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How the world might prepare for a Democratic resurgence

US House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi speaks during a press conference after Democrats took back control of the house in Washington, DC
House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi speaks after Democrats regained control of the House, on November 7, 2018. Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

Americans were not alone in closely watching midterm returns. For much of the world, the election outcome was taken, rightly or wrongly, as a barometer of President Trump’s re-election chances and the impact of investigations by both Robert Mueller and a Democratic House.

The big picture: Russia, Saudi Arabia, the UAE and Israel are some of the countries that have invested most heavily in their relationships with Trump in an effort to fortify bilateral relations. But now that the omens regarding 2020 seem less favorable to Republicans, countries that banked on Trump might have to start hedging their bets by endearing themselves to the Democrats.

Yes, but: Doing so could be challenging given how profoundly Democrats resent what they see as hard-sought alignment with an unfit leader. Foreign leaders in that group might have to start thinking about recalibrating their stances with an eye toward Democratic priorities. It might benefit Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, for example, to think about ending the Yemen war.

For leaders in the midst of negotiations with the U.S. — the European Union and China on trade, North Korea on its nuclear program — prospects of an abbreviated-term, one-term, or otherwise weakened president could prompt them to drive a harder bargain. That could be because they believe Trump now needs quick results, or because they would prefer to await his successor’s arrival.

Countries targeted by the U.S. — mainly Iran — could also decide to wait Trump out. What they will interpret as the growing possibility of a one-term president makes it easier for Tehran to bide its time, hunker down even as sanctions ramp up, ignore Trump's violations of the Iran deal, and refuse any offers to renegotiate a new one in the hopes that a Democrat will rejoin in 2021.

The bottom line: Other countries can’t rely on their predictions: Far from being more compromising, in fact, the president might harden his stance against the world and instigate a foreign crisis to play to his base and change the subject. After adjusting to an unpredictable president, world leaders now must figure out how to deal with a weakened and wounded one.

Robert Malley is president and CEO of the International Crisis Group.

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