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World Leaders Stood Behind Bill Clinton When He Was Impeached. Not So Trump.
The allies Trump has snubbed are shrugging off his impeachment—or just laughing.
When U.S. President Bill Clinton faced the prospect of impeachment in the fall of 1998, world leaders and envoys attending the United Nations General Assembly debate welcomed him with a standing ovation. Today, President Donald Trump’s appearance on the world stage is more likely to inspire raised eyebrows, mocking asides, and sniggering laughs in response to his over-the-top acts of self-promotion.
As Congress weighs his fate, Trump has few friends on the world stage he can count on to come to his aid. U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, one of the president’s closest allies, has kept him at arm’s length as he seeks reelection in a country that has grown tired of the blustery U.S. leader.
Other U.S. allies such as French President Emmanuel Macron and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau—who both strove in the past to ingratiate themselves with the U.S. leader—were caught on video at the latest NATO summit in London sharing a laugh at Trump’s expense.
“Trump won’t get any standing ovations” from his counterparts, one senior Asian diplomat told Foreign Policy. But leaders in the region “generally believe that Trump will shrug off these impeachment proceedings.”
The impeachment process—which focuses on allegations that Trump solicited a commitment from the Ukrainian president to investigate one of his Democratic rivals, former Vice President Joe Biden, in exchange for a White House visit and hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance—has become as much of a spectacle, and a source of anxiety, for foreigners as it has been for Americans.
“People overseas are watching this play out with a combination of amusement and fascination, and they are not yet ready to draw a lesson,” said Thomas Pickering, a former top U.S. diplomat. “The key question is whether [foreign leaders] see the present process as trivial or serious and debilitating. I don’t have an answer for that.”
But Pickering said while Clinton was able to turn his close personal relationships with foreign leaders into a reservoir of political support in difficult times, “Trump’s willingness to trample” on allied leaders has resulted in what he described as the “Macron effect”—that is, a gradual defection of an erstwhile political friend at a time of need. In recent weeks, Macron has openly criticized Trump for diminishing trust in NATO’s deterrent by reducing the alliance to a commercial proposition.
Robert Orr, a former senior foreign-policy advisor in the Clinton administration, was in the U.N. General Assembly chamber when the president faced off against the world community. The international reaction to today’s impeachment proceeding couldn’t be more different than it was more than two decades ago.
“I remember being surprised at how spontaneous, how universal the standing ovation was for Clinton,” Orr said. “It was a reminder that the rest of the world was not looking at the impeachment process in the same way Americans were.”
The difference this time around, he added, is how democratic governments have responded. “Democratic countries around the world really dismissed the Clinton impeachment as a kind of a personal peccadillo turned into a self-righteous American democratic process run amok,” he said. “This time, democratic countries see the future of American democracy at stake, and are worried about its viability, and therefore look at this as totally different than the Clinton case.”
Suzanne Nossel, a former senior foreign-policy advisor in the State Department and the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, said the foreign response to Clinton’s impeachment also reflected the prevailing views on sexual conduct in government.
“The Clinton impeachment was different in that sexual indiscretions by politicians are, in many parts of the world, par for the course,” she said. “Here, we have a controversy that directly implicated international relations and the legitimacy of U.S. diplomacy worldwide.”
“I think a lot of the world is holding their breath to see whether and how Trump can be taken out of office, be it via impeachment or the ballot box in November,” she said. “If not, the realignments that are already in progress will be cemented, with the U.S. less trusted, less relied upon and less capable of leading for the foreseeable future.”
Some conservative experts believe the impeachment probe has emboldened the Trump administration, not hobbled it, as it notches some key foreign-policy victories amid the fraught political battle in Washington. During public congressional hearings on impeachment last week, Trump was in London for a meeting of NATO leaders that his allies heralded as a success. Despite Trudeau’s candid camera gaffe, the alliance made significant strides in defense spending that NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg credited to Trump.
On Tuesday, the same day that Democrats introduced articles of impeachment, they sealed a deal with Trump on the landmark U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade deal to replace NAFTA. The accord provided Trump with a tangible legislative achievement he can take on his presidential election campaign, though many Republican leaders voiced frustration that he may have made too many concessions to the Democrats.
And despite initial concern from some Republicans over Trump’s interactions with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, no Republicans appear ready to break ranks with the president and support impeachment—even after weeks of grueling public hearings that laid bare internal strife within the administration’s foreign-policy-making machine.
“I don’t think [Trump and his team] see the impeachment as debilitating, I think it’s exactly the opposite,” said James Carafano, a scholar at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative Washington-based think tank. “They’re feeling empowered.”
The contrasting receptions of Clinton and Trump, particularly from Western Europe, should come as no surprise, according to Danielle Pletka, an expert on international relations at the American Enterprise Institute.
“They loved Bill Clinton,” she said. “They can’t stand Donald Trump.”
Europeans, Pletka said, have always preferred Democratic presidents to their Republican counterparts. And they viewed the focus on Clinton’s sexual conduct as a “bit of American insanity.” As a Republican, Trump started off with a mark against him, she said.
Still, she added, Trump “earned” the trans-Atlantic hostility that he now faces in international settings. “He has been an utterly disloyal ally, and he has been odious toward a whole series of European leaders,” she said.
But she suggested that any European claims of outrage at Trump’s conduct is hypocritical.
“The Europeans are far more comfortable with the notion of leveraging their aid programs for any manner of things,” she said. “Perhaps not as crude and as obviously self-serving as Trump. But they are fundamentally mercantilist in their attitude. Not as crude as Trump and not as self-serving—but nobody is Trump.”
The president has a history of using foreign leaders as a political foil. The impeachment proceedings have not changed that.
During the London NATO summit last week, Trump excoriated Macron for declaring the trans-Atlantic military alliance had succumbed to “brain death.” Trump, who has frequently dismissed NATO in the past as obsolete, took issue with Macron, calling his remarks “very, very nasty.”
“I think that’s insulting to a lot of different forces,” Trump said. “It’s very disrespectful.”
But other foreign observers say it is only right that Trump’s conduct should be subject to impeachment proceedings.
“There has to be accountability,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a long-standing member of the Palestine Liberation Organization executive committee, who said the United States under Trump is behaving like a “banana republic” that is “flouting international law, and promoting nepotism and corruption. “We feel that if the United States doesn’t exercise accountability it cannot in any way maintain its standing, its respect, or demand it of anybody else.”
“As a woman, I am against any kind of harassment or abuse of position,” Ashrawi added, citing Clinton’s sexual relations with his then-intern Monica Lewinsky. But Clinton, she insisted, was targeted by his political enemies in the Republican Party, and he “didn’t create a whole culture of impunity.”
Some foreign adversaries seem to relish America’s descent into national crisis. “Thank God nobody is accusing us anymore of interfering in the U.S. elections,” Russian President Vladimir Putin said last month at an investment conference. “Now they’re accusing Ukraine. Well, let them sort this out among themselves.”
Staff writer Robbie Gramer contributed to this story.