President Donald Trump’s behavior in attempting to coerce the Ukrainian president into investigating Joe Biden and Biden’s son Hunter has given the American public a rare view of how this president interacts with world leaders behind closed doors.
But does Trump’s effort to have a foreign government dig up dirt on a political rival amount to an impeachable offense? And just how will the president’s actions be viewed by allies and adversaries?
“It’s obvious that Trump did something wrong,” said John Mearsheimer, professor of political science at the University of Chicago and an expert in international relations. “The actual use of American power to gain leverage over a country or to coerce another country is done all the time. What’s special about this case is that it was done for the purpose of influencing domestic politics. It was done with the purpose of helping Trump win the 2020 election.”
But improper actions may not indicate a crime or an impeachable offense.
“The problem is that there are no clear criteria for what is an impeachable offense and that means that it is ultimately a political question, it’s not really a legal question,” said Mearsheimer. “We saw this with the Clinton impeachment. When it went to the Senate not a single Democrat voted to find Clinton guilty.”
The legality of what the president did can only be decided by the courts, but the evidence of wrongdoing is clear, according to Ian Hurd, professor of political science at Northwestern University where he has written extensively on the politics of international law and international institutions.
“I think that it is clearly putting the president’s personal interests above those of the country and of the office and so it seems clearly improper at that level where there’s a kind of mixing of the private grievances and interests of the individual in the office with the official arms of the state,” said Hurd. “That seems clearly to be what motivated Nancy Pelosi’s turn on impeachment last week.”
Trump’s espousal of an “America first” agenda, combined with nativist rhetoric and his apparent distrust and distaste for multilateral institutions like the United Nations and NATO has also undermined America’s relationships with some of its closest allies.
As a consequence, according to Hurd, U.S. influence with its allies “is at a very low point these days.”
“It’s certainly put countries like Canada, France, Germany, the U.K. in a weird position. They are not sure how to deal with this situation,” said Hurd. “My sense is that many of them are just waiting for the (Trump administration) to end and they I assume that the U.S. will get back to a more predictable foreign policy when it is over.”
But for countries in Eastern Europe nervous about the intentions of Russian President Vladimir Putin, America’s apparent abdication of its leadership role in world affairs is troubling.
“If you’re the Baltic countries and your foreign policy is mainly premised on trusting the U.S. will defend you against Russia, I don’t think there is any reason to believe that that trust is warranted,” said Hurd.
But while America’s allies may look nervously on, Mearsheimer says he thinks the impeachment inquiry is going to be nothing more than a diversion because there is virtually zero chance of Republicans in the Senate voting to remove Trump from office.
“I think what will happen here is that we are just going to have a lot of fire and brimstone and he’s going to remain in office and the country is just going to be more polarized than ever,” said Mearsheimer.
And because of Trump’s limited accomplishments on the world stage, even if the president is distracted by the impeachment inquiry, Mearsheimer said he does not think it will impact foreign policy “in any meaningful way.”
“The fact is that Trump has been largely a failure on the foreign policy front. He’s accomplished very little,” said Mearsheimer. “And even if he devoted all of his efforts to solving the North Korean nuclear problem and the Iranian nuclear problem he couldn’t do it. So it just doesn’t matter much because his foreign policy agenda is going nowhere.”
And as for the future of America’s global leadership, Hurd believes that will be in the hands of Trump’s successor.
“The next president after Trump, whoever that is, will have to decide if it’s worth rebuilding that American leadership or whether it’s just over,” said Hurd.