During the time of this recording, Wednesday, November 9th, the final results of the United States’ midterm elections are uncertain, but trending towards an outcome in which the Democrats are likely to hold the Senate and Republicans gain control of the House of Representatives.
At stake in these elections of course is control of Congress, which has a unique role to play in shaping US foreign policy. Congress approves budgets and spending on foreign affairs and foreign aid, confirms nominees for Ambassadors and senior positions at State Department, Defense Department and elsewhere, and provides oversight over the executive branch, among many other roles.
In this episode, originally recorded as a live Twitter Spaces, we are joined by Matt Duss, a visiting scholar in the American Statecraft program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace to discuss the foreign policy implications of the US midterm elections. From 2017 to 2022, Matt Duss served as the foreign policy advisor to Senator Bernie Sanders.
In our conversation we discuss the role Congress plays in shaping US foreign policy before having a longer conversation about the concrete foreign policy implications of the the 2022 US midterms.
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Transcript lightly edited for clarity
How Does the United States Congress Influence Foreign Policy?
Matt Duss [00:00:00] But I think all of that just does point to how we’re going to continue to have, let’s say, a very vigorous debate about these issues in the new Congress going forward. I would say one of the most important ways Congress helps shape foreign policy is just by, you know, appropriating, allocating money, or withholding that money for certain initiatives, whether it’s foreign aid, whether it’s foreign economic assistance, situations like that. They can also approve or disapprove arms sales, the direct arms sales or private commercial arm sales. Those are just two ways having to do with the provision of resources. Congress has what is often called the power of the purse. It can also, through the committee process, holding of hearings, it has considerable power to put issues on the agenda or to press the administration for answers, to challenge them on certain areas of policy, to put a spotlight on some issues that sometimes administrations would rather not talk about; give administrations opportunities to talk about things that they do want to talk about. Given the situation, you know, any member of Congress has a considerable platform to raise issues through the media, through the resources of their own offices. Some members choose to focus on foreign policy more. Obviously, every member has limited bandwidth and amount of time, hours in the day to focus on certain things. But there are a lot of ways that Congress, either individuals or groups, can put pressure and help shape foreign policy, even though the president is tasked with leading on foreign policy.
How might a Republican-controlled House of Representatives affect foreign policy toward Ukraine?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:03:50] So assuming Republicans control the House, how might that impact U.S. policy towards Ukraine? So far, Congress has approved about $66 billion in U.S. aid to Ukraine in a bipartisan way, but we’ve been seeing some fissures in that bipartisanship. About a quarter of House Republicans voted against a $40 billion supplemental aid package for Ukraine last spring. So, if Republicans do indeed control the House, how will you expect to see that impact U.S. policy on Ukraine?
Matt Duss [00:04:23] Well, I think we’ve already seen some signs from Republicans that they’re going to be asking much tougher questions about aid to Ukraine. I think what many assume will be the Republican leader in the House, Kevin McCarthy — although given last night’s results, that might change, already seeing some noise about a possible different leader — but he’s said, I think his quote was, we don’t want to see a blank check for Ukraine. Going more to the extreme, we’ve seen Congresswoman Marjorie Taylor Greene in a rally a few days ago saying that not another cent will go to Ukraine. And assuming Republicans do take the House, it’s going to be a much slimmer margin, than I think many had assumed and, in that situation, that means that, you know, smaller factions of the caucus can create a lot more trouble, since there is a much smaller margin to be able to lose votes on any given issue. I think that will give some of the more extreme members more influence on the conversation.
Why would Republicans in the House try to stop United States aid to Ukraine?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:05:16] Right now, at least, the Republican leaders of the key committees are not like that small faction that opposes aid to Ukraine. They are generally part of that bipartisan consensus. Granted, we don’t know what the future leadership will look like, but I mean, do you have any indications that that small minority of Republicans will grow to a larger minority of Republicans and start to oppose U.S. aid to Ukraine?
Matt Duss [00:05:45] I mean, it’s possible it could. I mean, a lot of this, you know, in today’s Republican Party, so much depends on what Donald Trump has to say about things. And then Republican leaders, even ones who have been kind of stalwart in their support and aid to Ukraine, are forced to respond to that. I would also just say here, these questions are valid. I mean, obviously, any member of Congress has the right and the duty to ask tough questions when it comes to the provision of U.S. taxpayer dollars for anything, and that includes supporting the defense of Ukraine. I think there are good answers for why we should continue supporting Ukraine. You know, I wrote a piece back in the summer for The New Republic, kind of laying out at least my argument to the left, to why I thought this was the right policy. But I think it would be wise not to simply dismiss these questions because, you know, we’ve seen over the past few years, and I think this is one of the big lessons of Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was that a lot of Americans from both parties have real and legitimate questions about how our foreign policy makes life better for Americans. And I think foreign policy professionals especially have to be willing and able to engage in these discussions because they’re legitimate.
