US allies fear Trump whiplash, eye midterms for political clues

America's closest allies are nervously watching US midterm elections for any signals that voters could return Donald Trump to the White House in two years, with foreign officials fanning out to battleground states for meetings to collect information that might help avoid a 2016-like shock.

Officials from Europe and Asia are flying from their home countries to augment the traditional work of consulates and embassies in trying to decipher the political contests, according to conversations with diplomats and others from foreign governments.

Germany, for example, dispatched a senior diplomat to Georgia, a swing state that backed President Joe Biden by a narrow margin in 2020. The trip featured meetings with the local chamber of commerce, local politicians of both parties, and activists including Reverend James Woodall - all occasions for taking the pulse of the state's tight US Senate race and its high-profile contest for governor.

Such missions are driven by a perception that a strong showing by Republicans - especially those that align themselves closely with Trump - would portend unwelcome foreign policy U-turns, imperilling efforts to resuscitate the Iran nuclear deal and US support for North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

Such changes in tack could begin even before the next presidential race heats up if the GOP picks up enough seats to tilt Congress toward his isolationist policies.

Allies are also keenly aware that the empowerment of Trump allies could have serious economic consequences, given that the former president imposed tariffs on the European Union and launched a trade war with China that had global ripple effects.

All of that adds up to unusual level of international interest in the outcome of the Nov 8 vote, said the people, who asked not to be named in order to avoid the appearance of meddling in US elections.

The efforts by allies are carefully planned, with trips focused on key states seen as playing outsize roles in which party will control Congress.

The Berlin diplomat's swing through Atlanta put him on the ground in a state which had backed GOP candidates in presidential contests for nearly three decades before swinging to Biden. His win there, as well as Democrats' pickup of two Senate seats in the state in 2020, were driven largely by demographic shifts in which people are fleeing big cities for the lower cost of living in the South.

Georgia was also central to Trump's attempt to contest the results of the 2020 election, with a bright spotlight turned on the state's voting rules and processes after he unsuccessfully tried to goad the governor and secretary of state to overturn his loss there.

The official's impression from the trip, he said, was that the state has a heavily polarised electorate with voters shifting away from the political centre.

Other foreign officials have made similar sojourns, travelling to Florida, Arizona, Texas and other states to meet business executives, trade groups, politicians from both parties and community leaders.

Some have said they observed a disconnect between what a majority of voters favour - such as abortion rights and gun safety measures - and government action, according to European and Asian officials familiar with the matter. For example, Congress was able to pass only incremental reforms on guns that left many voters saying Congress needed to do more. Similarly, the Supreme Court's decision to overturn Roe v Wade - and the tide of state-level laws it allowed to take effect - seemed out of step with public opinion.

Foreign officials are wondering if that kind of gap is a sign of unstable US institutions.

Diplomats have already gotten glimpses of how a new Congress could shape the US's moves on the world stage, even as Biden remains president.

Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky, who often represents the isolationist wing of the Republican Party, in April rationalised Russia's invasion of Ukraine by saying that it was once part of the Soviet Union. The following month, Paul forced a delay on a Senate vote on a US$40 billion aid package for Ukraine, citing inflation.

It took a strong counterattack from Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell to override Paul's concerns. Still, some 57 Republicans in the House opposed that aid bill - a faction that could gain influence after the midterms, complicating the US's ability to contain global security risks stemming from Vladimir Putin's actions.

Both in private and in public, officials in France, Germany and other parts of the EU say that the possibility of Trump's return is driving policymaking debates. They are trying to make the most of their relationships with the US now, while at the same time searching for ways to build strategic autonomy from American influence in case he - or someone in his mould - is elected president in 2024.

"Who knows what will happen two years from now, or even in November," said Josep Borrell, a top diplomat for the European Union, at a conference in Brussels this month.

From abroad, the Jan 6, 2021 insurrection that followed Trump's false claims of victory in the 2020 presidential election resembled an attempted coup. That has put allies on alert for additional signs of volatility, which would include protracted disputes over the validity of results in midterm contests.

"US allies are concerned about the potential weakening of the basics of American democracy," said Charles Dunst, author of the book Defeating the Dictators.

It's not just bureaucrats. Republican Larry Hogan, governor of Maryland, said that while on a trade mission to Japan and South Korea last month, he heard concerns from international business leaders about the lack of unity within the US.

"While our allies still believe in America, they worry whether America is too divided to believe in itself," he wrote in a Sep 22 op-ed in the Wall Street Journal.

Seventy-one per cent of US voters believe that democracy is at risk, according to a recent New York Times and Siena College poll.

Those kinds of doubts threaten to chill foreign direct investment in the US, which rose by US$506 billion to a cumulative US$4.9 trillion last year. With the Federal Reserve tightening monetary policy to combat runaway inflation, the US economy will need to rely on all modes of growth, including overseas investment, to stay apace as policymakers try to avert a recession.

The possibility of such a downturn will likely weigh heavily on voters' minds when they cast their ballots. 

"America looks very divided," said Kim Darroch, who quit as UK ambassador to the US in 2019 after a disagreement with then-president Trump. While Biden continues to be a "calming influence", he said that the US "looks like a less reliable ally than it once did". BLOOMBERG

BT is now on Telegram!

For daily updates on weekdays and specially selected content for the weekend. Subscribe to t.me/BizTimes