The wake of the mid-term elections last fall have provided little clarity and raised a plethora of questions with regard to U.S. foreign policy. This was yet another mid-term rout against President Barack Obama and his Democrat allies in Congress. The 114th Congress takes their seats with a new Republican Senate majority and a vastly expanded majority in the House. In fact, Republicans in November won their largest share of seats in the House of Representatives since the 1928 elections. With such a historically significant victory, Republicans will feel emboldened to press their mandate in all areas of policy, surly setting up confrontation with President Obama.
On the Senate side of Capitol Hill, the Republicans picked up a total of 9 seats to claim a majority of 54 to 46 over the Democrats. Congress is now unified in opposition to the Democratic President, so it seems, leaving the prospect of 2015 as being a year in which the many foreign policy challenges facing the U.S. today become more mucked from the paralyzed form of government that results from the political squabbling between Democrats and Republicans. And while both the President and Republican leaders in Congress contend that they are determined to work together in areas of agreement, the plethora of issues confronting U.S. foreign policy will undoubtedly expose areas of fundamental disagreement.
President Obama explained the implications of a divided government best in his post-midterm news conference by highlighting his ambition to work productively with the new Congress over the next two years. He stated, “I’m committed to making sure that I measure ideas not by whether they are from Democrats or Republicans, but whether they work for the American people. And that’s not to say that we won’t disagree over some issues that we’re passionate about.”
One area of foreign policy that does seem to be an area of consensus between the President and the new Republican majority is the negotiation of major multilateral free trade agreements. In a post-election news conference, the new Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell mentioned the consensus that, “international trade agreements are a winner for America.” He emphasized the President’s shared interest, expressed in a discussion between the two. “I said, send us trade agreements. We’re [Republicans] anxious to take a look at them,” he added.
While negotiations stalled with the robust Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free trade agreement between the U.S. and European Union late last year, the Obama Administration is eager to push forward with another and, arguably, equally impressive free trade agreement known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP). This deal, according to the Australian Government’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, would encompass over 11 percent of world population, over 798 million people, 25 percent of world trade, and 37 percent of world GDP, an eye-popping figure of $27.75 trillion. With this ambitious goal, President Obama aligns himself with the business-oriented Republicans equally eager to make this deal. Call it a rare rubber stamp of approval from the Republicans bestowed to President Obama.
Beyond free trade, however, the foreign policy agreement between the Administration and Congress becomes tumultuous. The negotiations for a comprehensive agreement on the Iranian nuclear program between Iran and the P5+1, intended to curtail Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanction relief, stalled back in November, yet according to the Washington Post, President Obama is persistent in his belief that a deal can be reached this spring. Meanwhile, the Republican leaders in Congress contend that the stalled negotiations are proof that Iran is only buying time to build a nuclear weapon and insist on further sanctions immediately. This would be completely contrary to President Obama’s plan, which is why during the State of the Union President Obama threatened to veto any legislation that he deems would sabotage the negotiation process.
Further aggravating the difference on the Iranian issue, Republican leaders have invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to a joint session of Congress without the endorsement of the President. According to Dov Zakheim’s article in Foreign Policy, Nentanyahu’s planned visit to Congress has been especially divisive. Some Democrats in Congress have even considered boycotting Prime Minister Netanyahu’s address to Congress altogether. President Obama’s reason for not meeting with the Israeli Prime Minister, according to the Associated Press, is a White House practice of not “engaging with world leaders in close proximity to their elections.” Regardless of what the reasons may be for seeing or not Prime Minister Netanyahu during the planned March 3rd joint session speech, the simple invite has exposed the deep partisan rift in foreign policy objectives between the Obama Administration and Congressional Republicans.
Despite the partisanship however, there are reasons for cautious optimism, and one of those would be the headline grabbing normalization of relations with Cuba and the U.S. State Department. The reaction to this has been very mixed within the U.S. Congress with bipartisan support and opposition to this action. USA Today reports that while a complete lifting of the over 50 year old trade embargo against Cuba remains highly unlikely, it could be a possibility that support for a bipartisan bill lifting the travel ban to Cuba could gain traction. It is a real possibility that Americans will once again be able to enjoy the warm weather and fabulous Cuban cigars for the first time in 5 decades if the Republican Congress and President Obama can decide to play nice.
2015 remains as a year with many ambitious objectives for U.S. foreign policy. Expansive multilateral free trade deals seem just around the corner, as do the prospects of sunny days on the great beaches of Cuba that European and other travelers have already been enjoying for decades. However, there are many dark clouds on the horizon. Authorization for Use of Military Force has been requested by the President to combat the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), and congressional pressure is being levied on the administration to confront the Russian Federation on eastern Ukraine. These represent great challenges that will inevitably strain the relations between the President and Republican leaders in Congress to the limits. To solve these issues the executive and legislative branches need to overcome the deep polarization that has plagued the U.S. government for the last decade and has further manifested itself through the results of last November’s midterm elections. 2015 can be a year of great optimism and accomplishment in U.S. foreign policy, but of course only if Democrats and Republicans can be adults and work together.