What is the Hastert Rule?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:06:57] So I’ve been asking you about these Republican House dynamics, because since the nineties, late nineties, early 2000s, there has been this convention called the Hastert Rule, named after Dennis Hastert, the former Republican speaker of the House in which a Republican speaker will not schedule a vote on anything unless he is assured that a majority of Republicans support it. So, this question on Republican support for any number of foreign policy issues is really indeed crucial.
Matt Duss [00:07:30] Right. And I think that just even more so goes to what I was saying about if that is the rule that the Republican majority is going to go by that empowers smaller groups to influence that, especially when the margins are so small.
Will this new Congress treat China and Taiwan differently than in the past?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:07:44] So I wanted to move on to a few other key foreign policy issues. Granted the final results are a bit uncertain, but do you see the incoming Congress in any sort of meaningful way engaging on China and Taiwan in a way that’s like substantially different than how Congress has engaged on China and Taiwan in the recent past?
Matt Duss [00:08:11] Well, I do, actually. I mean, I think one of the ways which unfortunately we’re going to see a Republican controlled House deal with the issue of China is through the origins of COVID. They’ve been making a lot of noise about this; Donald Trump obviously has raised this issue repeatedly. And I think that is one way you will see the Republicans kind of raising the China issue in a way that I think, you know, certainly we want to know as much as possible about the origins of COVID, but I think it’s very clear that there’s an ulterior motive and that this is a way to just bash China, stoke anti-China sentiment, stoke xenophobia. And I think, as we’ve seen over the past decades, that does not produce a good policy discussion.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:08:50] I agree it does not produce a good policy discussion, but it seems that China bashing or taking a hard line on China, however you want to describe it, many members in both parties see that as a politically useful thing to do.
Matt Duss [00:09:04] I think that’s unfortunately true, and I think that’s wrong and dangerous. You know, I would point to a piece of Senator Sanders wrote in Foreign Affairs last year, I think it was April of 2021, where he cautioned against exactly this. Clearly, China represents a lot of challenges, goals and vision of the current Chinese government is not one that certainly progressives share or Americans share, but there are certainly areas that we need to at least try to cooperate with China on, climate being one of them. There’s a longer list. That may turn out not to be possible, but it is important to put effort in there and not constrain or foreclose that space. But even so, even leaving that aside, I think getting drawn into this kind of hawkish anti-China rhetoric has very negative consequences for our own communities here in the United States. We’ve already seen an uptick in hostility and harassment of Asian-Americans, Chinese Americans. And that’s a problem for our own politics in the same way that anti-Muslim rhetoric was a problem for Muslim-American communities over the past 20 years of the global war on terror. I think the last point I might make here is even though unfortunately Tim Ryan was unsuccessful in winning Ohio, I mean, he did outperform, I think, the rest of the Democratic ticket. But even there, I think he promoted what was in many ways, you know, an important kind of pro-worker platform, but unfortunately, that was larded with a lot of exactly this kind of anti-China rhetoric. And we see an example there of that is a bidding war that Republicans are always going to win as J.D. Vance won. Republicans are just going to be more viciously xenophobic than I think Democrats should or will want to be.
Why did Saudi Arabia reduce their oil output?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:10:44] I wanted to move on to Saudi Arabia. So, a few weeks ago, the Saudis joined with Russia and reduced their oil output. And, you know, there was some speculation that the Saudis did this deliberately to undermine Democrats chances ahead of yesterday’s midterms. First, do you share that assessment? Do you think the Saudis deliberately jacked up oil prices in order to harm Biden and the Democrats?
Matt Duss [00:11:17] I mean, I’m not going to go that far. I think there’s some evidence that they are much more comfortable with Republicans and certainly much more comfortable with a Biden administration than they would be with a Democratic administration or a Democratic led Congress. But I think it’s also important to understand that the Saudis have been, under Mohammed bin Salman’s leadership, are just being much more explicitly nationalistic in the way they go about pursuing their own narrow interests. And I think that’s important to understand, too. So even leaving aside the political calculations, I think we have to take this new Saudi vision of their own foreign policy interests into account in the way that we deal with them and how we, I hope, very vigorously, aggressively reassess this relationship, the logic of which has been outdated for a very, very long time.
Why did Chairman Bob Menendez say he wants to pause United States arms sales to Saudi Arabia?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:12:05] And you’re seeing some of that reassessment happening already. I saw that the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Menendez, indicated that he might use his power as a senator to pause U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia. Do you expect to see more trends like that in the coming future from Congress?
Matt Duss [00:12:26] I think so, certainly from Congress. Now, the administration has said that they will be reassessing. We haven’t seen much movement on that. I guess it would make sense that they would want to wait until after the elections but still, I would hope that after being very, very solicitous of the Saudis over the past year, culminating in that trip we saw back in July, President Biden going to Saudi Arabia, fist bumping Mohammed bin Salman, and then basically getting nothing out of that, I would hope we would see a real reassessment. But to answer your question, yes, I think some of the statements we’ve seen from members of Congress in the Senate, particularly, I would point to the comments from Senator Dick Durbin, which were some of the strongest I’ve ever seen, probably from any member of Congress. I mean, it was a series of statements and tweets just slamming the Saudis for the opaque decision and the Saudi role in that decision to cut production, raising prices and hurting American consumers.
