Trump’s unchecked hold on power comes to an end

The US midterm results are out. In a nutshell, Republicans retain majority in the Senate, while Democrats have seized control of the House of Representatives after a gap of 8 years.

On balance, the midterm results constitute a setback for President Donald Trump insofar as while Senate confirmations for his executive and judicial appointments will be forthcoming, the Democrats in control of the House are now in a position to act as a ‘breaking mechanism’ on his presidency both in terms of his legislative agenda as well as in assertively exercising the congressional oversight of his administration.

To be sure, Trump will put a brave face on it, typically, and in all fairness, for an incumbent American president, unfavorable mid term elections are more the norm than the exception in America’s political history. Therefore, the results by no means should be taken as a crippling blow for Trump – although, unlike many of his predecessors, he barged into the spotlight and made the midterms a vote about him, for him. That was rather unwarranted since with an approval rating at 44%, Trump needn’t have gambled. But Trump is Trump.

(The Cult of Trump)

The US foreign policies did not figure as an issue in the midterm polls. The exit polls showed that the American voter was ‘inward-looking’ – the dominant issue by far being healthcare, trailed significantly behind by immigration and the economy.

The polls witnessed a record voter turnout, reflecting the public awareness that American politics is at crossroads. In effect, therefore, the American voters have decided that Trump and the Republicans should not remain in absolute power in Washington.

In the flush of victory, prominent Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi ominously spoke about Democrats being now in a position to “restore checks and balances” in the administration. An acerbic comment by the BBC is very much to the point: “The partisan trenches in America are getting deeper.”

These results can be expected to significantly impact US domestic politics and international security.

One may say, the polarization in American politics can only get more acute. Control of the House gives the Democrats a big platform to besiege Trump with investigations. Trust them to fully exploit it.

The ensuing disarray, which is inevitable, will have serious implications for the US foreign policies. First and foremost, Trump may have to heavily depend on a platform of relative peace and economic prosperity in America as the positive achievements of his presidency.

Suffice to say, Trump’s tariff war with China may be facing sudden death. A New Cold War with China, if ever there was one likely, will remain an esoteric thought. On the other hand, a warming up of US-China relations could be on the cards.

(Trump and Xi Jinping, April 2017)

Trump will want to explore how far he could count on China’s past promises to invest in the American economy. (Jack Ma at one time last year had promised to create 1 million new jobs in the US economy.)

This is important for Trump, because the Democrats will ensure that there will be no more Trump tax cuts for big businesses and no scope for Trump cuts to social security or healthcare.

On the contrary, with the Democrats effectively ending two years of the Republican Party’s determined stonewalling of any congressional oversight of the Trump administration, there is going to be concerted scrutiny – backed by subpoena power – of the alleged Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump’s Russia “collusion” and Russian business ties with the Trump Organization.

This means that the door slams shut on any significant improvement in the US’ relations with Russia during the remaining two years of Trump’s term in office.

The big question is how far Trump can carry forward his Iran sanctions project. For one thing, the Democrats regard the 2015 Iran nuclear deal as their historic legacy. Senior Iranian officials enjoy great rapport with Democratic leaders such as Pelosi or John Kerry.  Second, most Americans support the 2015 Iran deal.

Now, with the international support for Trump’s Iran project being miniscule, as it is, the law of diminishing returns will be at work sooner than one would have expected.

Indeed, Trump cannot afford the gambit to force Iranian oil off the world market lest it led to spiraling oil prices and hurt him politically. That is to say, the famous “waivers” from sanctions, may become a fact of life. It stands to reason that Trump will look for a deal with Iran at some point soon enough through the next year.

On the whole, we may expect a US retrenchment globally, as the 2020 US presidential election will be fought on domestic issues. The present-day trends – weakening of the transatlantic alliance; growing disinterest in the wars in Yemen, Syria and Afghanistan; disinclination to start any new wars; and, turning away from globalization and free trade, etc. – will only get more pronounced.

These trends of course work in favor of strengthening the multi-polarity in world politics. In the absence of proactive American intervention in Europe, European countries too may rev up their own agenda to improve relations with Russia bilaterally. Already, it is apparent that be it on the INF Treaty or the Iran sanctions, Europe has much more in common with Russia by way of shared interests or concerns than it has with Washington.

From the Indian perspective, the defining partnership with the US has lost its fizz. In retrospect, the course correction in the Indian foreign policies since March that carries Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s imprimatur – the jettisoning of the “muscular diplomacy” vis-à-vis China and a robust attempt to reboot bilateral contacts; the revival of the time-tested relationship with Russia; the distancing from the US’ “Indo-Pacific” strategy; and an overall assertion of India’s strategic autonomy – stands vindicated.

Indeed, the “new normal” in the India-US relationship — divested of hype and hollow rhetoric or grandstanding, and Delhi firmly resisting the US pressure tactic but in a non-confrontational and polite way while pursuing independent foreign policies in its national interests — may prevail through the rest of Trump’s term in office till 2020. Indeed, India too is getting into the 2019 poll cycle.

Any serious attempt to crank up the swagger in the relationship may have to wait till the next US administration. A relationship that got all dressed up and was raring to go has had to stand down, realizing there’s nowhere to go in the near term in the absence of a common agenda.