Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 13 November 2006

New winds in the US?

The stunning victory of the Democrats in last week’s American mid-term elections is expected to bring changes in the United States’ foreign policy.  Almost certain to change is its strategy in Iraq.  Less certain is whether there will be changes in its policies on trade and on the environment.


It was the week that may prove a crucial turning point in world affairs.  The Bush administration took a drubbing at the American mid-term elections, with the Democrats winning both houses of Congress.

It was a stunning result that even the Democrats did not expect a month or two ago.

The immediate visible effect was the removal of Donald Rumsfeld as Defence Secretary.

That act symbolized an admittance by President Bush not only that Rumsfeld is very  unpopular but something deeper -- that the United States’ strategy in Iraq has failed.

Bush seems to have accepted that the “thumping” (a term he used himself) he received in the election came mainly from the people’s increasing opposition to the war and the occupation, as more and more American soldiers are killed and injured.

Thus, a major result of the elections is that “business as usual” will not continue in Iraq.  Straying far from the original “staying the course” approach associated with Rumsfeld,  the US will probably try to pull out as many of its troops as soon as possible.

The Iraqi government is against this attempt to accelerate its pullout, refusing to accept an American time-table for transferring military and security responsibility to the locals.

But as the Iraqi resistance on the ground continues, with more Americans dying and a deepening spiral of violent sectarian conflict, the public pressures for a quick US troop pullout will be irresistible.

The Democrats will try to walk the thin line, pushing the Bush administration towards this pullout, while not appearing to be soft on war and security issues.

The Democrats’ victory seems to spell the end of the policy dominance of the “neo-conservatives” and the gung-ho, do-it-alone approach that has led the US into its Iraq war and subsequent quagmire.

Hopefully this will also mean a less aggressive US approach at and towards the United Nations, both at the Security Council and on economic and social issues.

In particular, the world can ill afford another war or even threat of war against Iran and other countries that the US stigmatizes as “evil.”

A stronger commitment to development by the United States is also sorely needed, something which the US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton, has not been showing in the past few years.


Another area the Democrats are expected to assert stronger influence over is on trade policy. 

Many analysts believe the Democrats are not enthusiastic about trade agreements that require the US to make more commitments either for reducing its agriculture subsidies or liberalizing its imports.

Many of the newly elected Democrat Congress members had campaigned on the basis that they were against more free trade and trade deals.  They were taking advantage of the public concern that American products and jobs are being replaced by imports and by American companies shifting abroad. 

With the US trade deficit hitting an annual rate of US$700 billion, there is an unfortunate protectionist trend which may increase further.

Last week, newspapers like the Financial Times predicted that the chances for concluding the World Trade Organisation’s Doha round of negotiations have become more bleake.

Congress watchers also report that although the Democrats are not in principle against the “fast track authority” given to a President to negotiate trade deals, in reality they are so against Bush that they are not likely to agree to extend this authority when it expires at the end of June.

If a Democrat becomes the next President, then the Democrat-controlled Congress can be expected to adopt a new fast track authority – but not before that.

This also has great significance for the bilateral free trade agreements the US is negotiating with Malaysia and South Korea.

Trade experts say that if these FTAs are not ready by the end of March, they will not be in time to be covered by the fast track authority and thus it would be very unlikely that these FTAs will be signed.

On another front, many countries are also hoping that the Democrat win will veer the Bush administration away from its non-cooperative stance on environment issues. 

In particular, Bush has been against the Kyoto Protocol on climate change which puts disciplines on the developed countries to reduce their emissions of Greenhouse gases.

There is an expectation that the Democrats are more willing to consider taking part in an international climate framework, especially since the prominent Democrat, former Vice President Al Gore, is now a famous campaigner for action on climate change.

But it should not be forgotten that only a few years ago, Democrats joined with Republicans in Congress to reject American participation in the Kyoto Protocol.

And so the world will be watching closely in the next few days and weeks for signs of changes in US foreign policy.  Whether there will be any changes remains to be seen.