The reaction to last month’s disclosure of a memorandum of a conversation between President Donald Trump and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has understandably focused on what it means for the House of Representatives’ impeachment inquiry. That makes sense: For Americans, the question of whether Trump will complete his term of office is the most pressing issue.
Stepping back from more immediate concerns, though, the rough transcript reveals something else about the state of U.S. democracy and its relationship to global politics. This most recent corrupt episode in the recent history of U.S.-Ukrainian relations demonstrates that the fundamental axiom of U.S. foreign policy — that America has a right to lead because it is better than other countries — has been deeply tarnished. Like an accessory to Paul Manafort’s already ostentatious ostrich jacket, the Trump memorandum symbolizes how the United States now exports its political dysfunction. And that means the stakes of the impeachment inquiry matter deeply to the world.
It’s worth remembering how optimistically Americans used to see their country’s role in the world — and how they saw U.S. leadership as an inevitable force for good. In 1995, on a visit to Kiev, President Bill Clinton welcomed Ukraine to “the ranks of the world’s great democracies.” As evidence of the country’s new status, he directed its people to “the sight of your flag flying next to the American flag at the White House” when then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma had come to Washington, D.C., shortly before. The mark of a great democracy was aspiring to match the American standard.
Americans who prided themselves on being thoughtful cosmopolitans thrilled to this latter-day vision of “the city upon a hill.” Secretary of State Madeleine Albright’s sweeping assertion about America’s role in the world that, “We are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and see further than other countries,” was, in its way, the polite, upscale version of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue.” Both celebrate an American exceptionalism confident in the essential goodness of the United States (even if that goodness is defined a little differently in each text).
Critics, especially academics, long predicted the demise of this optimistic vision of American strength. They argued it would fail because of external factors — a military or economic rival (in the 1990s, Japan or Germany; in the 2000s and afterward, China) or imagined “clashes of civilizations” stirring up passions that liberalism couldn’t control.
Yet those arguments got it wrong. The greatest challenge to the post-Cold War liberal order, in the end, has come from the country that was supposed to lead it. To some extent, that’s a result of our own political paralysis. Polarization has made it all but impossible for the Senate to pass even uncontroversial treaties or for the government to commit to basic tasks like passing a budget.
But the faltering of the United States has also come about by choice. The election of Trump proved decisively that having democratic institutions did not mean the United States would stand up for the democratic order. Trump’s “America First” sloganeering during the campaign, his inaugural address after it and his speech to the United Nations General Assembly last week all reflect the administration’s reflexive hostility to liberal or internationalist views of world order.
Trump, however, did not invent those trends. Hoover Institution scholar Larry Diamond argues that the world has been suffering from a “democratic recession” for more than a decade, well before Trump came down the gilded escalator to launch his campaign. And big trends like that manifest in smaller dysfunctions first. The American experience with Ukrainian politics — and vice versa — displayed those dysfunctions. In the 1990s, Clinton, Albright and a swath of American intellectuals assumed that U.S. experts would spread democratic practices around the world, thereby helping to consolidate the liberalizing wave. By the mid-2000s, though, folks like Paul Manafort — a former Republican consultant — had instead begun exporting political skill on behalf of clients like Ukrainian oligarchs.
Twenty-four years after Clinton boasted about Ukraine’s democracy, as the Varieties of Democracy project measurements show, Ukraine is substantially less democratic. We can’t pin all of this on Manafort, but he still reportedly made millions by playing a part in the country’s shift away from what Americans assumed would be the natural outcome of their country’s example and strength.
Manafort, of course, later took on another client: the long-shot presidential candidate Donald Trump. In all of the hoopla about Russia’s interference in U.S. elections via social media, the fact that Trump’s campaign manager might have acted as a bagman for a Russian-backed political party in Ukraine went mostly ignored.
To be clear, the story here isn’t about relationships between individual people; Zelensky comes from a different part of the Ukrainian political ecosystem than did Manafort’s backers. Rather, it’s about the fact that money can buy officials and influence in Washington as it can in Kiev. Little wonder that Zelensky made sure to tell Trump that he had stayed in Trump Tower when he was last in New York City.
At a minimum, the ease with which Trump winkingly suggested that he wanted assistance in digging up dirt on a political rival clearly demonstrates that the president was willing to skim a little off the top. Moreover, he was willing to do so while working out a deal meant to advance two countries’ national interests. That isn’t the act of a government that stands taller and sees further. It isn’t even the action of a grim realist calculating what would put America first. It’s the modus operandi of a Mafioso.
All of this suggests that, somewhat incredibly, the stakes for a Trump impeachment inquiry are even greater than the fate of the Trump administration. During the Watergate proceedings, legislators made clear that their goal was to ensure that no president was above the law. President Richard M. Nixon’s gravest sins involved using government agencies, from the IRS to the CIA, to go after his political enemies at home.
So far as we can tell, Trump’s actions — seeming to seek a smear job to be carried out by another country — are even worse, since they involve using foreign policy tools for private domestic gain. If that really happened, allowing it to go unpunished wouldn’t just hurt American democracy: It would devastate an earlier America’s optimistic vision of world order and further undermine the foundations of global freedom.