allies are still worried, though, by the possibility of another Trump presidency. They have not forgotten how Mr. Trump tore up America’s political rule book at home and abroad, making little secret of his desire to pull out of the Western world’s premier defense pact, NATO.

But their preoccupation with the former president has less to do with U.S. policy than with America’s role as an example to others. Even Mr. Trump’s foreign supporters, such as Britain’s Boris Johnson and Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu, denounced the Capitol invasion as “disgraceful.”

None of America’s friends want to see that kind of thing happen again.

The unexpected results of last week’s midterm elections are resonating far beyond America – because international friends and foes were watching too.

Through bifocals.

Their eyes are now trained mainly on the close at hand, the short-term implications of a reinvigorated Biden administration. But they are also looking into the distance, weighing a long-term question that is less predictable, yet no less important to their relations with Washington: the political future of former President, and newly declared 2024 presidential candidate, Donald Trump.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

America’s weight in the world means its midterm elections are of international interest. But the example the nation sets is of even more importance. Allies are reassured by last week’s results.

The short-term view assesses issues of policy, above all Washington’s response to Russia’s war on Ukraine.

Yet the longer-range view, with memories still fresh from Mr. Trump’s four years in the White House, raises deeper questions about the United States’ democratic fabric, and its place in the world.

On both these counts, at least for now, the election results have reassured America’s closest overseas allies, while strengthening President Joe Biden’s hand in dealing with other countries.

The widely predicted “red wave” – and the prospect that large numbers of Trump-backed candidates would win – sparked concerns in Ukraine that Washington’s support might weaken. Also unsettled were European partners in the pro-Ukraine alliance that Mr. Biden had worked hard to put in place before Russian troops attacked nine months ago.

Alex Brandon/AP
U.S. President Joe Biden and Chinese leader Xi Jinping shake hands before their meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 summit meeting in Bali, Indonesia, Nov. 14, 2022.

While the outcome of the war remains far from resolved, Russian President Vladimir Putin can no longer count on a post-election American retreat from Ukraine, even though Republicans have won a slim majority in the House of Representatives.

The results also made Mr. Biden’s first meeting with Chinese leader Xi Jinping this week easier than it would have been if he had arrived at the G-20 summit in Bali on the heels of a midterm rout. Mr. Xi himself had just secured an unprecedented third term in power, and the two men began charting the course that Mr. Biden had been hoping for, toward an overt rivalry that still leaves space for cooperation in areas of mutual interest.

The midterm results could have an impact on relations with another world leader in attendance at the G-20, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.

The Saudis have long relied on the U.S. as their key military ally. But the kingdom’s de facto ruler remains incensed by Mr. Biden’s condemnation of Saudi Arabia’s human rights record, especially the 2018 murder of Washington Post writer Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul.

Not only has he rebuffed Mr. Biden’s request to increase oil supplies to help deal with a Ukraine-related energy crisis, but he also backed an OPEC decision to cut production. The timing of the announcement last month was widely viewed as a bid to damage the Democratic Party’s chances in the midterms – especially given the crown prince’s close personal relationship with Mr. Trump.

Now, he’ll have to reckon with a quite different outcome.

Still, for Washington’s principal allies, the view through the other lens of the bifocals – focused on Mr. Trump’s future prospects – looks unsettling.

They will take some reassurance from indications that a number of leading Republican Party figures oppose Mr. Trump’s White House bid, and from growing doubts among political pundits that he would succeed.

But concerns remain, nonetheless.

It is not rooted in partisan preference. Allied leaders long ago learned to live and work with presidents from both political parties – a lesson made easier by the broad continuity of American foreign policy through the post-World War II years. There is no reason to anticipate that they would be alarmed should a Republican candidate other than Mr. Trump win the presidency in 2024.

The reason U.S. allies are keeping their eyes firmly fixed on Mr. Trump is the degree to which he rewrote – indeed tore up – America’s political rule book both at home and abroad.

The former president dismissed, denigrated, and even clashed with America’s closest postwar partners in Europe and in Asia, while cultivating friendlier ties with leaders such as Mr. Putin and Crown Prince Mohammed.

Andrew Harnik/AP
Former President Donald Trump gestures after announcing he is running for president for the third time as he speaks at Mar-a-Lago in Palm Beach, Florida, Nov. 15, 2022.

NATO’s European members have bitter memories of Mr. Trump’s accusations that they were mere freeloaders, and of his desire to pull America out of NATO altogether. Those memories are sharpened now that the newly strengthened transatlantic alliance is providing key support to Ukraine in its war against Russia.

It is a different memory, however, that may best explain allies’ abiding preoccupation with Mr. Trump, despite the setbacks that many of his chosen candidates experienced in the midterms.

It is an image that has less to do with America’s foreign policy than with its role as an example to others, and it generated an electric shock worldwide: the scene at the U.S. Capitol nearly two years ago, when supporters of Mr. Trump sought violently to overturn the presidential election that he had lost.

Amid the chorus of condemnation from allied leaders worldwide, even two prime ministers who had supported and worked closely with Mr. Trump in office – Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu and Britain’s Boris Johnson – denounced the attack on the Capitol as “disgraceful.”

And Mr. Johnson’s remarks convey why the memory still lingers so powerfully.

“The United States,” he said, “stands for democracy around the world.”

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