Published daily by the Lowy Institute

Autocrats Anonymous

The prevalence of the “adults in the room” justification left Democrats seething (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
The prevalence of the “adults in the room” justification left Democrats seething (Photo: Drew Angerer/Getty Images)
Published 15 Nov 2019 10:00   0 Comments

The filmmaker Martin Scorsese recently got into trouble for an off-the-cuff remark he made about the differences between Marvel superhero movies and cinema as an art form. Scorsese’s follow-up explanation of these differences provides some insight into why the Trump administration, as political drama, has been deeply unsatisfying until recently.

Scorsese explained that cinema is about revelation and characters:

… the complexity of people and their contradictory and sometimes paradoxical natures, the way they can hurt one another and love one another and suddenly come face to face with themselves.

Scorsese argued that Marvel movies lack “mystery, revelation or genuine emotional danger. Nothing is at risk.”

In Scorsese’s new film The Irishman Al Pacino’s portrayal of the darkness and light within Teamster leader Jimmy Hoffa invites the audience to struggle with their affection for him. This reminded me of the classic American political novel, All the King’s Men, in which readers are confronted with the personal and political corruption of a character inspired by the 1930s demagogue Huey Long of Louisiana.

Donald Trump, the demagogue in our current drama, is not necessarily all darkness but he is unchanging and therefore uninteresting. The scandals associated with this administration – including the phone call with Ukrainian President Zelensky that prompted impeachment – tend to follow a predictable script. The facts are rarely in dispute. By comparison, the Watergate investigation took years to determine what President Richard Nixon knew and when he knew it. With the current administration’s scandals, Trump reduces the tension almost immediately, clarifying and often amplifying the self-serving nature of his actions.

When Trump was elected, the Republican Party, with full awareness of Trump’s anti-democratic impulses, decided that they would stick together and ignore/manage his deficiencies in order to gain maximum political advantage from his presidency.

When Trump was elected, the Republican Party, with full awareness of Trump’s anti-democratic impulses, decided that they would stick together and ignore/manage his deficiencies in order to gain maximum political advantage from his presidency. So, Republicans largely remained silent as Trump fired the FBI director, publicly embraced dictators while criticising US intelligence and law enforcement, equated neo-Nazis with counterdemonstrators in Charlottesville, and caged asylum seekers.

A September 2018 opinion editorial in the New York Times, penned by a senior White House official, provided a clear articulation of the Republicans’ approach to Trump. The anonymous official described an internal resistance working within the administration to derail the President’s “misguided impulses”, and offered Americans reassurance that despite all the chaos in the Oval Office, “there are adults in the room.”

“Anonymous” appealed directly to establishment Republicans by linking Trump’s “amorality” and lack of “first principles” to his lack of affinity for “ideals long-espoused by conservatives: free minds, free markets, and free peoples”.

Trump accused the writer of treason. Members of Trump’s cabinet were tripping over each other to be the first to deny that they were involved. Republican Members of Congress publicly rushed to the President’s defence and decried the presence of a deep state. Democrats, out of power and seething with frustration over the prevalence of the “adults in the room” justification, called for Anonymous to come out publicly.

Bob Bauer, former White House Counsel to President Barack Obama, summarised the opinion of the mainstream legal community when he referred to this internal resistance as “a constitutionally irresponsible choice”. Bauer further highlighted that this approach “can only fuel or sustain, rather than contain or resolve, crises arising from a president’s anti-democratic impulses and actions.”

But the storm passed. With few exceptions, the people serving in the administration remained silent. The Mueller report fizzled out and once the Democrats won back the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi focused her caucus on producing progressive legislative policy.

Without the whistleblower report on Trump’s call with Zelensky we might still be plodding along in this uneventful storyline. The Democrats’ decision to launch an official impeachment inquiry effectively “pierced the veil” of the Trump White House, State Department, and Defense Department. Career public servants such as Ambassador Bill Taylor and Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Vindman have emerged as heroes for the Democrats.

