By Keith B. Richburg and Will Englund
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, November 3, 2010; 6:39 PM
BEIJING - World capitals on Wednesday braced for a new political order in Washington, as policymakers and analysts tried to assess the impact on foreign policy of a new Republican-led U.S. House, a diminished Democratic majority in the Senate and an American president many fear has been left weakened.
The midterm elections were watched particularly closely here in China, which was cast as a villain in campaign ads by candidates railing against American jobs being shipped overseas. Some feared that congressional Republicans would pressure the Obama administration to take a tougher line with Beijing on such issues as technology exports, cooperation on clean-energy projects and Chinese subsidies to state-owned companies that put U.S. firms at a disadvantage.
"It will be harder to build strategic mutual trust in the coming years," said Sun Zhe, a professor at Tsinghua University's Institute of International Studies. "China will face a tougher Congress."
Other analysts, however, thought the power shift could prove useful in reining in Democrats' "protectionist" tendencies.
"With more control by Republicans, I think the Obama administration's policy on China will be softened and more rational," said Su Hao, director of the Strategy and Conflict Management Research Center at China Foreign Affairs University.
In Moscow, there were fears that emboldened Senate Republicans might make a first test of their new clout the pending START treaty limiting nuclear arms. Although Democrats retained control of the Senate, Fyodor Lukyanov, editor in chief of the magazine Russian Global Politics, said it is clear that the Republicans will push for significant concessions from the administration in return for their support for ratifying the treaty.
"The American political situation will become more turbulent and less predictable than before," he said, adding, "I think [President] Obama is still very popular in Moscow power circles, where he's considered to be an extraordinary politician."
For decades, going back to the Soviet era, Moscow, much like China, preferred dealing with Republicans in Washington. But after a dramatic worsening of relations during the presidency of George W. Bush, the Kremlin has embraced Obama's "reset."
"Mr. Obama is the first American president after the Cold War who was not influenced by Cold War thinking," said Viktor Kremenyuk, deputy director of Moscow's Institute for U.S. and Canadian Studies. But, like Russia, the United States has a large contingent of people who still have a Cold War outlook, he said. "And the Republicans mainly now represent that part of the population which continues to think in Cold War terms."In the Middle East and the wider Islamic world, there were questions about whether a domestically weakened Obama would be able to pursue his goal of securing in his first term a final peace agreement between Israelis and the Palestinians. There was much pre-election commentary in Israel that Republican gains would make it harder for Obama to persuade Israel to make concessions in peace talks with the Palestinians. The Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz quoted Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.), who is expected to become the House majority leader, as saying a Republican victory "would have a tangible impact on improving the U.S.-Israel relationship."
In Indonesia, Masdar Mas'udi, deputy chairman of the country's largest Islamic group, said he feared the election results would hamper Obama's outreach to Muslims. "We now feel more pessimistic about his ability to solve the problem between the Muslim world and the West," he said.
In Pakistan, early reaction centered on fears that a divided U.S. Congress would take longer to approve military and civilian aid packages for the country. Last week, the Obama administration announced $2 billion in new military funding over five years for the Pakistani army, but the proposal awaits congressional approval.
There were questions in world capitals over whether Obama would be too politically weakened at home to pursue major initiatives abroad, or whether, like some of his predecessors in domestic difficulty, he would turn his attention more to foreign policy, where presidents still have more freedom to act.
"At the end of the day, a weak president means a weak United States," said Oren Nahar, foreign news editor at Israel Radio, speaking during a radio discussion of the election results. He speculated that the Democratic defeat would make it more difficult for Obama to take bold steps abroad, such as striking Iran over its nuclear capability.
Much as President Bill Clinton took solace abroad after the Democratic defeat in the 1994 midterms, so does Obama embark this week on a lengthy trip to Asia, where he will be able to put aside temporarily the political setback at home for a turn on the global stage, where he remains widely admired.
That sentiment is perhaps most pronounced in Kenya, where Obama's father was born, and Indonesia, where he has childhood roots.
In Kenya, Obama-mania remains strong, even though his star power appears to have lost some of its luster. In comments posted on the Daily Nation, the nation's most respected national daily, readers were divided over Obama's policies and whether he would win a second term.
And in Indonesia, Tin Sumartini Soemitro, sister-in-law to Lolo Soetoro, Obama's stepfather, said: "My opinion might not be objective, but Barry is very smart. As president, him receiving a lot of criticism - it's normal. It happens here, too. A president cannot make everybody happy all the time."
But Obama's popularity has plummeted in Pakistan. A Pew Research Center poll this summer found that just 8 percent of the public expressed confidence in Obama, the lowest percentage of any Muslim country.
"All the hype about hope and change that propelled Obama towards the White House in 2008 never seriously held out the prospect of a systemic overhaul," wrote Mahir Ali, a columnist for Dawn, a leading English-language newspaper.
Mexicans, and especially the leadership class, watched the U.S. elections closely and generally appeared to view the results with a mix of frustration and dread. Obama is still well liked south of the border, though his star has clearly dimmed. The United States is Mexico's No. 1 trading partner. But it is also the world's No. 1 consumer of illegal drugs.
"The Republican takeover of the House of Representatives would seem to be bad news for Mexico, in that the issues of greatest importance in the bilateral relationship - immigration reform and a halt to open sales of assault weapons which find their way into the hands of the organized criminal cartels - have little or no chance of passing," said Andres Rozental, a former Mexican ambassador and diplomat.
On the upside, the front pages of Mexico's major dailies all featured New Mexico Republican Susana Martinez as the first Hispanic woman elected governor in the United States. And President Felipe Calderon and his government breathed a sigh of relief that California declined to legalize recreational marijuana. "Legalizing marijuana would not reduce the violence or crime," said Alejandro Poire, Calderon's national security spokesman.
In Britain, the news media have spent recent weeks entertaining the public with tales of the colorful tea party politicians populating the U.S. campaigns. But fatigue and alarm crept in this week, with some voicing fears of what a Republican resurgence might mean.
"Obama has brought to America's international leadership an intelligence, grace and dignity most of the world justly esteems," columnist Max Hastings wrote. A decline in Obama's power, he added, would be "a tragedy not only for Americans, but for us all."
Englund reported from Moscow. Washington Post correspondents Janine Zacharia in Jerusalem, Chico Harlan in Jakarta, William Booth in Mexico City, Sudarsan Raghavan in Nairobi, David Nakamura in Islamabad, Rebecca Omonira-Oyekanmi in London and researchers Wang Juan in Shanghai and Liu Liu in Beijing contributed to this report.