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Welcome to Trump’s Impeachment Foreign Policy

His administration’s decisions will be erratic, ill-considered, and ineffective. In other words, business as usual.

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the White House.
U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes President Recep Tayyip Erdogan of Turkey outside the West Wing of the White House in Washington on May 16, 2017. Alex Wong/Getty Images

In my last column, I argued U.S. President Donald Trump should be impeached, because he has repeatedly shown he cannot be trusted to put the nation’s interest ahead of his own personal political aims. Since I wrote that column, Trump has publicly confirmed the validity of these concerns, most recently by calling for China to investigate the Biden family. If he’s willing to say something like that in the open, can anyone doubt that he’d sell the country out in private if he thought it would benefit him personally? For a good analysis of the situation, see Andrew Sullivan here.

And remember: He did all of this to himself, voluntarily. Nobody made him chase weird conspiracy theories about Ukraine, Crowdstrike, and the Democratic National Committee server, and nobody forced him to withhold aid to Ukraine and pressure its president to keep digging into the family of Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden (an issue Ukraine had already investigated and found no evidence of wrongdoing). Nobody pressured Trump into sending his personal lawyer to Ukraine to chase these will-o’-the-wisps. It was entirely Trump’s own idea to tell Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to work with U.S. Attorney General William Barr on this whole bogus business. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi didn’t tell him to commit impeachable offenses. In sum: He did all this on his own initiative.

This rather obvious conclusion raises a second question, one that should concern Democrats, Republicans, independents, and the rest of the world. Now that an impeachment investigation is underway (and is likely to lead to a formal House vote), how will this situation affect U.S. foreign policy? Whether you love Trump or despise him, it’s important to consider whether impeachment will have other effects on America’s position in the world and the policies it is able to pursue over the next few months.

The obvious worry is that the impeachment process will be an enormous distraction, making it more difficult for the U.S. government to address important domestic and foreign-policy issues. How can Trump or the White House deal with opioids, gun violence, Afghanistan, North Korea, the trade war, etc. when they are spending countless hours fighting for their political lives? A related concern is that impeachment will deepen the polarization that has been hampering U.S. politics for some time, especially once Trump goes into overdrive trying to convince his base that the whole business is just a baseless fable concocted by Pelosi, the Clintons, MSNBC, George Soros, or whoever else he can dream up. (He hasn’t tried to pin it on Meryl Streep or Robert De Niro or the Dixie Chicks yet, but give him time.)

But will the impeachment process have a big effect on policy? With one important caveat, I don’t think so. To understand why, it’s useful to distinguish between the short-term effects on Trump’s ability to conduct foreign policy effectively and the longer-term effects on the United States’ relative power.

Regarding the former, impeachment might have harmful effects if the administration were currently pursuing an ambitious, energetic, competent, and generally successful foreign policy. If that were the case, even Democrats who opposed Trump on other grounds might be bothered by the possibility that impeaching him would derail an otherwise successful effort to solve big international problems or advance U.S. national interests more broadly.

But that’s clearly not the case today. In fact, the Trump administration has yet to accomplish anything significant in foreign affairs, and its various misguided initiatives have left it stuck in the breakdown lane. Just look at the record: North Korea is building more nuclear weapons and testing more dangerous missiles; Iran is defying Trump’s so-called maximum pressure campaign, gradually restarting its nuclear program, and pushing back in other ways; the revised trade deal with Canada and Mexico remains unratified (and wasn’t much of an achievement in the first place); relations with Russia are still in the deep freeze; amateur diplomat Jared Kushner’s supposed Middle East peace plan is going nowhere; giving unconditional support for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has further destabilized the region; and, contrary to Trump’s breezy assertions, the mishandled trade war with China is proving to be neither “good” nor “easy to win.”

As with the Ukraine debacle, this sorry record is entirely the president’s doing. In addition to have no clear strategic vision, an erratic approach to decision-making, a lot of poorly informed ideas about key issues, and a prickly impatience ill suited to serious diplomacy, Trump is presiding over an incompetent and chaotic foreign-policy machinery. Having promised to appoint “the best people,” he has instead chosen subordinates who were either forced to resign amid criminal scandals (e.g., former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn) or fired by the president himself (e.g., former National Security Advisors H.R. McMaster and John Bolton, ex-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, and countless others). Key positions remain unfilled, turnover inside the administration is at record levels, and the president himself seems to be more interested in debunked conspiracies than in developing and pursuing a coherent and successful foreign policy.

