The public hearing for the impeachment inquiry into President Donald Trump is underway, and while a lot of the nation’s attention is focused on domestic politics, it’s important to remember that the world continues to turn even when our attention wanes. As Republicans and Democrats in Washington D.C. and all around the nation fortify their positions for political combat, America’s military apparatus remains operational, America’s diplomatic and military opponents remain active, and threats on the horizon continue to loom just as large in the absence of press coverage.
Now, before we can discuss the potential ramifications of an impeachment inquiry and potential subsequent impeachment, it’s important to establish up front that the fact that there are reverberating effects throughout America’s foreign policy isn’t necessarily an argument for or against the proceedings themselves. Analyzing the potential outcomes of a situation is an important strategic tool and shouldn’t be seen as a judgement regarding the situation itself. Whether you feel the impeachment proceedings are justified or not, America will have to operate in the world at large during this period of infighting.
A weaker diplomatic position
Debate is ongoing regarding President Trump’s sometimes impulsive approach to foreign policy, with many taking issue with his combative approach to allies and endearing approach to despots; but one thing Trump has consistently done well from the White House is convey a sense of his “force of will.” President Trump works hard to cultivate the image of a president that gets things done, and while some may take issue with his demeanor, his aggressive approach does convey a sense of authority.
As an impeachment inquiry and hearings go on, that authoritative leverage will begin to wane, particularly if the hearings are going poorly for the president. Although impeachment does not mean removal of a president, that misunderstanding is widespread — meaning many in other nations may begin to see Trump as a President operating on borrowed time. If it appears that Senate Republicans may be willing to betray their party in an actual impeachment hearing, that sense of timeline will only seem more dire, and as a result, few nations will be willing to make deals with a president that may soon be looking for a new job.
Amid trade negotiations with China, nuclear talks with North Korea, simmering tensions with Iran, continued concerns about Russia and a dozen more military, diplomatic, and economic conflicts American remains embroiled in, there’s a real chance that America could find itself doing little more than treading water for months as the nation (and the world) wait to see who will be at the helm once the impeachment process comes to a close.
Slowed progress on some new defense initiatives
That same “wait and see” mindset will likely permeate America’s defense community as well, as Trump-championed initiatives that have required his public support will also likely slow (perhaps just slightly) amid the impeachment proceedings. President Trump stirred controversy with his ordered establishment of a Space Force, for instance — and as the nation and the president’s focus remains on impeachment, the slow and steady progress of establishing a new and separate branch may get just a bit slower. Bureaucratic processes are always long and drawn out, but they can become more drawn out when there’s a concern that directives may change under a new administration.
Most defense programs, however, will continue unabated, as the Pentagon doesn’t require executive oversight to do what it needs to do when it comes to important programs like improving readiness or continuing development of new defense technologies.
An opportunity to improve relations with allies
While impeachment proceedings will undoubtedly weaken Trump’s negotiating position with other nations, America’s willingness to tear itself apart over the rule of law, particularly in regards to such a polarizing president, may result in improved relations with some allied nations that have developed a distaste for Trump. While Trump supporters may scoff at the idea of needing to improve these relationships, many others, like former Defense Secretary James Mattis, would argue that the bonds that alliances, like NATO have established, have played an integral role in keeping the world a largely stable place in the past half-century. Trump’s nationalistic approach to foreign policy has undoubtedly weakened some of those bonds, and while you may argue that America doesn’t need them, it still stands to reason that an impeachment — even one that doesn’t result in removal from office — could shift perceptions of America in nations that are worried that the U.S. may no longer have their interests in mind.
Of course, even if Congress decides to impeach President Trump, it’s all but assured that the Senate won’t remove him from office — meaning the entire impeachment process may amount to little more than a political dog and pony show leading up to the 2020 election.
Regardless of the potential outcomes, America is now going to appear to allies and opponents alike more fractured than it has in years — and that will create a unique geopolitical environment. Win or lose, the Trump administration and the American people would benefit from keeping at least one eye on the ball, even as our representatives duke it out in Congress.