by Gavin O’Toole
The inconclusive outcome of the midterm elections will fuel the culture war in a divided US, widening the existing gulf over domestic policy – with a ripple effect on foreign affairs.
Democrats have seized control the House of Representatives while Republicans have tightened their grip on the Senate, and it is the Senate that counts when it comes to foreign relations.
President Donald Trump is now likely to intensify his combative unilateralism with Republican backing, and this will not help the US to improve ties with Latin America, where his brand is weak.
In foreign policy terms, there will be continuity in the core principles that have characterized Trump’s perspective – identity-based patriotism fuelling a unilateralist vision of America’s global role.
The Democrats’ control of the House enables them to frustrate Trump’s domestic agenda and ramp up scrutiny of him but, despite the activities of its Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees, the House has limited sway on foreign policy.
As a result, foreign relations will become a rhetorical battleground when Democrats seek to assert themselves for political gain – mindful that most voters think Trump has weakened the US position as a world leader.
Trump will also be determined to change that perception as he eyes re-election in 2020, with his hand strengthened among Republicans following the Senate result.
With 2020 also in mind, House Democrats will not want to appear obstructive, suggesting cooperation – and on policies with foreign implications, they may even work in a bipartisan fashion with Republican colleagues.
Immigration could be one of these, given its profile during the midterms.
Trump’s hostility to migrants – stoking fears of Mexicans and sending the military to the border to stop a “caravan” of people from Central America fleeing violence and poverty – was an important factor in voting.
Evidence suggests that many Hispanic voters were galvanized to vote Democrat by serious concerns about the president’s hardline remarks.
But while the Democrats promise to protect Dreamers – undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US as children – the party’s record on immigration has been weak.
It remains to be seen to what extent Democrats use what limited muscle they have to frustrate Trump’s overall agenda, but some trends are likely.
They will want to exercise greater scrutiny of the Pentagon and State Department and will make Trump justify troop deployments – such as his decision to dispatch soldiers to the border in an example of political theatre.
They will also try to curb Trump’s unilateralist instincts and press for multilateral, diplomatic solutions to problems.
They will criticize his relationships with controversial leaders in countries such as Brazil, where Trump has signaled cooperation with the far right president-elect Jair Bolsonaro.
A signature policy that will be affected in the short term is Trump’s ambition to build a vast border wall which the House – which holds the purse strings – can now block indefinitely.
That would remove a major stumbling block to a cordial working relationship between Trump and Mexico’s incoming president, Andrés Manuel López Obrador (AMLO), who is due to take office on 1 December and is cut from similar populist cloth.
AMLO is an astute observer of US politics – he campaigned hard among diaspora Mexicans – and has been an unwavering critic of Trump’s rhetoric.
But López Obrador has good reason to want good working relations on immigration – he is keen to develop a multilateral solution to immigration involving Mexico, the US, and Canada that will need American investment.
AMLO is also mindful that more Mexicans are now returning home from the US than leaving for it, and he will need those American dollars for his policies to reintegrate returnees.
A second key issue that defines relations between the North American neighbors is trade, with Trump capriciously dismantling the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).
An updated NAFTA, the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA), has recently been signed by outgoing Mexican president Enrique Peña Nieto – absolving AMLO of problems if Trump reneges on US commitments.
The USMCA will be a bellwether for Trump’s global trade agenda, and a relieved López Obrador has welcomed it – but Democrats can now hold it up in Congress.
Not for the first time, Mexico represents something of an anomaly in Latin American politics right now, with AMLO halting the so-called rightwards shift evident elsewhere.
While the swing to populism pre-dates Trump’s election, the US leader is empowering a new species of politician and shaping new debates on issues such as racial and gender equality.
The appeal of Bolsonaro in Brazil – where US foreign policy continuity has significant implications – copies directly from the Trump playbook.
Brazil’s president-elect, who takes office on 1 January, has signaled an embrace of American leadership that breaks with his country’s traditional multilateralism.
Close relations with Trump’s US – and its uncharacteristic indifference to human rights – could weaken Brazil’s regional standing and fuel divisions with old rivals such as Argentina.
Moreover, taking Washington’s lead to alienate China, a vast source of investment in South America, would be an act of self-harm by Bolsonaro in a country enduring a record recession.
Bolsonaro’s faith in Trump aside, the main foreign policy outcome of the US midterms will be continued uncertainty about America’s intentions towards the region.
Not for the first time, a US president has little interest in Latin America overall, and Trump has outsourced his policy to his blunt National Security Advisor John Bolton.
Bolton’s crude threats towards Venezuela, Cuba, and Nicaragua will go down badly in countries wedded to the doctrines of non-intervention and territorial integrity.
But perhaps most frustrating for Democrats, is that in a part of the world that has long looked towards America for democratic inspiration, Trump’s behavior at home does little to strengthen belief in the American model.
In fact, it makes the example of non-democratic, authoritarian capitalist systems such as China all the more appealing.