Ambassador William B. Taylor (left) and Deputy Assistant Secretary for European and Eurasian Affairs George P. Kent arrive for testimony before the House Intelligence Committee on 13 November (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images) 

Further, the deposition transcripts that have been released by Congress offer a specific, tangible picture of the personal risk associated with working on foreign policy for this President. Among the political appointees drawn into advancing the off-the-books Ukraine policy led by Trump’s personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani we see angst and rationalisations and other mental gymnastics.

Consider former Ambassador Kurt Volker who served as special US envoy to Ukraine for its peace negotiations. Volker, who built his career in the public service, is implicated in the Giuliani scheme and yet appears to have been a sincere proponent of advancing the official US policy in Ukraine. In the transcripts of Volker and others you can see that there was a temptation to give a little in order to “stay in the room” and ultimately do what’s right for the country.

But it’s never going to be enough when you’re working for someone who has spent his life operating outside the boundaries. The senior Republican official who wrote the anonymous op-ed last year now has a book out in which he/she acknowledges:

I was wrong about the “quiet resistance” inside the Trump administration. Unelected bureaucrats and cabinet appointees were never going to steer Donald Trump in the right direction in the long run or refine his malignant management style. He is who he is.

The decline of US global leadership: Power without authority

Allies and friends of the US are in a bind (Photo: California EDD/Flickr)
Allies and friends of the US are in a bind (Photo: California EDD/Flickr)
Published 7 Oct 2019 07:00   0 Comments

The US House of Representatives’ inquiry into grounds for impeaching Donald Trump is yet another indication of the massive erosion of the President’s domestic authority. His authority as an international leader has similarly declined, not as a result of challenges by other international leaders but as a consequence of the President’s commentary and actions.

For power to enjoy legitimacy, authority is a necessary concomitant. The alignment of political authority with economic and military power enabled the pax Romana to endure for more than two centuries. It took more than 1300 years following the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180CE for Rome’s political authority to dissipate and for the eastern empire finally to fall.

As a large, rich, and massively armed power, but one that has forfeited its authority, the US risks locking itself into a three-way struggle with China and Russia that no one can win but everyone, including the allies and friends of the US, can lose.

The pax Americana arguably began in 1945 with total victory by the US and its allies in Europe and the Pacific. The groundbreaking work of US Secretaries of State Cordell Hull, George Marshall, and Dean Acheson garnered the authority – accorded by the international community rather than simply usurped by the US – that positioned the US as the dominant strategic power for 70 years.

President Harry Truman and Marshall were determined not to repeat the Harding administration’s repudiation of the League of Nations. Instead, they embarked upon the establishment of the United Nations. They understood that a rules-based order underpinned by the power of the US would provide the US with the authority that its aspiration to global leadership demanded. Australia’s John Curtin and Herbert Evatt were strong, but not uncritical, supporters of the US initiative.

Raw power supports the kind of coercive leadership exercised, for instance, by the Soviet Union over its Warsaw Pact “allies” and by China over its provinces and people (and so unsubtly displayed on 1 October 2019). Authority, on the other hand, enables the kind of moral leadership that the US has enjoyed as the substantiating power of the international rules-based order.

Notwithstanding a number of serious missteps – the removal of Iranian Prime Minister Mosaddegh in 1953, the Vietnam War from 1955 to 1975 (initiated by a reluctant Dwight Eisenhower but escalated by Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon), John F. Kennedy’s Bay of Pigs fiasco in 1961, and George W. Bush’s 2003 Iraq war – the alignment of authority with power has served to maintain the viability of an albeit less-than-perfect international rules-based order for more than seven decades.

Then along came Trump.

Within three years, Trump has exercised presidential power – the power of the US – in a manner that has eroded the authority and the legitimacy of America’s strategic dominance.

The speed with which the President has done that has been breathtaking. Impetuosity and recklessness always come at a price. But when that price is massive reputational damage to the US and an accelerating decline in the confidence of its traditional allies and friends, global stability and security suffer.

The President’s authority as an international leader has declined (Photo: White House/Flickr)

As Trump prosecutes an increasingly isolationist foreign and trade policy, and as “Make America Great Again” takes on unmistakable nationalist overtones, the network of US alliances declines in relevance – to both the US and to its allies.

