Where is America Heading—Implications and Challenges for the Allies

Koji Murata


Russia's invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022 sent shockwaves through international politics. In Europe, in particular, it highlighted the impracticality of "strategic autonomy" as advocated by French President Emmanuel Macron—a vision of the European Union (EU) becoming autonomous from the United States, relying on its military force. In reality, Ukraine and the European countries supporting it have been obliged to depend heavily on the United States. Despite pressure from the United Kingdom and Poland, Germany had been hesitant to provide German-made tanks to Ukraine; it was just after the United States decided to supply American-made tanks that German Chancellor Olaf Scholz ultimately decided to provide German tanks to Ukraine. 1

Thus, the US administration of Joe Biden actively supported Ukraine and deployed an additional 20,000 US troops to NATO countries to dispel fears among its allies. What would have happened if the Donald Trump administration had continued? This is an intriguing yet somewhat frightening counterfactual consideration. Nonetheless, despite significant differences in the language and approach they chose, the policies of the Trump and Biden administrations have more in common than one might believe. The international political reality of China's aggrandizement and the massive domestic divide in the United States circumscribe the range of policy choices, regardless of who the President is or which political party is in government. In the wake of the November 2022 midterm elections, US politics is now focusing on the next presidential election scheduled for November 2024. Domestic policy considerations will prevail over foreign and security concerns.

This paper is intended to analyze the results of the 2022 midterm elections, summarize foreign and security policy developments, and point out the implications and challenges for US allies —European countries and Japan.

Results of the 2022 US Midterm Elections

Looking at America today, the former president is facing impeachment; society is nearly in a state of civil war. Outside of the country, America has lost a long-running war; it is annoyed by a rival country's military aggression that ensued; an energy crisis is hanging over the nation. On top of these, a new Cold War is argued to be emerging. The internal and external situation of the United States today may be akin to that in the 1970s: in 1974, President Richard Nixon resigned to avoid impeachment; President Trump also faced two impeachments. The word civil war was often used then and is still in currency today. The US military involvement in Afghanistan, which had lasted longer than the Vietnam War, ended abruptly in 2021. Just as the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan at the end of 1979, Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022. Just as two of the biggest oil crises occurred in 1973 and 1979, the Ukrainian war has led to an energy crisis. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan transformed US-Soviet relations into a new Cold War; current US-China relations are also referred to as another new Cold War. 2 It appears that the United States has been facing cyclical occurrences of disturbances simultaneously at home and abroad (such unrest preceding those in the 1970s took place in the 1930s―the Great Depression and the lead-ups to World War II).

Now, let us turn to the US midterm elections in November 2022. The party of the incumbent president is bound to lose midterm elections. The recent exception to this historical tendency was the 2002 midterm elections during the first term of the George W. Bush administration when the United States was united in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Let us review the results of the recent midterm elections. In the Senate, the Democrats won 51 seats, up by one seat, while the Republicans 49 seats, down by one seat (later, Senator Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona left the Democratic Party, plunging the Senate to a 50-50 split). In the House of Representatives, the Democrats reduced their seats to 213 losing nine seats, while the Republicans increased their seats to 222 (including the results of supplementary elections). The Democrats lost trifecta control of the executive branch of the federal government and both houses of Congress due to a reversal of the ruling and opposition parties in the House, albeit by a narrow margin. Nevertheless, the Democrats fought better than had been expected against the "red wave" (overwhelming Republican victory) amid the economic downturn caused by the Ukrainian war. In gubernatorial elections, the Democrats won two states to take control of 24 states, while the Republicans lost two states to govern 26. Governors Ronald DeSantis of Florida, Gavin Newsom of California, and Gretchen Whitmer of Michigan won by large margins, all emerging as likely candidates for the next presidential election. The number of blue trifectas or the Democrats controlling the governorship and state legislature increased by three states to 17, while the number of red trifectas or the Republicans controlling all decreased by four states to 22.

What was behind the Democrats' good showing? First, the Biden administration introduced a program to reduce or eliminate student loan debt for higher education, which is supported especially by young people. In the recent elections, millennials and Generation Z have manifestly increased in influence. How to secure the support of young people will constitute a challenge for the Republicans. Second, in June 2021, the US Supreme Court overturned the 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling on abortion, and subsequently, Republican-controlled states have one after another legislated bans on abortion. This move provoked a backlash from women across party lines. Furthermore, the Republican Party fielded many unfit candidates recommended by former President Trump. But they lost in the swing states. Trump suffered three consecutive defeats in the 2018 midterms, the 2020 presidential election, and the 2022 midterms.

