U.S. President Barack Obama set off for a 10-day tour of India, Indonesia, South Korea, and Japan soon after his Democratic Party suffered a resounding defeat in the congressional mid-term elections. While this may have initially dampened his reception in Mumbai and Delhi, the elections outcome had no great impact on his mission to expand trade and arrange business deals in India. However, looking forward into the next two years, new congressional dynamics will limit the political cooperation required for bold action on a number of pressing foreign policy issues and the domestic matters which influence them.
Broad disaffection with the domestic economy animated voting patterns during this election cycle on two different levels. First, as unemployment hovers around 9.5 per cent, housing values continue to decline, and with dwindling hopes for a quick rebound from the recession, American citizens are overwhelmed with their personal economic wellbeing. Second, and to a lesser degree, voters harbour a mounting unease with the state of public finance as it regards the size of the federal budget, deficit spending, and the gradual deepening of national debt. Together, these two economic issues highlight a broad concern with the direction of the country which, in turn, has fuelled anxieties about America’s competitiveness in the international economy and its ability play a leading role in global affairs.
Americans went to the ballot box on November 2, 2010 with this unease in mind. The end result was a Republican Party which added 60 more seats in the House of Representatives and 6 more seats in the Senate, gaining administrative control of the former chamber. Although this outcome was not a radical departure from that predicted in the campaign run-up, GOP wins in the House were the largest single gain by either party since 1948. Ironically, these rather predictable results have heralded an era of political uncertainty and ambiguity in Washington, D.C. As such, the prospects of governance at the national level and the progress of international programmes undertaken by the Obama administration will become increasingly complex and unclear.
It is important to note that both parties are now divided from within on several key domestic and foreign policy issues. The rise of the Tea Party movement – a populist, generally anti-government response to a continually flagging economy – has opened fissures within the GOP. In other areas, President Obama is increasingly at odds with the liberal wing of his Democratic Party which has been strengthened as several moderate Democrats lost their seats in the election (and through which several hundreds of years of institutional memory have disappeared). The tensions within and between these groups will result in political gridlock at exactly a time when the government is in dire need of compromise to address crucial and time-sensitive issues of national import. In the foreign policy and security realm, these issues pertain to the new START treaty and the war in Afghanistan. While significant, these two items will take a back seat to debate on public finance, decisions on which could greatly impact foreign policy programmes, especially as they relate to mid- to long-term defence and national security initiatives.
One of the hallmarks of the Obama administration’s “reset” with Russia, the new START treaty is set to drastically reduce the nuclear weapons stocks of both countries. Although Republicans have little incentive to take up any issues in the current lame duck session of Congress, the new START treaty has broad support from both sides of the aisle and military leadership. Nonetheless, influential Republicans like Senator John Kyl have voiced worries over the renegotiated treaty’s provisions for verification and its potential impact on nuclear weapon modernization and missile defence. For political reasons, the Republicans may not be inclined to hand the administration a foreign policy victory in the wake of their electoral success. If congressional negotiations break down and the treaty is not passed, either during or after the lame duck session, there is the potential for serious damage to the U.S.-Russia strategic relationship.
The debate on the war in Afghanistan is far more complicated. Within the GOP, this is due in part to an aversion to nation-building and the non-interventionist leanings of several Tea Partiers juxtaposed with the “strong defence at all costs” mantra of conservative Republicans. And while President Obama has committed himself to a military surge in Afghanistan and a politically important timeline to begin withdrawal, many of those in the liberal wing of the Democratic Party do not believe he has gone far enough, fast enough in reducing the U.S. ground presence. A newly resurgent Republican leadership will actually be of benefit to President Obama should he decide that it is in the national interest to extend the war in Afghanistan beyond the July 2011 phased withdrawal and a final transition to Afghan forces by the end of 2014. It also gives him an added amount of flexibility when it comes to other use-of-force issues, especially as they pertain to military special operations against transnational terrorists in countries like Yemen and Pakistan.
Discussions about how to rein in the national debt and deficit provide a subtext to the debate on the U.S. military commitment to Afghanistan, where between $1-2 billion per week are spent to sustain current operations. Moreover, as budgetary pressures continue to build, there will be greater attention paid to how American economic wellbeing is tied to overarching national security imperatives. Impending changes in the House include the Republican takeover of important leadership positions in the Armed Services, Defence Appropriations, and Foreign Affairs committees. Lawmakers in these committees will be eager to leverage their “power of the purse” and refashion how public funds are spent, especially as crushing fiscal commitments continue to pile up.
Congressional leaders from both parties, however, face a dilemma. Everybody would like to be perceived as a stalwart of national defence and security. Everybody also wants to exude fiscal responsibility during what are extremely difficult economic times. And nobody is in a position to raise taxes and increase public revenue when populist, anti-government sentiment is so prevalent and the economy struggles through a period of slow growth. The Co-Chairs of President Obama’s deficit commission recently offered recommendations which portend a 3 to 1 ratio in public spending cuts to tax increases and even this was met with widespread derision from both parties. Given these political dynamics and socio-economic trends, congressmen will focus on cutting federal spending in a robust and comprehensive manner.
Federal spending can broadly be delineated between non-discretionary spending on Social Security, Medicare, and paying interest on the national debt and discretionary spending on everything else. Entitlement costs make up almost 60 per cent of federal outlays and attempts to reform these programmes in the past have been political non-starters. Discretionary spending, on the other hand, is far easier to cut. Defence appropriations make up nearly 50 per cent of the discretionary budget. Based upon these figures alone, one can assume that when the time comes to decrease spending and alleviate the national debt, defence will be a target as it makes up the largest portion of discretionary spending.
What remains to be seen is how new lawmakers will reconcile their desire to be perceived as strong on national security while also embracing the inevitability of defence cuts. Moreover, international security analysts in the U.S. and elsewhere must begin a discussion on how reductions in the defence budget will influence the nature of bilateral security relationships across Asia – what many now consider to be the most geostrategically important region in the world. The interplay between domestic politics, public finance, defence budgets, and international security relations is extremely complex. Moreover, the prospect of political polarization in the 112th Congress makes for a volatile environment in which accommodation and agreement between parties is increasingly difficult.
In one future scenario, budgetary pressures will continue to grow and will reach a point at which the international capital markets impose higher rates on U.S. government debt, forcing a rushed and ill-conceived slashing of spending. In another, lawmakers will work together before that point to think through a pragmatic and measured approach to reining in annual deficits. Either way, defence will be in the crosshairs. And since most government-to-government relations between the U.S. and its Asian partners have significant security components, the ways in which it interacts with those countries will be subject to change.