If the Trump White House weren’t distracted by impeachment, in short, it would be unable to make much progress on foreign policy. True, we’re likely to see more bizarre and embarrassing press conferences with foreign visitors—such as the one that Finnish President Sauli Niinisto had to endure last week—but that’s nothing new either. Trump didn’t need to be impeached in order to misbehave in meetings with foreign leaders. Even when Trump has good instincts—such as his desire to “get out of the nation-building business”and avoid an open-ended U.S. commitment in places such as Afghanistan or Syria—his impulsive approach to decision-making leads him to implement those instincts in the worst possible way, with neither adequate preparation or sufficient regard for the longer-term consequences.

Indeed, given how badly he’s managed U.S. foreign relations, one could argue that having Trump distracted by impeachment might be a good thing. The less time and attention he devotes to foreign affairs, the better off everyone might be.

What about the longer term? Here the question is whether or not the president can advance a domestic agenda that will keep the United States at the pinnacle of power for as long as possible and allow as many Americans as possible to live more bountiful and secure lives. Intelligent policies to address the opioid epidemic, reduce gun violence, protect against climate change and extreme weather events, rebuild the United States’ crumbling infrastructure, improve educational standards, and a host of other issues would benefit many Americans in the short term and maintain America’s global competitiveness over the longer term. By contrast, failure to address these issues will make it easier for others to reduce America’s margin of superiority and further tarnish its global image.

Once again, if Trump were making rapid and positive progress on the home front and impeachment threatened to derail his efforts, that might be grounds for opposing it. But at this point Trump’s domestic agenda—such as it is—is dead in the water too. His first-year tax cut made inequality worse but produced no lasting benefits for the economy (which is why he keeps blaming economic sluggishness on the Federal Reserve chairman who he appointed). He came into office promising a big infrastructure push and hasn’t even bothered to offer up a concrete plan. His misguided effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act went nowhere, even when Republicans controlled both the House and the Senate. There’s not going to be a genuine wall on the Mexican border, Mexico certainly isn’t paying for it, and the enhanced barrier he’s diverted Defense Department funds to erect won’t reduce illegal immigration at all. Cabinet Secretaries such as Betsy DeVos (Education) and David Bernhardt (Interior) will be able to continue their wrecking operations, but that would have been true whether Trump was impeached or not. Once again: Impeachment isn’t going to affect his ability to advance a positive domestic agenda, because his capacity to do this was already nil.

For all these reasons, impeachment itself may not have that much impact on Trump’s foreign or domestic policy. But there is one important caveat, and it’s not reassuring. If the accumulating evidence of presidential malfeasance eventually leads the House to vote to impeach, if public opinion supports that move, and if these developments lead some Republicans to grow spines and start putting country ahead of party, the White House is going to get increasingly desperate. And in these circumstances, Trump is likely to be tempted to see foreign policy as a way to distract, divert, or discredit the impeachment campaign. (Fun fact: President Richard Nixon tried this too.)

The most worrisome possibility would be an attempt to rally public support via some sort of Wag the Dog war. Or Trump might seek some sort of dramatic diplomatic breakthrough with Iran or China or North Korea. The problem, of course, is that a manufactured crisis can still escalate in dangerous ways, and a president who is desperate for a deal and in need of a big photo-op is in a very weak bargaining position. U.S. adversaries are not stupid, and the people Trump would be bargaining with will be fully aware of his desperation. In this way, impeachment could lead indirectly to additional foreign-policy blunders.

But make no mistake: Those blunders would still be Trump’s responsibility. His own actions got him (and the United States) into this mess, and he’ll be the one to blame if his desperate attempts to evade accountability end up making a bad situation worse. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Stephen M. Walt is the Robert and Renée Belfer professor of international relations at Harvard University.

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