Internal distraction will increase in US post-Nov 6: Analysts

Voters wait in a line to cast their ballots on the last day of early voting at the Green Hills Library in Nashville, Tennessee, on Nov 1, 2018.
Voters wait in a line to cast their ballots on the last day of early voting at the Green Hills Library in Nashville, Tennessee, on Nov 1, 2018.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

WASHINGTON - The political environment in the United States is unlikely to get less vicious post the Nov 6 midterm elections - whatever the result - as political parties and candidates segue into positioning for the 2020 election season.

That, some analysts warn, risks internal distraction for the Trump administration, hampering strategic thinking on foreign policy.

Professor Kuni Miyake, research director for foreign and national security affairs at the Canon Institute for Global Studies (CIGS), warned that the domestic power struggle in America would intensify.

And when President Donald Trump found himself mired in domestic troubles, he tended to try to divert attention.

"It has been happening, and it will probably continue to happen," Prof Miyake said.

Mr Derek Mitchell, a former US ambassador to Myanmar, said allies were already beginning to hedge because of uncertainty about their relations with the US, and divisions within the country.

Mr Mitchell, a Democrat, was an Obama-era appointee during Myanmar's transition, and is now president of the National Democratic Institute.

The two men were among experts speaking at a Stimson Centre panel discussion on the US' Indo-Pacific strategy post-Nov 6.

Most pundits and pollsters are predicting that the Republican Party will retain control of the Senate, perhaps even gaining a seat or two; and likely lose control of the House to the Democratic Party - which needs to flip 23 seats to win a majority in the House.

Mr Daniel Twining, president of the International Republican Institute, which works closely with Congress, said notwithstanding polarisation, Congress has actually shown significant bipartisanship on foreign policy issues.

The Trump administration had proposed cuts as deep as 40 per cent to State Department programmes focused on civilian developmental work abroad.

 
 

But Congress, led by Republicans, had pushed back across party lines denying some of them, and in some cases hiking budgets rather than cutting them, Mr Twining said.

"Congress is in a much more traditional place whether it's led by Republicans or Democrats, or both in the scenario we may be looking at," he said.

Another example of bipartisanship in Congress was the BUILD Act passed by 93 to six votes in the Senate on Oct 3, creating a US$60 billion (S$82 billion) United States International Development Finance Corporation - essentially a modern agency to invest in developing countries, competing with China's so-called "debt trap" investments.

And just before President Trump met Russia's President Vladimir Putin in Helsinki in July, the Senate had voted 98 to two in favour of a strong and expansive Nato, Mr Twining said.

The reaction in Congress to the murder on Oct 2 of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi had also sparked a bipartisan reaction in Congress led by Republicans disapproving of some of what the administration was doing about it.

But Mr Twining acknowledged that most Americans were not preoccupied with foreign policy, and politicians had not done the best job of explaining the stakes involved in foreign policy decisions.

"The return of great power competition is real," he said.

"We are looking at a set of stresses on the international order that America and its allies built after 1945. We are facing an unprecedented set of stresses on the system."