Seldom have America’s midterm elections been watched so closely across the globe.
The reasons are clear enough: what impact they’ll have on the competitive attractiveness of US democracy around the world, what clues they will provide about the durability of the Trump administration and its foreign policies and – hardest to calculate – the impact they will have on the populist and nationalist momentum globally.
On the first issue regarding US democracy, allies are worried that the American model is losing traction, prompting Chinese leaders to promote their state capitalist model as a viable alternative for developing and developed countries alike.
As Stephen Hadley, former national security advisor to President George W. Bush, recently said to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, “If you’re worried about the United States, we have a lot of tools to run a successful foreign policy that is in our interests and can provide prosperity and security for our people. But our brand is not doing well internationally. There’s a reason why people are taking seriously China’s claim to have a new model. It’s because ours doesn’t look very good.”
During the Cold War, Soviet officials failed over time in making a credible argument that their Communist system could deliver social and economic progress. However, the more that US politics is mired in polarization and the less effective it appears in addressing core problems, the more attractive authoritarian models will appear.
Said Hadley, “Our economy still is not producing sustained inclusive growth. Our politics are fractious. There is a long list of social problems, budgets, entitlement payments, immigration reform, that we’ve known for years we have got to address, and we haven’t done so… We’ve got to solve some of these questions that have been lingering.”
Second, both friends and adversaries will be gauging what the midterm outcome says about the likelihood of President Trump both finishing his first term and perhaps winning the election for a further four years. That will prompt decisions to engage the administration or “wait-it-out” on controversial issues including the escalating US showdown with Iran ahead of next week’s new round of sanctions, ongoing negotiations with North Korea, the future of Russian sanctions and a host of trade conflicts and negotiations from China to Europe.
Finally, the midterms could have influence on electoral politics around the world. In that respect, the vote isn’t just a referendum on President Trump’s first two years in office but also on the populist brand of politics he represents. While the populist swing pre-dates his election, it has picked up momentum since, in part due to his inspiration to like-minded politicians around the world.
It isn’t just Trump, but also the broader US political and social environment that has global influence. A few examples: the “me too” movement has created a backlash against sexual harassment and misconduct around the world, particularly (but not only) in Europe. The women’s and science marches, initiated in the United States, were replicated elsewhere.
At the same time, the Trump administration’s “America First” rhetoric and actions have empowered like-minded leaders. In Europe, such leaders have most often rallied around anti-immigration politics, while in Latin American it has been around anti-corruption campaigns. But on both continents, populist candidates have spoken of the Trump inspiration.
As it was with Trump, such candidates have profited from the inability over years of more conventional, establishment politicians to tackle the growing concerns of their societies about the impact, among other issues, of rapid globalization and technological change, which has fed voter uncertainties.
The anti-immigrant fervor among voters that Trump has played up ahead of the midterms was what, in part, provided Brexit campaigners their momentum ahead of Trump’s election. Since his presidency, such concerns have helped usher in the rise of Italy’s populist government. On the flip side, anti-immigrant sentiments strengthened opposition to German Chancellor Angela Merkel, ultimately prompting her decision this week to step down as leader of her Christian Democratic party.
Just this past week as well, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told ORF radio that he would not sign a 34-page UN global migration compact that lays out objectives to better organize the flow of refugees and define their rights. In July, all 193 UN member nations, except the United States, expressed their support for the agreement. Following the US refusal to join, Hungarian Prime Minister Victor Orban also renounced the compact.
Recently, however, it has been in Latin America where the populist surge has appeared strongest. The election of Andrés Manuel López Obrador as its president in July was a rejection of the Mexican political class and its inability to solve Mexican problems – very much the same sort of electoral thinking that drove the Trump victory.
However, it was in Brazil last week where the impact was clearest, when the country elected the far-right former army captain Jair Bolsonaro. In the midst of extreme voter frustration with violence, corruption and unemployment, he presented himself as an economically liberal and socially conservative law-and-order candidate. That won him the votes of 57 million Brazilians, including evangelicals, business people and extreme right-wingers. Yet, his critics fear his apparent fondness for a stridently intolerant authoritarianism, exemplified by previous inflammatory statements denigrating women, blacks and homosexuals, as well as democracy itself.
“You can be sure Trump will have a great ally in the southern hemisphere,” Bolsonaro told a rally of US-based supporters before the vote. “Trump is an example to me… and in many ways to Brazil.”
Bolsonaro’s “Brazil First” talk has marked a sharp break with Brazil’s traditional, multi-polar foreign policy, often putting it at arm’s length to the US. Brazil’s election could result in historically close relations between the two countries. As a sampling, the new president as candidate attacked China’s influence in Brazil, assailed the leftist Venezuelan regime, said he would move Brazil’s embassy in Israel to Jerusalem and vowed to pull out of the Paris agreement on climate change (though he’s since changed course there).
No doubt most Americans this Tuesday will be watching whether President Trump’s Republican party can hold onto the Senate and the House of Representatives – and what impact that will have on the rest of his term and potential re-election.
At the same time, however, the global stakes are greater perhaps than for any midterm election in my memory – given the global contest of political models, the high-stakes drama of Trump’s leadership and the growing impact globally of populist politics.
This piece originally appeared on CNBC.com.
Frederick Kempe is president and chief executive officer of the Atlantic Council. You can follow him on Twitter @FredKempe. Subscribe to his weekly InflectionPoints newsletter.