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Post-election: new agreements, or new battles?

© Reuters / Kevin Lamarque

In the wake of the US Congressional elections on 2 November, the Republicans have won control of the US House of Representatives and won at least five more seats in the Senate, shrinking the Democrats’ majority there from 59 to 53 seats. Will this Congressional changover have consequences for NATO? Just how much power does the House of Representatives have in the realm of US foreign and defence policy, and how much could Republicans change, if they wished to try?

The day-to-day conduct of international affairs in the US has always rested more heavily with the White House than Congress. The Constitution grants the Senate the power to declare war, but the President’s status as ‘Commander-in-Chief’ entails a wide latitude to conduct military operations that fall short of ‘total war’.

From time to time, Congress has attempted to curtail the executive’s powers. The 1973 War Powers Resolution – passed by Congress over Richard Nixon’s veto – slightly limited this range of action by obliging the White House to inform Congress of military action within 48 hours of its occurrence, and to obtain a resolution approving the use of armed force if the action lasts more than 60 days. All the same, the White House has engaged militarily in many ways and on many fronts without a formal declaration of war.

Post election, perhaps the biggest foreign policy issue will be the President’s stated goal of a ‘nuclear-free world’

That said, some elements of the President’s agenda may be at risk.

Perhaps the biggest issue is the President’s stated goal of a ‘nuclear-free world’ and the recent rapprochement with Russia. Republicans were bitterly disappointed in the President’s decision to cancel a planned missile defence facility in Poland and the Czech Republic in favour of a more limited, ship-based defence. Many conservatives, including the first President George Bush’s National Security Advisor, Brent Scowcroft, believe that a world free of all nuclear weapons could paradoxically be more dangerous than a security architecture built upon deterrence.

So how could these differences manifest themselves through policy?

Congress has the power of the purse, and gaining control of the House gives the Republicans the ability to disburse funding in minute, creative, and often esoteric ways.

For example, as the New York Times noted in a recent article, a bill passed last year by the House mandated that no federal money could be used to purchase light bulbs unless they met certain efficiency standards. The same bill simultaneously stated that “No funds appropriated in this act may be used for the transportation of students or teachers in order to overcome racial imbalance in any school.”

Individual Congressman can satisfy pet ideological peeves with a well-placed line in an otherwise unrelated bill. The House, then, could use its budget authority to impose similarly creative commitments to advance its defence priorities – withdrawing funds from missile defence programmes it finds too limited, for example, while adding funds for more expansive programmes.

Republican opposition to the new START Treaty agreed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev has been mounting

Perhaps the first ‘casualty’ of the elections, however, may well occur on the other side of the Capitol where the Democrats still have control.

The Constitution mandates that treaty ratification requires the approval of two-thirds of the Senate, or 67 votes. The Republicans gained six Senate seats, so when the new Senate convenes in January, 53 Senators will stand with Democrats instead of 59. Treaties negotiated by the Obama Administration will then require 14 additional Republican votes instead of merely eight.

Republican opposition to the new START Treaty agreed by Presidents Obama and Medvedev has been mounting. In July, Republican Presidential hopeful Mitt Romney published an editorial in the Washington Post claiming that the Treaty would undermine US missile defence efforts and called it “Obama’s worst foreign-policy mistake yet”.

The ranking Republican member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Richard Lugar, issued a lengthy rebuttal of Romney’s editorial, and the Committee approved the Treaty in September, sending it to the full Senate for full ratification. Yet even now, it has been reported that the Administration can only depend upon a dozen or so Republican votes for ratification. The Administration hopes to have a vote on the Treaty during its ‘lame-duck’ session while it only needs eight additional Republican votes. A failure to approve the new START Treaty could deal a severe blow to US and NATO efforts to ‘reset’ relations with Russia, with consequences beyond the issue of nuclear proliferation.

In addition, Republican filibusters in the Senate have become easier. Before, Democrats only needed one Republican vote to close debate; now they need seven. On the other hand, Republicans do not have the numbers to overcome the President’s power to veto legislation. More broadly, then, the most likely consequence of this election will be two years of angry stalemate.

In the end, the most serious US domestic issue facing NATO may be the size of the US’s budget deficit in the wake of the financial crisis.

Other Allies have suffered severely. Their military budgets have been slashed. Germany’s military is contemplating a reduction in its armed forces from 250,000 to 180,000 men. The UK intends to cut 17,000 men and women, a fleet of jets and an aircraft carrier. Spain has cut its military budget over 13% since 2009. Other Allies such as Portugal, Italy, and Greece will likely see their military budgets cut. While these contributions are enormously important, for the moment, the backbone of the Alliance’s expeditionary strength remains the US military. The question is: Will the US military see its budget cut as well?

The US military has avoided dramatic cuts. In fact, the US defence budget rose 3% from 2009 to 2010, despite the fact that the gross public debt will likely grow to 100% of GDP in 2011, up from 70% in 2008. By way of contrast, the relevant figures for European countries whose budget woes have provoked widespread concern – Greece, Ireland, Italy, and Portugal – are 130%, 93%, 130%, and 74%, respectively.

The US has been spared – to borrow a phrase from John Foster Dulles – an ‘agonising reappraisal’ of its military budget

The US has been spared – to borrow a phrase from John Foster Dulles – an ‘agonizing reappraisal’ of its military budget, and thus its relations with NATO, because the US Treasury retains its ability to sell bonds at historically low rates. Whether this continues will depend, in large measure, upon whether the markets believe that the federal government will eventually either raise taxes or lower spending. As of now, either option looks increasingly unrealistic.

As long as the US Treasury still retains the ability to sell its bonds, then NATO will be able to adapt, and evolve. Were this to change, then the consequences for the Alliance could be grim indeed.

The one, rather poor consolidation? If a run on the dollar actually occurred, then the global tsunami of problems would be so enormous that the Alliance’s woes would be the last on people’s minds.

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