But more significantly, the global network of agreements, arrangements, associations, groupings, and institutions that give expression to the international rules-based order also becomes increasingly irrelevant. The friends of the US are left to paddle their own canoes, fearing that competitive “patriotism” replaces cooperative “globalism” (whatever that is) as the rallying point for disruption.

And as a large, rich, and massively armed power, but one that has forfeited its authority, the US risks locking itself into a three-way struggle with China and Russia that no one can win but everyone, including the allies and friends of the US, can lose.

So the allies and friends of the US are in a bind. Significant but non-dominant powers build their prosperity and security when they collaborate, agreeing on shared goals, negotiating rules and observing them, and delivering the trade-offs that are an inevitable part of global harmony. But cooperating states need a leader, a role the US has played to great effect.

There are only two things that the allies and friends of the US can realistically do, and one of them is not simply to roll over and “go all the way with the USA”.

First, the liberal democracies must press upon the US Administration the need for it to stop dissipating its global authority, and to get back into the game of winning acceptance and support for its policies rather than leaving its allies and friends to endure the consequences. There are American conservatives, such as the former Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, who understand only too well the nexus between power and authority, and how that nexus differentiates the US from its competitors. And the Administration-in-waiting certainly gets it.

Second, the allies and friends of the US need to strengthen their own inter-relationships to ensure that, as a collective, they cannot be picked off one by one and left with a form of sovereignty and independence that is compromised at best and chimeric at worst.

Just how that is to be achieved is tricky. With Britain locked in a Brexit meltdown, France and Germany attempting to stare down resurgent nationalism, the rest of NATO uncertain of longer-term US intentions, and the Asian democracies experiencing a variety of pressures to restrict individual freedoms, it will be difficult to get attention and forge alignment.

But that’s the challenge. It’s what leaders with confidence, energy, and vision do.

Democrats and impeachment: A leap of faith

Democrats know that impeachment proceedings risk energising Trump’s political base (Photo: Ron Cogswell/Flickr)
Democrats know that impeachment proceedings risk energising Trump’s political base (Photo: Ron Cogswell/Flickr)
Published 3 Oct 2019 12:00   0 Comments

For 20 months, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi resisted calls for the impeachment of the President. The House Democratic leadership and many of its members adopted a defensive posture, anticipating that the impeachment inquiry itself, and the likely failure to reach a conviction in the Senate, would energize Donald Trump’s political base, endanger the Democratic majority in the House, and provide Trump with a second term.

On 9 September 2019, in the 21st month of Pelosi’s third term as Speaker, the Inspector General of the intelligence community notified Congress of a whistleblower complaint. On 17 September, the Inspector General informed Congress that the Justice Department had directed him to keep the substance of the complaint from Congress. Reputable news organisations had reported the existence of a whistleblower complaint in mid-August, and those reports linked the complaint to a call between Trump and newly elected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.

The key to Democrats pulling through this exercise without being punished electorally lies in the ability of the House to oversee an inquiry that is perceived by the public as legitimate and fair.

By the end of the third week in September, it was broadly understood that Trump had pressured the Ukrainian leader to investigate unfounded corruption charges related to Trump’s political rival Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Americans also learned that the administration withheld military assistance from Ukraine that had been appropriated by Congress in response to Russian aggression.

At 4pm on Tuesday, 24 September, Pelosi announced that the Democratic House would begin a formal impeachment inquiry into the President. The breakthrough came when both the nature of the allegation – national security – and the politics (i.e., the moderate Democrats Pelosi wanted to protect from electoral retribution) tipped in favour of impeachment. This major political shift occurred at 9pm the night before Pelosi announced the inquiry.

Seven freshman Democrats in swing districts who previously served in national security roles argued in a Washington Post op-ed that if the allegations are true, the President presents a clear threat to national security and must be held accountable through an impeachment inquiry. Implicit in their argument was the urgency around responding forcefully: if the President has been leveraging American power and influence to serve his own political interests, he must be constrained now.  

