What Will the U.S. Midterm Elections Mean for Multilateralism?

World Politics Review

By Richard Gowan

If you want to predict the future of international cooperation, you shouldn’t focus on multilateral hubs like New York and Geneva over the next two weeks. Instead, concentrate on Florida, Texas and Missouri. These are some of the states up for grabs in next week’s U.S. midterm elections. The polls could further reshape American and non-American policymakers’ visions of the future of the global system. 

The U.S. Congress is one of the most significant players in multilateral affairs, for the simple reason that it signs off on an enormous chunk of international organizations’ budgets. Congress approved roughly $9 billion of funding to the United Nations system in the 2017 fiscal year. That is about one third of the total sum that the U.N. spends worldwide every year. 

A hardened core of Congress, including the likes of Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, is a vocal critic of the U.N. and other multilateral bodies. “Many members,” as the Congressional Research Service noted in a recent report, “have expressed frustration with U.N. bodies or activities that, in their view, are not operating efficiently or lack effective accountability mechanisms.”

Yet Congress has arguably played a crucial role in protecting the international system from the predations of President Donald Trump over the past two years. While the administration has tabled budgets proposing massive cuts to U.S. spending on the U.N., zeroing out support for some multilateral initiatives altogether, leveler heads on Capitol Hill have refused to back those cuts.

Conservative officials in the White House and State Department have been irritated by Congress’ insistence on allocating funds to U.N. humanitarian and peace operations that they mistrust. Leaked State Department correspondence shows that U.S. officials have deliberately avoided disbursing multilateral funds authorized by Congress. They have been partially successful. As Paul Williams notes, the U.S. has currently paid only two-thirds of $1.4 billion of the congressionally approved funds for blue helmet peace operations in the current fiscal year.

While such bureaucratic foot-dragging may defy Congress’ intentions, one Washington D.C.-based supporter of the U.N. recently told me that many senators and representatives have been “guard rails” for multilateralism in a period of political instability. Even as the outgoing U.S. ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley, has frequently publicized her successes in slimming the institution’s budgets, she has also worked quietly with mainstream Republicans, such as Sen. Bob Corker and Sen. Marco Rubio, to avert excessive cuts. U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has also spent a considerable quantity of time courting Congress since Trump became president.

How will the midterms affect American policy toward multilateralism? Given that the current Republican-dominated Congress has been relatively generous toward the U.N., despite Trump’s isolationism, the stakes may seem reassuringly low. Most analysts reckon that the GOP will probably lose control of the House of Representatives, although it may keep a narrow grip on the Senate. In this scenario, Congress is liable to stay open to backing the U.N., or possibly become a little more generous toward it.

If the Republicans perform poorly on Nov. 6, many foreign policymakers will conclude that they can relax a little.

Haley is, for example, embroiled in a push to reduce the overall U.S. contribution to the U.N.’s $6.7 billion peacekeeping budget by a few percentage points. There is a good chance that other countries, less than keen to pay extra, will block her proposal. A solidly Republican Congress might see this as a reason to impose some punitive cuts on the peacekeepers. But if a wholly or partially Democratic-controlled Congress shifts back to the center, it is less likely to make an issue of such a rebuff.

The real impact of this election may not, in fact, be on U.S. attitudes to the U.N., but on how other governments assess the future of the global order. World leaders have frequently lamented America’s drift away from multilateralism under Trump. American allies such as France and Germany have started talking about creating an anti-Trumpian “alliance of multilateralists.” Chinese diplomats have been working hard to win over Western countries with promises of cooperation over trade policy and climate change in a period in which the U.S. cannot be trusted.

Yet foreign leaders’ talk about learning to live without the U.S. tends to involve more noise than substance. Foreign diplomats have been very wary of picking fights with their American counterparts, while they have courted more moderate administration officials such as Haley. There is still a working assumption in many foreign capitals that Trump is an anomaly, and that the U.S. will take a more measured approach to international cooperation if and when he loses re-election in 2020. 

Few observers think that Washington will revert to the Obama administration’s hearty embrace of the U.N., which also looks like something of an anomaly in retrospect. But most U.S. allies would be happy to work with a middle-of-the-road American president to restore a sense of order.

If the Republicans perform poorly on Nov. 6, and especially if they lose control of the Senate, many foreign policymakers will conclude that they can relax a little. Yes, the Trump administration is liable to disrupt the norms of international cooperation for two more years. But it will seem safe to assume that this is just a phase the U.S. is going through, rather than a fundamental transformation of global diplomacy. In this scenario, most foreign policymakers will pay less attention to radical proposals, like a Chinese-led international order, reverting to a view of the world before 2016.

But if Trump and the Republicans do better than pundits expect—as they did quite spectacularly two years ago—international debate will swerve in a very different direction. Should next week’s results imply that Trump is on track for a second term in 2020, other leaders will start thinking about how to establish more concrete plans for saving multilateralism from a go-it-alone United States.

Whatever the outcome next Tuesday, a lot of members of Congress will continue to back multilateral cooperation with other world powers, whether in Europe or Asia. But the midterms may be the moment that those other powers conclude that America’s rejection of the global order is for real.

Richard Gowan is a senior fellow at the United Nations University’s Centre for Policy Research. He is also a fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations and NYU’s Center on International Cooperation, and teaches at Columbia University.