In the recent midterm elections, many of the candidates who did not accept the results of the 2020 presidential election lost seats, and American citizens peacefully received the results. In a sense, American democracy has regained some resilience. The 117th Congress enacted the "Respect for Marriage Act" in December 2022, officially legalizing same-sex and interracial marriage. This was bipartisan legislation. The US political system is so structured as to ingeniously avoid power concentration—Naoyuki Agawa, a specialist on the US Constitution, calls this trait "discentralization." 3 In addition, the independence of state power is strong. Consequently, violent social currents once called in would readily polarize and fragment society.

In January 2023, the 118th Congress started. In the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, the Republican Kevin McCarthy was elected House speaker. But it took him 15 votes to get the speakership due to resistance from the Freedom Caucus, a small group of hardline conservatives. Meanwhile, the left is radicalizing in the Democratic Party. Thus, there is emerging "double divide" 4 —the intraparty gaps and the partisan gap between Republicans and Democrats. House Speaker McCarthy is obliged to concede to a few hard-liners, while both parties are becoming more partisan with the 2024 presidential election in view.

In general, the Republicans are less interested in international issues, and the Democrats are attempting to work out policies and arguments that appeal to the Republican base. Although the two parties emphasize different points, there is much overlap in their hardline positions toward China. If House Speaker McCarthy visits Taiwan, it will again strongly provoke China. In addition, the House of Representatives is scheduled to set up a new Special Committee on China. 5

While Congress is in a stalemate at the federal level, the trifecta states are passing in succession highly partisan legislation on environmental issues, abortion, and gun control. 6

In his State of the Union address in January 2023, President Biden boasted about his achievements of creating 12 million jobs and of reducing unemployment to 3.4%. He said, "Name me a world leader who would change places with Xi Jinping! Name me one!" He made few references to foreign policy but rather focused on domestic politics with his reelection in mind. 7 Yet, Biden's advanced age is an uncomfortable issue for him. Meanwhile, on the Republican side, former President Trump was quicker to announce his candidacy for the next presidential election; in February, the former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley also announced her candidacy. Support for Trump has been waning, but if the primaries turn into a close race, Trump, thanks to his bedrock support base, may gain the advantage. In other words, the Biden vs. Trump battle may return.

Foreign and Security Policy

Since its inauguration in January 2021, the Biden administration has emphasized a hardline stance toward China and the restoration of economic competitiveness. In this respect, it demonstrates continuity with the previous Trump administration. On the other hand, in contrast to the stance of the former administration, where some senior officials spoke of the "evil Chinese Communist Party" as if to seek regime change in China, the Biden administration has only called for changes in China's behavior. The Biden administration intended to seek a way to heal the domestic divide by formulating a comprehensive strategy toward China, similar to the former Cold War consensus. The expression "diplomacy for the middle class" implies diplomacy largely focused on domestic politics.

As soon as the Biden administration took office, the Atlantic Council, a leading American think tank, published a paper by an anonymous author on China policy entitled "The Longer Telegram." Obviously, it is conscious of the "Long Telegram" and "X Article" written by George Kennan in the early Cold War years. The Atlantic Council paper argues the need to specify the "red lines" China must not cross, such as the use of weapons of mass destruction, attacks on Taiwan, and attacks on the Japan Self-Defense Forces in the East China Sea or around the Senkaku Islands. The paper concludes: it is impossible to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party, which has 96 million party members; therefore, the United States should focus on Xi Jinping's dictatorship and aim at returning the country to the pre-Xi status quo by working on anti-Xi factions in China. 8 Yet, it is not clear how many anti-Xi forces remain in today's China. Or are there any disobedient elements lurking in the provinces?

Just before the outbreak of the Ukrainian war, the Biden administration released its "Indo-Pacific Strategy," stating, "Our collective efforts over the next decade will determine whether the PRC succeeds in transforming the rules and norms that have benefitted the Indo-Pacific and the world." It expressed the willingness to strengthen "integrated deterrence" and the launch of the "Indo-Pacific Economic Framework" (IPEF). The document also mentions improving Japan-ROK relations. 9 Although the Biden administration differs from the former administration in actively seeking to strengthen relationships with the allies, they are substantially alike in their hardline stance toward China, emphasis on economic security, and nonparticipation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP).

