What the midterm elections will signal to the world

As Nov. 8 approaches and American voters prepare to head to the polls, some of us worry about domestic issues like the economy, immigration, and health care. Others worry about international affairs like the economy, immigration and, well, health care.

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

Consider this: Health issues like COVID-19 cross national borders.

Climate change affects every citizen in every corner of the globe, but approaches to it differ according to national policies.

Immigration is not just an American problem, given that we share a border with Mexico and that immigrants flow from many countries to the United States.

Inflation isn’t just what the Federal Reserve does with interest rates; it refers to everything from chip shortages to the price of grain and a barrel of oil.

The integrity of elections is not only about the honest counting of ballots at home, but also about the interference of Russia and other countries abroad.

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

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Today we are faced with what may be called “internal” problems. As the results of the upcoming midterm elections become clear, some things may change inside America, and those changes will affect both how America is perceived around the world and its influence on global affairs.

Take, for example, the war in Ukraine. We are already seeing partisan divisions emerging in the United States electorate over the Biden administration’s approach to Russia and Ukraine.

A letter that progressive Democrats wrote to President Biden criticizing our policy in Ukraine was recently sent out and then retracted after it was leaked to the press.

Some Republicans are also beginning to question US policy on Ukraine. House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) has 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 breathe new life into the “America First” approach the former president has articulated.

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Congress has a strong voice when it comes to military powers, meaning the House and Senate make up how much support there is to respond to Russian moves, including using the so-called “dirty bomb” in Ukraine or using tactical nuclear weapons . How the US and NATO respond to any escalation of war will involve how Congress and the executive branch interpret the meaning of “war.”

Committee appointments can change on Capitol Hill, including on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, which will affect how slowly or quickly other candidates for President Biden move through.

China is another area where Congress has a voice. To date, 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 increase US competition against China in things like semiconductors.

But a new Congress could expose party differences on issues like Taiwan or America’s position in Asia.

Of course, bag strength is key. Congress has budget 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 for Ukraine. Eleven Republicans voted against the measure in the Senate.)

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Congressional spending on everything from a COVID vaccination in the developing world to sanctions against Russia could change America’s economy. A Republican victory in the midterms in both the Senate and the House of Representatives would have ripple effects for Europe and NATO, just as the war intensifies.

Finally, there are moral issues at stake in this election. The US is regarded in much of the world as a beacon of democracy. But that perception is under threat. Midterms will signal 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. Sonnenschein is the Edward R. Murrow Professor of Public Diplomacy at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.


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