With a Divided Congress, Where is US Foreign Policy Headed?


With the chaotic start of the new Republican-dominated House of Representatives earlier in January and with the determination from part of the Republican party to disturb the current administration, the rest of the world wonders what will be the US’ foreign policy course in the next two years and beyond.

The struggle to elect the new US House of Representatives Speaker - the longest election process since the Civil War - not only unveiled the presence of deep divisions within the Republican party (GOP) but also betokened future hurdles in the making and passing of new federal laws in the next two years.

As the mid-term elections in November 2022 already raised important questions about potential changes in the US’ foreign and security policy and its degree of engagement on global issues, the House of Representative Speaker election debacle only heightened these doubts. Meanwhile, it also created a larger potential for some countries to capitalise on the US’ deep divisions for their own foreign policy interests. 

The persistent friction between the Democrats and Republicans, and the now evident friction within the Republican party itself, is expected to hinder the finding of consensus in the domestic policy sphere, even in the pursuit of basic tasks like passing government funding bills and financing the federal debt. The risk of domestic policy deadlocks is further intensified in the face of the Republicans’ resentment towards US President Joe Biden, as it appears that any of the President’s future attempts at big policymaking are “dead on arrival”. Instead of significant proposals, it seems that there will be a shift of focus and heightened scrutiny of past “controversial” decisions, particularly concerning topics at the heart of the Republicans’ popular agenda, including the origins of COVID-19, the US-Mexico border crisis, and the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan.

It remains an open question whether bipartisan and intra-partisan divisions could also translate into the foreign policy sphere, where diverging opinions on the US’ involvement in foreign affairs already exist. With such deeply contrasting opinions and potential for conflict, there is a risk of the 118th Congress becoming the “Do-Nothing Congress”.

The new Congress is divided, with the Republican Party taking control of the House and the Democrats securing a majority in the Senate (moving from a tie of 50 to 50 being broken by the vote of Vice President Kamala Harris in the previous Senate). The outcome is not overly negative for the Biden administration’s pursual of foreign and security policy. In fact, committees in the Senate have changed into more Democratic majorities. This is an important gain, allowing for the streamlining of appointing officials in strategic positions and shaping the legislature according to the President’s strategy. However, the loss of the House brings challenges related to the intentional slowdown of legislature passing, increased oversight, and potential for the re-assignment of finances associated with US’ foreign policy.

While a drastic change to President Biden’s foreign and security policy is not likely to take place, the new Republican House will try to bring the current isolationist tendencies of the GOP to the forefront. This means there might be a shift in the US’ degree of engagement in several key issues, including the war in Ukraine, China and the Indo-Pacific region, transatlantic relations (Europe and NATO), and the internal-external nexus (defence spending and Inflation Reduction Act).

The War in Ukraine

Not just as an election campaign but also in reality, there are diverging voices among Republicans on the US’ involvement in the war and the US’ (until now) undivided support for Ukraine. From calls to reprioritise “domestic needs first" to increases in isolationism and pro-Russian calls, the GOP houses a wide array of voices criticising the current administration.

There is now a greater demand by House Republicans for scrutiny over the military expenditure currently dedicated to the war in Ukraine. Likewise, some progressives from the Democratic party still have a tough time reconciling their objections towards the large defence budget, with 15 billion euros sent as financial aid and about 23 billion sent in military support to Ukraine, despite the purpose of this being military defence against Russian aggression.

On the whole, however, there is no real expectation that support for Ukraine will be significantly altered, neither by the House’s new makeup nor by potential slowdowns resulting from additional Republican scrutiny. At the very least, the minimum framework set up to protect democracy, deter other global actors' aggression efforts, and the possible shame  Congress would face if it cut off aid and Ukraine lost will be strong deterrents on a significant shift towards the war. And, while the threat of investigation into the US' withdrawal from Afghanistan might be seen as a direct challenge to Biden's administration, it also reveals that Republicans would not seek to withdraw from supporting Ukraine while the war is going on.

Nevertheless, what could indeed be expected is increased oversight of the support itself and a possible shift to less direct funds and more equipment for Ukraine. This could be a compromising solution where bipartisan and intra-partisan agreement is likely to be found, as cash would "stay home", but military equipment to Ukraine would still be provided. Such a shift in support is already becoming more plausible in light of recent corruption allegations in Ukraine.