Following their election in 2018, these moderate legislators united in their disciplined focus on practical constituent concerns and refusal to talk about impeachment. Despite this commitment to avoid the partisan fray, Congresswoman Mikie Sherrill explained that the decision to support impeachment was not a difficult one for the group:

The fact that our President is trying to induce a foreign power to threaten our elections ­– I think that is a huge national security risk. The fact that a President is withholding support from a security partner that is trying to fight off Russia, which has presented multiple national security threats over the past several years … to have that aid not arrive in Ukraine as they are trying to fight that aggression. I just think it’s so incredibly offensive.

The compelling nature of this argument and the willingness of these more vulnerable members of Congress to make it persuaded Pelosi and almost all of the Democrats in the House of Representatives to support impeachment. The number of House members in favour assures that the articles of impeachment will move from the House to the Senate. However, beyond the Democratic caucus the events of last week did not radically change the politics of impeachment.

US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi resisted impechment calls for almost two years (Photo: Rod Lamkey/GU Politics/Flickr)

An impeachment inquiry remains a risky endeavour. The likelihood of an acquittal in Senate remains high. The likelihood that Trump’s base is energised by an impeachment inquiry also remains high. In the days following Pelosi’s announcement, there was some movement in the polls with a majority favouring impeachment for the first time, but no reason to feel confident that the shift will hold.

The key to Democrats pulling through this exercise without being punished electorally lies in the ability of the House to oversee an inquiry that is perceived by the public as legitimate and fair. This perception must extend beyond Democratic partisans to some independents and Republicans.

The allegations laid out in the whistleblower complaint are – compared to the Russia investigation – easy to understand, and arguably originate from a more credible set of sources (i.e., civil servants). However, the decision to impeach is a leap of faith, taking into account the extent to which Americans have grown increasingly polarised over the past 30 years.

In her 2018 history of the United States, the Harvard historian Jill Lepore details prior periods of intense polarization in American history (i.e., 1790s and 1850s), but points to the 1990s as the moment when “the nation started a long fall into an epistemological abyss … There was no truth, only innuendo, rumor, and bias.”

The Democrats argue that given their constitutional obligations, the newest allegation against the President has left them with no choice but to launch an impeachment inquiry. If we take them at their word, then this inquiry represents not only a leap of faith but an act of political courage, and maybe a way to pull back from the abyss.

Impeachment will stabilise US foreign policy

US President Donald Trump (Photo: White House/Flickr)
US President Donald Trump (Photo: White House/Flickr)
Published 2 Oct 2019 15:00   0 Comments

US President Donald Trump’s greatest impact will inevitably be felt in American domestic politics. He has dramatically changed the Republican Party and similarly radically changed expectations for the behaviour of the president. It is unclear if an impeachment effort can roll that back. Trump has likely permanently altered US politics.

But Trump has also affected US foreign policy, of course. And here there is large potential for an impeachment of Trump to stabilise US foreign policy ­­– specifically, to push it back towards its previous form. The reason is that Trump is nearly alone in the US foreign policy community in pursuing “disruption”, and Trump has no real alternative to the status quo to offer.

The result of this incoherence is not a worldwide shift towards populist nationalism in the relations among liberal states. Rather, it has bred a waiting game. US allies remain broadly committed to the international order.

Trump has induced chaos, but that seems to be its own reward for him. If Trump’s target is the liberal international order, he has offered no alternative to it. As realists and retrenchers have pointed out for years, Trump is not really one of them. It is not really clear what a Trump Doctrine might even be. Hence a removal of the president’s gleeful chaos-making will most likely bring a snap-back to previous US liberal internationalist commitments.

In the short-term, things may get worse. Trump will likely become more desperate as the Ukraine scandal accelerates. He may endorse a diversionary war with Iran or Venezuela, or, more likely, accept a lopsided deal with North Korea just for the sake of a foreign policy “win”. The latter might even net him the Nobel Prize he so desperately wants, a powerful public relations tool against impeachment.

