The reaction to Wednesday’s disclosure of a memorandum of a conversation between President 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.
But the rough transcript also reveals something about how U.S. democracy relates to global politics. This latest corrupt episode in the 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 conversation between Trump and Zelensky symbolizes how the United States now exports its political dysfunction. And that means the impeachment inquiry matters deeply to the world.
It’s worth remembering how optimistically Americans used to see their country’s role in the world: as an unstoppable force for good. In 1995, during 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” during then-Ukrainian President Leonid Kuchma’s earlier visit to Washington. Americans told themselves that the mark of a great democracy was aspiring to match the American standard. According to polling from the next year, 81 percent of Americans agreed or strongly agreed that theirs was “a better country than most other countries.”
By 2014, that number had dropped to 73 percent, but in the 90s, even those 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 — that “we are America; we are the indispensable nation. We stand tall and we see further than other countries into the future” — was the polite, upscale version of Toby Keith’s post-9/11 anthem “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue.” Both celebrate an American exceptionalism confident in the essential goodness of the United States (even if each text defines that a little differently).
Critics, especially academics, long predicted the demise of this vision of American strength. They argued that 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 political paralysis. Polarization dating back to the 1970s has made it all but impossible for the Senate to pass even uncontroversial treaties or for the government to even pass a budget.
But the faltering of the United States has also come about by choice. Trump’s election proved decisively that having democratic institutions did not mean the United States would stand up for the liberal order. Trump’s “America First” sloganeering during the campaign, his inaugural address after it and his speech to the U.N. General Assembly this past week all reflect his reflexive hostility to liberal or internationalist views of the world.
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 — has displayed those dysfunctions. In the 1990s, Clinton, Albright and a swath of American intellectuals assumed that U.S. experts in civil society and agencies like USAID would spread democratic practices around the world, thereby helping to consolidate the liberalizing wave. By the mid-2000s, though, folks like Manafort — a former Republican consultant — had instead begun exporting political skill on behalf of clients such as Ukrainian oligarchs.
Twenty-four years after Clinton boasted about Ukraine’s democracy, as the Varieties of Democracy project shows, Ukraine is substantially less democratic. We can’t pin all of this on Manafort. Russia played a major role, as did homegrown kleptocracy. Nevertheless, as the Mueller Report established, Manafort still made millions by advising oligarchs in Russia and Ukraine. And he was joined in the Ukrainian market by many Democratic firms and consultants, including onetime Bernie Sanders campaign strategist Tad Devine and the former consulting firm of Obama adviser David Axelrod. Their intentions may have been innocent, but given the miasma of Ukrainian politics, it’s doubtful their efforts ended up benefiting democracy.
Manafort, of course, later took on another client: the long-shot presidential candidate Donald Trump. In all 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 attracted less outrage. But Manafort’s pivotal role in the campaign provides a neat bookend to the week’s revelations.
To be clear, the story here isn’t about specific relationships among individual people; Zelensky comes from a different part of the Ukrainian political ecosystem than did Manafort’s clients. Rather, it’s about the fact that money can buy officials and influence in Washington, just as it can in Kiev — and that the transnational nature of this corruption has undermined progress toward the optimistic dream of the 1990s. In a poetic inversion of Clinton’s image of the Ukrainian and American flags flying side-by-side, Zelensky made sure to tell Trump that he stayed in Trump Tower when he was last in New York.
The cumulative effects of this corruption without borders are now plainly visible. At a minimum, the ease with which Trump winkingly suggested that he wanted help in digging up dirt on a rival clearly demonstrates that he 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 of the 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 Nixon’s gravest sins involved using government agencies, from the IRS to the CIA, to go after his political enemies.
As far as we can tell, Trump’s apparent actions — prompting another country’s government to engage in a smear job — are even worse. They involve using foreign policy tools for private domestic political gain. If that’s what 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.