In the case of Ukraine now involving President Donald Trump, the main focus of attention is of course the political impact at home. But the collateral damage of Trump's actions and the Democrats' impeachment inquiry into them extends far more. In particular, it is likely to have a toxic effect on US diplomacy in a number of ways.
Following a whistleblower's warning, the president faces charges that he exerted pressure on Ukraine to find filth in Joe Biden, until recently the clear Democratic candidate for next year's presidential election. On September 25, the White House released a partial account of a July telephone call between Trump and the newly elected Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky. In it, Trump asked Ukraine to investigate Biden's son Hunter, who was on the board of a Ukrainian oil company at the time when Biden was vice president. Days before the call, Trump suspended military aid to Ukraine that had been ordered by Congress.
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Obviously, the scandal is disturbing to Ukraine. His negotiations with the United States will now be seen through the prism of the talk between presidents and Zelensky's unhappy flattery. ("You're a great teacher to us," says Zelensky, a former comedian. "Yes, you're absolutely right. Not only 100% but actually 1,000%.") Suspicion will hover over any new initiative among the two countries, including diplomatic efforts for an agreement with Russia to end the war in eastern Ukraine. State Department Special Envoy to Ukraine, Kurt Volker, said in the whistleblower's account that advised Zelensky on how to "navigate" Trump's demands, resigned on September 27. Zelensky's critical remarks about French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel may also persist.
America's own relationship with Germany has already been assaulted under Trump. Now it has suffered a new blow. In his phone call with Zelensky, Trump speaks ill of Mrs. Merkel and the Europeans more broadly: "Germany does almost nothing for you," says Trump. “When I was talking to Angela Merkel, she talks about Ukraine, but she does nothing. Many European countries are the same way. ”The US has provided $ 1.5 billion in military aid to Ukraine since 2014. Germany's support for Ukraine was worth € 1.2 billion ($ 1.3 billion), and that from the European Union was $ 1, 3 billion. to € 15 billion ($ 16.4 billion). Bild, a mass-circulation German tabloid, commented that relations between Berlin and Washington "have finally reached their low point."
More countries can be caught in the case. The complainant suggested that the transcript of the Zelensky connection was not the only one to be stored in a system normally reserved for highly classified information, even if it contained "nothing remotely sensitive from a national security point of view". Adam Schiff, chairman of the House intelligence committee, said Democrats would push for details of Trump's talks with other leaders, including Vladimir Putin, Russia's president. Russia, through a Kremlin spokesman, has warned against any transcription of Putin's talks with Trump, which has been made public. In the past, the US president has aroused suspicions, apparently striving to hide details of his discussions with Putin from his own senior officials, even by removing the notes made by his interpreter. CNN reported that the White House has also made unusual efforts to limit transcription access to a link with Saudi Arabia's powerful Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman. What started with Ukraine can quickly drag on into some of America's most sensitive relationships.
For leaders and diplomats everywhere, the drama is a reminder, once again, of the increased risk in the digital age that what they assume as private communication will eventually become public. In theory, the effect on diplomacy can be daunting. In July, a British newspaper, the Mail on Sunday, revealed critical assessments of Trump in the dispatches of Sir Kim (now Lord) Darroch, Britain's ambassador to Washington; Trump responded by calling him "crazy" and "pompous fool." Frozen by the Trump government, the ambassador resigned. William Hague, a former British foreign secretary, commented that if diplomats were removed from office whenever their communications became public, "you would never have an honest report from any ambassador in the world."
True, international diplomacy survived the massive release nine years ago of more than a quarter of a million diplomatic telegrams provided by Edward Snowden to Wikileaks. In 2017 leaked transcripts of Trump's conversations with the then leaders of Mexico and Australia. This produced some voyeuristic excitement, but no lasting damage. For diplomats and political leaders, however, every new high-level incident should add an extra hint of paranoia.
As for the US diplomatic corps, which has been severely pressured under Trump's presidency, it faces other problems. Mike Pompeo, secretary of state, must now respond to a summons from Congress Democrats demanding documents. Other senior diplomats will no doubt be taken to House committees that investigate impeachment.
In New York last week, Trump was recorded telling a meeting of US mission diplomats in the country that those who provided information to the complainant on the issue in Ukraine were like "spies" and that the United States once had a way to deal with this "betrayal" – which sounded to some as witness intimidation. This sets a tone of revenge and suspicion for US diplomats, whose morale Pompeo sought to boost a year ago by speaking of the "arrogance department." A witch hunt could turn it into a daggers department.