Trump will also likely ramp up attacks on US allies as freeloaders during the impeachment investigation. This Trumpian favourite allows the president to construct zero-sum contests which he can easily win. US allies are often asymmetrically dependent on US security guarantees. For most of them, it is still cost-beneficial to spend more on defence or base-hosting than to force a breach with an unpredictable US president.

Also, US allies are inclined to see Trump, at this point, as a bizarre outlier or weird wrong turn in US foreign policy, one to be temporarily tolerated with a forced smile. For the moment, US friends are waiting out this strange limbo. Should Trump be elected to a second term, however, his presidency will seem more like a structural shift in US foreign policy thinking – towards a bullying unilateralism. Allies will likely start hedging in response, and Trump will find it harder to extort them. But for now, during the impeachment, Trump can likely rely on cheap foreign policy victories at the hands of grudging allies.

But as impeachment grinds on and Trump finds himself more and more boxed in, this foreign policy erraticism will likely temper. Team Trump will become obsessed with domestic politics – both the impeachment effort and the 2020 election – effectively ignoring everything else. Trump himself has already gone over-the-top, suggesting that his impeachment could ignite a civil war and that his opponents are treasonous. This will almost certainly worsen, and paradoxically as US politics becomes more toxic, its foreign relations will moderate, if only because Trump ignores foreign policy to focus on saving himself by any means necessary.

The real change, though, will be over the long run. The removal of Trump would suddenly reduce the most important instigator of international trouble among the democracies. Much ink has been spilled over the fragility of the liberal international order or the rules-based order, as if Trump were just an avatar of larger problems bringing it to its knees. Often Trump is lumped in with Brexit and various European populists to suggest there is a wave of rejection of liberalism sweeping the western order. This may be true, but the evidence is mixed at best.

Trump lost the popular vote. Without the Electoral College, a bizarre US constitutional artefact, the whole contemporary discussion of populism eroding liberalism would likely not have happened. Hillary Clinton was pretty clearly an internationalist, and bizarre US efforts to undercut institutions like the World Trade Organisation or the Universal Postal Union would not be happening under her presidency.

Similarly, Brexit passed by just a few percentage points and has so deeply riven British politics that it remains unclear it will ever happen. Andrew Sullivan recently pointed this out: for all the hype that Trump and Brexit were a watershed, they have actually changed very little in a permanent way. Trump’s chaos is just that. He is not actually replacing the liberal international order as much as stirring it up, adding more problems, and then walking away as it resets and tries to deal with new problems Trump has just added.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) and Secretary of the Treasury Steven Mnuchin. Trump’s foreign policy incoherence has bred a waiting game, not a worldwide shift (Photo: White House/Flickr)

Here at last is the real outcome of a Trump impeachment – a likely reset of liberal internationalism, rather than its overthrow. The presidency of the United States has become an enormously powerful office over the last several decades – the “imperial presidency”. As such, Trump wields inordinate influence. So his chaos-producing ways can plunge global institutions into disarray.

But Trump has neither (a) created an intellectual movement around his efforts which might give some meaning or coherence to foreign policy “Trumpism”, nor (b) put anything in the place of “globalism”. It is not clear if Trump has any real foreign policy convictions beyond tariffs. Worse, Trump seems to like “globalism” when it means foreigners investing in the US, foreign allies supporting his various sanctions regimes, or foreigners paying into his family hotels and global enterprises. Trump’s opposition to neoliberalism is paper-thin.

The result of this incoherence is not a worldwide shift towards populist nationalism in the relations among liberal states. Rather, it has bred a waiting game. US allies remain broadly committed to the international order. They are not defecting on trade deals, the WTO, climate change coordination, and so on. Nor is the US foreign policy community, which remains broadly supportive of forward US basing, trade deals, international institutions, and so on.

Even realists and retrenchers see value of regimes and rules. Hence if Trump is impeached, he will likely leave no foreign policy footprint behind – chaos to be sure, but not revolution in policy. Trump has not created a foreign policy Trumpism or a coalition in the West to support it. The most likely response then is a snap-back to the status quo ante.