In June 2022, NATO adopted at its Madrid summit a "new Strategic Concept." The document described Russia as "the most serious and direct threat," but also referred to China outside the treaty region, stating, "The People's Republic of China's stated ambitions and coercive policies challenge our interests, security and values." The leaders of four Asia-Pacific partners (AP4)―Japan, Australia, South Korea, and New Zealand―were invited to the Madrid summit. "That indicates how global the ‘China issue' has become." 10

In October 2022, the US National Security Strategy, which had been postponed, was finalized and released. The former Trump administration's NSS (December 2017) declared that "China seeks to displace the United States in the Indo-Pacific region" and that "the United States" is required "to rethink the policies of the past two decades." The NSS abandoned the "shape and hedge" strategy initiated by the Bill Clinton administration of deterring China while guiding it. 11 The Biden administration's NSS also positions China as "the only competitor potentially capable of combining its economic, diplomatic, military, and technological power to mount a sustained challenge to a stable and open international system" and as "America's most consequential geopolitical challenge." Regarding Russia that has invaded Ukraine, the document notes that it "lacks the across the spectrum capabilities" but it "poses an immediate threat to the free and open international system, recklessly flouting the basic laws of the international order."

For the United States, China poses longer-term, broader threats, while Russia poses shorter-term, more limited threats. The United States seeks cooperation with China on common challenges, such as climate change; simultaneously, it promotes domestic infrastructure investment to compete with China; it is also obliged to form a more inclusive coalition to avoid the democracy-versus-authoritarian dichotomy. In the past century, the United States never faced a great power whose economy exceeds 40% of its own gross domestic product (GDP). The Chinese economy today accounts for at least 70% of the US GDP; this figure is likely to rise further in the years ahead. 12 Meanwhile, the Chinese population peaked in 2022. China's officially recognized total fertility rate has already fallen to 1.3. Some predict that China will rapidly weaken and become more aggressive as it wanes. 13

Challenges for the US Allies

Despite the transition of the Trump to the Biden administration, there has been no marked change in the US hardline stance toward China; the bilateral tensions are likely to persist for the time being, given the reelection of Xi Jinping as party general secretary in October 2022 and the upcoming US presidential election in 2024. Domestic public opinion seems to be showing some fatigue in supporting Ukraine. However, at the end of February, President Biden made a surprise visit to Kyiv, stressing the US commitment. In response to this move, Russian President Vladimir Putin announced the suspension of Russia's participation in the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty, known as the New START between the United States and Russia. Presumably, Congress will, for the moment, follow its current policy line without aggressively expanding its support for Ukraine. Yet, domestic policy considerations will continuingly affect US foreign policy needs a great deal.

Then, what should the US allies in Europe and Japan keep in mind to promote coordination with the United States or with each other?

First, European countries must share with the United States their perception of China, while Japan must share with the United States and European countries its perception of Russia. Concurrently, NATO and the AP4 must repeat their strategic dialogue. At the 1983 Williamsburg Summit that discussed the issue of reducing Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF), Japanese Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone said, "Peace is indivisible," arguing the linkage of the security of Europe with that of Asia. His remark is all the more true today, as both China and Russia challenge the liberal international order.

In addition to strategic dialogue, painstaking efforts will also become necessary for the parties concerned to share values on human rights and democracy. Similarly, as the Biden administration tightens trade controls, US allies should endeavor to sustain the free trade regime while helping to establish strategic supply chains.

It is also vital for European countries and Japan to share military technology and training with the United States. For example, Germany has proposed the "European Sky Shield Initiative" with the threat of Russian nuclear-capable missiles in mind. This is a missile defense system in which 13 NATO member states, plus Finland and Sweden, cooperate, relying mainly on US and Israeli technology. In the Indo-Pacific, Australia is about to build a nuclear-powered submarine with technical assistance from the United States and the United Kingdom―part of the so-called AUKUS cooperation.

In the foreseeable future, China will continue to exert massive military pressure on the United States and its allies. The Ukraine war shows no signs of ending. Under these circumstances, it will become increasingly significant for the US allies to join forces to sustain the United States, support Ukraine, and help to prevent the US-China relationship from exacerbating to an extreme level—while strengthening horizontal alignment and increasing burden sharing. In this sense, it was opportune that Japan formulated the three security documents in tandem with the US national security strategy.

Lastly, we, scholars of American studies, may also make a robust strategic contribution by improving the quality of our research and studies and by continuing to support the maintenance and promotion of area studies in the United States―despite, or rather because of, political divide and social unrest in the United States. One of the reasons for the Biden administration's prudent and tenacious approach to the Ukraine issue is the presence of top Russia experts like the CIA director William Burns at the heart of the administration—a cogent reason for the encouragement of strategic area studies.

current topics