The knock-on effects of impeachment
25 Oct 2019|

The impeachment process instigated by the US House of Representatives has the potential to produce significant international consequences. As the administration’s attentions and energies are absorbed by the process, there’s a real danger that the US government’s focus will narrow onto the president’s domestic crisis.

Few regions are unaffected by President Donald Trump’s nationalism, his trade policies, and his peculiar personal and transactional approach to diplomacy and strategic matters. World leaders will be anxiously looking on as the impeachment drama plays out.

There is little historical precedent to illuminate how presidential impeachments play out. Andrew Johnson’s impeachment took place during the post–Civil War Reconstruction era following a bitter struggle with Congress over states’ rights and race issues. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton were both subject to impeachment proceedings in their second terms following resounding re-election victories. The Vietnam War, the Cambodian bombing and the Pentagon papers were factors in Nixon’s undoing. Clinton’s inappropriate behaviour led to accusations of lying under oath and obstructing justice. Apart from a hostile relationship with the House majority, there are no meaningful parallels with Trump.

Allies and strategic competitors alike are undoubtedly monitoring the impeachment proceedings closely. The House Democrats are irreversibly committed to their course. With a keen eye to the upcoming presidential election, senators from both US political parties will be gauging shifts in public opinion. Depending on the outcome of the proceedings, Trump might be forced from office before the election, be replaced by Vice President Mike Pence, or survive but be seriously weakened—or indeed strengthened.

The political crisis comes at a time when the administration is engaged with the trade and economic struggle with China, the denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula, and the confrontation with Iran. Whether or not US policy in these cases and the diplomatic tactics adopted are considered sound, a sudden loss of focus by the US government could seriously affect the course of events.

President Xi Jinping, President Vladimir Putin, Chairman Kim Jong-un and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei will all be following developments in Washington closely. For each of them, the likelihood of a new president in 2021 is of great significance. Moreover, a seriously weakened, or replacement, president over the next year would potentially be a gift. They will all look for opportunities to advance their national interests if the administration is diverted by the investigations.

US allies in the Middle East and East Asia will face increasing uncertainty as the drama unfolds. At a mundane level, Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman will be apprehensive about the release of any transcripts of conversations with Trump, especially if Jamal Khashoggi was discussed. More importantly, if the will of the US to press Iran falters, the balance of power in the Middle East could shift adversely for the Saudis. The erratic policy swings of a president trying to move the discussion away from impeachment already has created a favourable strategic space for Russia, Syria and Turkey.

For the Japanese and South Koreans, the failure of the US to continue to engage with North Korea could see further adventurism and set back the denuclearisation process even further. For Taiwan, a distracted US might provide China with the opportunity to flex its military muscles in the strait.

Indications of a response to the impeachment proceedings might be seen in the recent launch by North Korea of a submarine-based missile while at the same time expressing a willingness to resume talks with the US and then walking out on them. The launch is evidence of the extent of the failure of US diplomacy to achieve denuclearisation of the peninsula and will increase pressure on the Trump administration to consider genuine concessions if it wishes to go into the 2020 election claiming progress. Kim will know that. The Japanese and South Koreans will be anxious over the prospects that, true to form, Trump will put his political fortunes ahead of the security interests of allies.

Similarly, it’s possible to see Iran’s offer of direct negotiations with Saudi Arabia on regional security as capitalising on a distracted US administration. The attacks on the Abqaiq and Khurais oil infrastructure have already brought home to the Saudis and their oil-dependent neighbours just how disastrously the US’s maximum-pressure policy could play out for them. The Saudis will be forced to reconsider their long-term relationship with the US if Trump is impeached or fatally wounded politically.

In Europe, the situation is possibly more complex. In its Brexit chaos, the United Kingdom is looking hopefully towards Trump for the quick finalisation of a free-trade agreement to offset the consequences of splitting from the EU. While there was little prospect of this happening in the case of a no-deal Brexit that resulted in a hard border in Ireland, the prospects of negotiating and then passing such an agreement through Congress while it’s preoccupied with impeachment is exceedingly dim.

For the new team taking over the reins of the European Union on 1 December, finding an accommodation quickly with the Trump administration on a number of issues will be important. If the impeachment process is drawn out or results in significant changes in the administration, engagement with the US will be difficult.

Speedy resolution of the issue by impeaching Trump and then seeing the Senate pass judgement on the indictment will not alleviate concerns abroad. The enmity between the White House and the congressional Democrats will be exacerbated and the legislative function almost certainly will become constipated. A cavalier dismissal of the charges by the Republican-controlled Senate would further cripple relations between Republicans and Democrats and restrict Trump’s ability to conduct foreign policy.

The steps to impeach Trump could unblock or reframe a number of strategic policy issues around the globe. Whether the results will be benign remains to be seen.