What the midterm elections will signal to the world

As November 8 approaches and American voters prepare to vote, some of us are concerned about domestic issues such as the economy, immigration and health care. Others worry about international issues like the economy, immigration and, well, health care.

The truth is that most issues are interrelated. What happens in this country affects the rest of the world, and vice versa.

Think about it: Health issues like COVID-19 cross national borders.

Climate change affects every citizen in every corner of the world, but approaches vary depending on national policy.

Immigration is not just an American issue given that we share a border with Mexico and immigrants flow out of many countries into the United States.

Inflation is not just about what the Federal Reserve does with interest rates; it’s about everything from the chip shortage to the price of grain and a barrel of oil.

Election integrity is not just a matter of fair vote counting at home but interference from Russia and other countries abroad.

All this means that commentators and pollsters should stop referring to domestic and international issues as if they were separate subjects.

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Today we are faced with what can be called “intermestic” issues. When the results of the upcoming midterm elections become clear, some things may change inside America, and those changes will affect how America is perceived around the world and in be affected by global issues.

Take, for example, the war in Ukraine. Already we are seeing partisan divisions emerging within the US electorate on the Biden administration’s approach to Russia and Ukraine.

Recently, a letter written by progressive Democrats was sent to President Biden criticizing our policy in Ukraine and then retracted after it leaked to the press.

Some Republicans are also beginning to question US policy on Ukraine. House Minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) suggested he could block further defense and humanitarian aid to Ukraine if he becomes speaker of the House next year.

A strong midterm showing for Trump supporters could revive the “America First” approach that the former president espoused.

Congress has a strong say in war powers, meaning that the constitution of the House and Senate determines how much support there is to respond to Russian moves, including the use of a so-called “dirty bomb” in Ukraine or the use of tactical nuclear weapons. How the United States and NATO respond to any escalation of the war will include how Congress and the executive branch interpret the meaning of “war.”

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Committee assignments could change on Capitol Hill, including in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will affect how slowly or quickly President Biden’s remaining nominees for office come through.

China is another area where Congress has a say. So far there has been some bipartisan agreement on US-China policy, leading to the CHIPS Act and the Science and Infrastructure Act – both of which seek to boost US competition against China in things like semiconductors.

But a new Congress could reveal differences within the parties on areas such as Taiwan or America’s posture in Asia.

Of course, the power of the purse is key. Congress has budgetary authority over military spending, which would reflect new sentiments depending on which members are elected. (In May, 57 House Republicans voted against a $40 billion aid package in Ukraine. Eleven Republicans voted against the measure in the Senate.)

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Congressional spending on everything from COVID vaccinations in the developing world to sanctions on Russia can change the American economy. A Republican midterm victory in the Senate and House would have ripple effects for Europe and NATO just as the war escalates.

Finally, there are moral questions at stake in this election. The United States is judged around much of the world as an example of democracy. But that perception is under threat. The midterms will identify what Americans value, sending a message about our national narrative and priorities – whether democracy is theory or practice and whether America can still claim ownership of it.

Tara D. Sonenshine is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of the Practice of public diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.


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