Additionally, as the Senate recently upgraded the defence budget to a record-breaking $857 billion, there is a plausible expectation that a Republican House will be more willing to spend more on US defence, such as weapons and preparation of the military, including stockpiling, but downgrading the idea of "broad security" and funds within the Department of Defence on "schools, climate programs, humanitarian aid, and other non-core defence activities".

At the same time, influenced by the war in Ukraine, a bipartisan agreement is likely to persist on policy towards Russia. The Biden administration has continued focusing on China, explicitly identifying it as the biggest threat to American interests, not wavering to Russia-focussed shift of its global strategy. Still, Russia is portrayed as a player in Europe that is not as important in Asia or globally, not taking the full attention of the US government even with an invasion and continued war. Containment, even punishing acts such as the severe sanctions already introduced towards Russia, while actively seeking to strengthen alliances with partners and non-allied countries, are part of a global US strategy, not a Russia-focussed policy. This course appeals to the Republican party and can find wide support across party lines.

China and the Indo-Pacific Region

Whereas GOP representatives differ on the level of US engagement in the war in Ukraine, there are no isolationist tendencies to pressure China. Measures to limit the reach of China, with related rhetoric and activities started by the Trump administration, seem to be welcomed, if not demanded.

As China has been recognised as an aggressive, systematic competitor by both parties, there should be no shift in policy with the new Congress. The support for a hardline policy on China is also evidenced by a recent Pew Research poll, which indicated that 89 per cent of Republicans view China unfavourably, and 42 per cent see China as an "enemy" of the United States. Thus, if anything, the House, under the leadership of House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, might push for an even harder stance as the technological "cold war" unfolds between China and the US and the heightened tensions concerning Taiwan are exponentially increasing.

The nature of the policymaking towards China will continue the current administration's recent "protectionist" initiatives, such as the enhanced screening of inward Chinese investment, greater export controls, and the CHIPS and Science Act.

As China struggles to provide food security due to the war in Ukraine and tame the consequences of its abrupt end of the zero-COVID strategy, its road to economic recovery remains long. Although not as severe as first envisioned, chain disruptions created by China's COVID strategy heavily hit the production of many Chinese firms, and the situation remains uncertain as newer chain disruptions might arise due to the country’s deteriorating relations with countries like the US and Japan. Thus, the US can expect to capitalise on these temporary weaknesses, particularly in those areas of production where China could struggle to diversify its supply chains.

Bipartisan consensus will also be found in matters related to the Indo-Pacific region and the reaffirmation of Taiwan's security. More sanctions that would limit Chinese access to technologies that could further a military incursion in Taiwan might be issued, with the Taiwan Policy Act of 2022 potentially being enacted. Additionally, an anticipated push by the Republican party to support the US military industry may lead to an additional available defence arsenal for Taiwan’s security.

Transatlantic Relations

Regarding transatlantic relations, the new Republican Congress might pursue a sharper tone towards Europe, using its hearings as a "name and shame" tool. Specifically, what could be expected is a louder call for Europe to share the global burden, especially in defence spending within NATO and in Ukraine.

While contested by the EU that a pure money and military equipment comparison is faulty (in relation to the war in Ukraine), a GOP-led Congress would use its ability to change the language of the transatlantic relationship, as some Republicans see President Biden's renewal of relations as too accommodating.

With some EU member states and the EU itself not fully aligned with the US policy towards China, pressure would be applied to the administration for more arduous demands towards Europe on defence spending, Ukraine support and, particularly, China. In connection, there would not be much manoeuvring room for the current administration to accommodate European demands about the Inflation Reduction Act, a domestic subsidy scheme for purchasing American electric cars, while a possible tit-for-tat for European pressure on China is guaranteed.

While President Biden's current foreign policy course might not be uprooted by the new set-up of the House and the Senate, there will be a degree of change with increased scrutiny, slowdowns, and "naming and shaming." However, there is also the potential to push towards a more confrontational policy towards China and increase US defence production and capabilities. And, while the administration would proceed to be friendly and cooperative with Europe, the manoeuvring space will be smaller and more crowded in negotiation rounds, and the communication language might alter.

Funded by the European Union. Views and opinions expressed are however those of the author(s) only and do not necessarily reflect those of the European Union or EACEA. Neither the European Union nor the granting authority can be held responsible for them.




Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Global Europe



Senior Research Fellow, Centre for Global Europe