Jumping at shadows: The great Aussie conspiracy to bring down Donald

Trump would have us believe agents from close American allies have been involved in treachery (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Trump would have us believe agents from close American allies have been involved in treachery (Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images)
Published 2 Oct 2019 14:00   0 Comments

It’s not just the phone ringing at the Lodge – Scott Morrison needs to keep an eye out for the postie, too. Because like Donald Trump before him, senior US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham plans to contact Australia, this time with a letter, to ask for cooperation.

“To find out,” as Graham puts it, “whether their intelligence services worked with our intelligence services improperly to open up a counter-intelligence investigation of Trump’s campaign”.

So that’s a new twist on 100 years of mateship.

Graham previewed his letter on Fox News on Tuesday, also flagging he’ll be writing to Italy and the United Kingdom with a similar request.

This really is an extraordinary allegation, even if Graham rehearses the political niceties of “I don’t know”, but there is no harm in asking the question, while pointing out that his counterparts from the Democrats made similar requests for cooperation from Ukraine when the Mueller investigation was underway.

But what is different in this case is any “out-of-control intelligence operation” that Graham alludes to – just asking the question, you understand – would involve three treaty-allies of the United States. Such an idea really is quite something.

And it’s not just Graham. Far more consequentially, Donald Trump also seems to believe a secret conspiracy was concocted, and that Australia, via Alexander Downer, was somehow involved. That’s why Trump rang Morrison to ask for help with an investigation of the origins of the Mueller inquiry. In doing so, the US President has displayed a fundamental lack of trust in one of the most substantive ties between Canberra and Washington, that of intelligence sharing. 

Not that Trump seems to see the issue, as he put it when standing alongside Morrison last month in Washington.

I’ve had conversations with many leaders. They’re always appropriate. I think Scott can tell you that.

Morrison is now under his own pressure to prove the point about just how appropriate, facing calls from Labor to release a transcript of the Trump telephone call.

There is nothing wrong with policy makers holding healthy scepticism about the value of material stamped “top secret”. But that’s not what is happening here.

All this leaves a torrid mess. I’ve a longer article in The Guardian today arguing Trump’s bizarre theorising will strain the intelligence-sharing relationship known as the Five Eyes arrangement, and should not be simply assimilated as part of resigned acceptance of a strange-new-world. There is nothing ordinary about this moment.

This is not to play an overused card that somehow the intelligence agencies deserve respect simply because of the work they do. There is nothing wrong with policy makers holding healthy scepticism about the value of material stamped “top secret”. But that’s not what is happening here. Instead, Trump, enabled by Graham and other supporters, would have people believe that agents from close American allies have been involved in treachery.

A little lesson in Aussie venacular might be just the right way for Scott Morrison to write back to the Senator. “Few roos loose in the top paddock” would be a good start.

An impeachment drama intrudes on Trump’s three-act foreign policy

Trump’s approach to foreign policy has been without strategy - and it was a national security issue that triggered impeachment proceedings (Photo: White House/Flickr)
Trump’s approach to foreign policy has been without strategy - and it was a national security issue that triggered impeachment proceedings (Photo: White House/Flickr)
Published 26 Sep 2019 05:00   0 Comments

Nearly three quarters of the way through Donald Trump’s first term, the Democrats have launched impeachment proceedings against the President. Given that this is likely to gin up his base and produce more of the chaos and controversy on which he thrives this decision is surprising. Of the many potential “high crimes and misdemeanours” which the Democrats could have chosen to pursue, it was a national security and foreign policy issue that drove them to this difficult decision.

Politically, it is very difficult to see the articles of impeachment being passed by the Senate, so Trump is unlikely to be removed. The risk for Democrats is that impeachment drama solidifies his support and strengthens his re-election campaign. Quite where it will end is unclear but that the investigation was triggered in the international policy sphere is not surprising given Trump’s approach to foreign policy and national security.