Which midterm election results have the potential to greatly influence foreign policy?
Mark L. Goldberg [00:13:19] I wanted to drill down on individual races. Is there anyone last night who definitively won a seat, lost the seat, any races still pending that you’re looking towards in particular that might be particularly impactful from a foreign policy standpoint? I’ll note that Tom Malinowski lost his House seat in New Jersey. He is a former assistant secretary of state for human rights, democracy, and labor under the Obama administration, was a longtime senior executive at Human Rights Watch. He was, you know, expected to be and was an important human rights voice and he lost his seat in a tight race. Are there any other seats that you are particularly sort of eyeing from a foreign policy standpoint?
Matt Duss [00:14:06] With regard to Congressman Malinowski, note, he has also been a particular critic of the US-Saudi relationship. So, losing him, I think it’s worth noting there. I mean, another one I would note is Summer Lee, who won in Pittsburgh. She ran what turned out to be a very tough primary, in large part because there was an enormous amount of super PAC money that came pouring into the district from AIPAC and other very conservative pro-Israel groups that had decided that some statements she had made in support of Palestinian human rights were unacceptable. This is something we’ve seen throughout this cycle. It’s a very, very aggressive effort to pour tens of millions of dollars into primaries to defeat progressive Democrats who have spoken up in favor of Palestinian human rights. And I think Summer Lee’s was even tougher because then AIPAC turned around and after having bashed her for being a bad Democrat in the Democratic primary, went and started funding her Republican opponent in the general. She ultimately pulled it off because she is a great candidate and I think she’s going to be a great champion in Congress. But I think all of that just does point to how we’re going to continue to have, let’s say, a very vigorous debate about these issues in the new Congress going forward.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:16] So assuming Democrats do hold the Senate, do you expect any leadership changes in any key foreign policy committees or subcommittees?
Matt Duss [00:15:27] I wouldn’t say so right now. I think I’ll punt on that just to say we’ll probably learn more about that in the coming days and weeks but nothing that comes to mind right now.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:15:36] On this question of the Senate approving Biden’s nominees: they have been sluggish to do so. Do you see any opportunity for some key roles to be filled? I mean, just the other week, we saw the absurdity of these major elections in Brazil without a U.S. ambassador to Brazil confirmed. And this has been just a consequence of, I think, Republican objections and sort of gumming up the works in the Senate calendar. Do you expect any sort of movement on key nominees? And are there any individual nominees that you’ll be looking towards in the coming weeks to be renominated or get passed?
Matt Duss [00:16:13] Well, I think, as you know, the Republicans have really mounted an absolutely unprecedented effort of obstruction to put a hold on the president’s foreign policy, national security nominations. I mean, after, you know, initial set of confirmations at the outset, secretary of state, secretary of defense, etc., some of the kind of the big ones like that, Senator Ted Cruz and some others have placed a hold on everything, which means that big sets of nominations, which in the past would have kind of moved through, now everything requires a whole set of votes and a whole process on its own. And when you have as many positions requiring confirmation as our foreign policy bureaucracy requires, that can just massively slow down the entire process. Now I don’t know whether to expect it, but I think some would hope that perhaps Senator Menendez, the chairman of the SFRC, might be a bit more aggressive and just use his privilege as chair to move a lot of these nominees to the floor to get them a vote. That would still be a slower process than usual but, you know, it would at least move some of these nominees to a point where they could get an up or down vote.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:17:22] Are there any other implications of yesterday’s elections that you think was important for the foreign policy audience that congregates around this podcast to understand, to know and to appreciate?
Matt Duss [00:17:36] You know, I think we did see that some of the concerns about inflation were overblown. I think we can point to some of the work that was done early on, the American rescue plan and some of these other big bills that actually helped Americans put money in their pockets, address some of their needs, like the infrastructure bill and stuff like that. That really matters. Something else I would mention as well is concerns about the state of American democracy and threats to American democracy, the loss of a fundamental human right, by which I mean the right to abortion, is very concerning to large numbers of Americans. And I think there are foreign policy implications to those things, because ultimately to have an effective and durable foreign policy, we need to find ways to rebuild and strengthen an actual American political consensus, a shared consensus about what kind of society we want. And that’s going to take a lot of work. But I do think those things that I mentioned give us a good sense of some of the real concerns and priorities that Americans have. And we need to take those into account as we do the work of fashioning a foreign policy for this new era.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:44] Matt, thank you so much for taking my questions.
Matt Duss [00:18:47] Very glad to.
Mark L. Goldberg [00:18:55] Thank you for listening to Global Dispatches. Our show is produced by me, Mark Leon Goldberg, and edited and mixed by Levi Sharp.