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Why Trump’s acquittal will damage US foreign policy

“The damage is really to the glitter of America’s supposed exceptionalism,” an expert told Vox.

President Trump after delivering the State of the Union address on February 4, 2020.
Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

President Donald Trump’s acquittal in the Senate impeachment trial won’t just serve as an indictment of the American political system, it will also deal a body blow to US foreign policy efforts to curb global corruption and promote the rule of the law.

For decades, a fixture of American diplomacy has been to get other nations to follow America’s example. There’s a top-level official at the State Department and multiple bureaus there that work on these very issues.

The Ukraine scandal at the center of Trump’s impeachment saga was initially part of those efforts. The administration would only send nearly $400 million in military aid as long as Kyiv had made strides in tackling its corruption problems. The Pentagon last May certified Ukraine had done enough defense-sector reforms to merit the support.

A quote is displayed during Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman’s testimony during the House Intelligence Committee hearing on November 19, 2019.
Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images

But despite this, Trump personally held up the money to extract something else from Ukraine: an announcement that it would open an investigation into the Bidens.

That clear abuse of power for Trump’s own political gain led the Democratic-majority House to impeach the president. Afterward, the Republican-held Senate chose not to investigate further by declining to call any witnesses in its trial of the president. And on Wednesday, the Senate took the final step: acquitting Trump on both articles of impeachment (though one Republican, Utah’s Sen. Mitt Romney, voted to convict).

This means that, ultimately, the system designed to keep the top levels of the US government from descending into lawlessness has failed.

That, as former Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves and others say, will now make it harder for the US to tell other nations to follow America’s lead.

Trump’s acquittal, then, will do immense damage to America’s “soft power,” Washington’s ability to convince other nations to do what the US wants without using military force.

It essentially kneecaps a key aspect of US foreign policy, and all because of the president’s misbehavior and Republicans’ refusal to break with him over it.

“Trump represents the greatest destruction of American soft power in history,” Luis Rubio, the president of the Mexican Council on Foreign Relations, told me earlier this week.

Why the US cares about ending global corruption

In 2017, the Center for Global Development senior fellow Kimberly Ann Elliott wrote about the problems corruption can wreak on the world.

“When it is pervasive and uncontrolled, corruption thwarts economic development and undermines political legitimacy,” she wrote. “Less pervasive variants result in wasted resources, increased inequity in resource distribution, less political competition, and greater distrust of government.”

The solution? “The spread of democratization and market reform should reduce corruption in the long run,” she argued, while noting that the exposure of widespread corruption could lead to widespread public anger at first.

Pushing countries to be more democratic and liberalize their economies has been a core tenet of US foreign policy for years, one followed by Republican and Democratic administrations alike.

One reason is that it makes America look good to get another country to run its government better and treat its people well. The other reason is that it benefits America to have more stable countries with fewer security problems to trade with.

But many nations, particularly more autocratic ones, are loath to change their ways. The US could use its military might to force governments to do what it says, but that would be dangerous and costly, and other countries would surely turn on America. The US, then, hopes the power of its example at home can inspire corrupt governments that flout the rule of law to reform.

The problem is the “soft power” America wields is dwindling thanks to Trump and his allies.

George Kent, the deputy assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian Affairs takes a break during his testimony before the House Intelligence Committee, on November 13, 2019.
Olivier Douliery/AFP via Getty Images

One clear example of this was a situation George Kent, a top State Department official on European affairs, described in his closed-door deposition to the House last October during the impeachment inquiry. He discussed the Trump administration efforts to stop Ukraine’s government from opening an investigation into former President Petro Poroshenko. Per Kent, a top Ukrainian official looked back at the Americans and said, “What? You mean the type of investigations you’re pushing for us to do on Biden and [Hillary] Clinton?”

“The damage is really to the glitter of America’s supposed exceptionalism”

In an ideal America, Trump would have received a severe reprimand for abusing his power and his corrupt practices, like using the presidency to enrich himself and his family. Even if short of impeachment, Republicans could’ve placed severe political pressure on Trump by showing him their support has limits.

That’s not what happened. Instead, Trump’s party will be responsible for letting him get away with the Ukraine scandal basically unpunished. As moderate Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) out it when explaining she would vote to acquit Trump, she (and surely others) claim Trump has “learned” from the impeachment experience and will alter his behavior.

Sen. Susan Collins arrives at the State of the Union address on February 4, 2020.
Leah Millis-Pool/Getty Images

Of course, Trump has been formally impeached, and that in itself is significant. But given that no House Republicans voted for impeachment, Trump and his allies can argue (and have) that it was merely a partisan political ploy and not the serious rebuke for his behavior it is supposed to be.

It’s worse when considering one of the arguments Trump’s legal team made: that a president can basically do whatever he wants in order to get reelected if he believes his reelection is good for the country.

“Every public official that I know believes that his election is in the public interest,” Trump lawyer Alan Dershowitz contended in front of the Senate last week. “If a president does something which he believes will help him get elected in the public interest, that cannot be the kind of quid pro quo that results in impeachment.”

He went on:

It would be a much harder case if a hypothetical president of the United States said to a hypothetical leader of a foreign country, ‘unless you build a hotel with my name on it, and unless you give me a million dollar kickback, I will withhold the funds.’ That’s an easy case. That’s purely corrupt and in the purely private interest.

But a complex middle case is, ‘I want to be elected. I think I’m a great president. I think I’m the greatest president there ever was. If I’m not elected the national interest will suffer greatly.’ That cannot be impeachable.

That’s a deeply troubling message to send to the rest of the world, particularly autocrats who want to remain in power for years. Now when US diplomats tell their foreign counterparts to be less corrupt, fix partisan problems, and adhere to the rule of law, there’s a greater chance those talking points won’t resonate.

“Toxic partisanship and deepening ideological fault lines in America, without question, has a significant impact on America’s role as a promoter of democracy and beacon of human rights,” Richard Javad Heydarian, an expert on US-Asia relations at the National Chengchi University in Taiwan, told me earlier this week. “The damage is really to the glitter of America’s supposed exceptionalism.”

And should Trump be reelected despite all this, Heydarian continued, it would send a strong message to foreign governments that a leader can disregard the law while not losing public support, especially since he’ll have fewer restrictions on his behavior during a second term.

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a campaign rally in Milford, New Hampshire, on February 4, 2020.
Joe Raedle/Getty Images

This is why most Democrats running for president are pushing for anti-corruption measures to be even more central to US foreign policy. Progressives say they are horrified by how Trump has cozied up to dictators and authoritarians from Saudi Arabia to Russia to North Korea. His “America First” style has also led him to ignore human rights and democracy around the world, values the US historically stood for (at least in theory), in favor of the economy and trade.

The way to reverse Trump’s damage? Stopping corruption worldwide. The theory, as progressive foreign policy proponents tell me, is that authoritarians benefit from corrupt practices — like having access to dark money or putting sycophants in positions of power. Thus, by curbing that behavior, the US will help democracy flourish and raise its soft-power standing.

But it’s unclear whether a new Democratic administration would be able to reverse the damage Trump’s acquittal will have on America’s prestige.

In fact, the US actually has become a more corrupt country on Trump’s watch. According to the watchdog group Transparency International, the US was tied for the world’s 16th-least corruption nation in 2017. As of 2019, America slipped to 22nd.

The world, without question, has taken notice — and it’s already hurting US foreign policy. “This severely undermines America’s credibility and moral ascendancy,” says Heydarian.