That approach has been without strategy. Quite what it is that the administration is trying to achieve over the longer run in most areas is entirely unclear, poorly resourced, and entirely lacking in a policy process. Yet even if both its ends and means have been unclear, one can identify three broad phases in Trump’s approach to foreign policy. Washington has moved from an initial period of somewhat surprising continuity with the past, through a dangerous period of hyper-aggressivity, and now appears to have entered a phase where deal-making looks to be the order of the day.

Deal-making looks to be the order of the day with re-election firmly in mind (Photo: White House/Flickr)

Few knew what to expect from Trump’s foreign policy in the early days of 2017. A man who promised to hire “the best people” seemed to be opting for a safe approach in his early months in office. He appointed relatively mainstream Republican figures to key roles, including Jim Mattis to Defense, HR McMaster as National Security Advisor, and Rex Tillerson at the State Department. There was no trade war or declaration of currency manipulation for China, many of Trump’s more reckless pronouncements about allies where quietly abandoned, and key policy commitments in Asia, the Middle East and Europe were reaffirmed. The orthodox wing of the Republican party had corralled the norm-busting President.

If the first phase of Trump policy was one of inertia, with no major changes in policy, an early precedent was being set: key appointments to the machinery of international policy were not being filled. Ambassadorships lay vacant for months, vital senior roles in the national security apparatus were empty or staffed by politically weak “acting” staff. The policy process was beginning to decay. On the surface, however, partners and allies could convince themselves everything was normal and US diplomats abroad earned their keep by reassuring the world to trust the US and ignore the tweets.

Now Trump can strike out on his own free to operate without the constraints of “experts” second guessing his instincts and with his re-election as his lodestar.

Trump switched off the policy autopilot and threatened North Korea with nuclear war barely seven months into his presidency. He walked away from the Iran agreement negotiated by Obama, ratcheting up economic and political pressure on Tehran, and ditched the Paris climate accord. In early 2018 the long-threatened trade war with China began with the announcement of the first tariffs on PRC-made goods.

This second “high-pressure” phase was notable not just for white hot rhetoric and a taste for spectacle-led policy but a growing trend of threats not being kept and a sense that the Trumpian bark lacked meaningful bite. Other countries began to recognise a pattern of escalation followed by an eventual retreat. Meanwhile the trend for keeping senior positions vacant or in acting roles continued.

The removal of John Bolton on 11 September 2019 appears to have given Trump what he evidently wanted all along: a decision-making environment in the West Wing devoid of contrary voices, in which the President’s priorities can be fully realised. Under these circumstances we have entered a third phase, what is likely to be the “deal-maker” period of the Trump presidency. Here Trump’s desire to present himself as a successful negotiator in time for the 2020 election looks likely to lead to an increased appetite for settling with North Korea and China and getting the US out of Afghanistan.

The earlier phases of policy were marked by the two main wings of Republican international policy trying to influence the president; both the mainstream and the neocons were ultimately unsuccessful. Now Trump can strike out on his own free to operate without the constraints of “experts” second guessing his instincts and with his re-election as his lodestar.

An unbound Trumpian foreign policy does have some potential positives. It increases the prospects of a resolution to the trade conflict with China and will make the make the conditions better for a marked improvement of the Korean Peninsula’s security circumstances. 

That said, those countries taking on the US know that Trump is fixated on re-election. They can take advantage of his domestic electoral need for diplomatic wins to improve their positions. This brings with it the risk that Trump will accept a bad bargain which he can spin for electoral purposes, but which undermines the US and its allies and partners.

Equally, there is the very strong longer-term prospect that a US that has lost credibility and is domestically constrained will lead to more confrontational and opportunistic behaviour from Russia, Iran, China, North Korea and others in the future. Equally, it was the Trumpian aspects of national security policy that has led to the launching of impeachment investigations.

Trump’s foreign policy, in his first term at least, has been a play in three acts, with the last likely to produce an approach to the world more in keeping with the President’s instincts than the conventions of Republican foreign policy. So far, he has undermined US prestige and weakened the country’s global influence. If, as seems likely, impeachment improves his electoral position, then he will be re-elected. That fourth act would fundamentally change America’s global role.