The Age of Impunity
And How to Fight It
Last week’s revelation that Donald Trump pressured Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden was explosive even by the standards of this scandal-prone administration. Had the president of the United States conditioned the restoration of military aid to Ukraine on his counterpart’s willingness to investigate a political rival—a quid pro quo that is all but explicit in the record of the Trump-Zelensky call released by the White House? Much has been made since of Trump’s demand as an abuse of presidential power. But it was also an abuse of American power—and that, in the long run, may do more lasting damage.
Power is the organizing principle of international politics. That endows the United States with an extraordinary ability to coerce others—that is, to make them follow its lead through a mix of inducements and penalties. As a result, Washington has had a unique ability to promote its political and economic agenda abroad.
A United States that transacts in arbitrary coercion will not hold on to its commanding position for long.
Being in this position is a privilege—one that allows Washington to shape a world favorable to American interests—but it is neither an entitlement nor a simple function of military and economic might. Because the United States has generally used its coercive power in a disciplined fashion (with a few notable exceptions), it has experienced less international resistance than one might expect. But partners and rivals alike will continue such cooperation with Washington only as long as it wields its authority with subtlety and quickly corrects its excesses. Trump, in his phone call with Zelensky, blatantly tossed that principle aside and used the United States’ power to advance his own political interests—a usurpation of foreign policy that has lasting consequences for the United States.
American power is already being challenged by rivals, such as China, that are keen to replace Washington as the one to write the rules of global conduct. A United States that transacts in the flagrant and arbitrary coercion of vulnerable partners will not hold on to its commanding position for long.
In international relations, power is influence over outcomes. It takes many forms, from military to diplomatic, and its distribution among states is always uneven, usually favoring the materially endowed. Whether in the Roman Empire, the Chinese tribute system, or the Concert of Europe, the strongest and richest states sat atop the system, set the terms of its governance, and reaped disproportionate benefits—including the power to induce, coax, and threaten less powerful actors to bend to the leader’s will.
Scholars have written reams about negative coercion—threats to use violence or political and economic punishments—but its converse, positive coercion, is no less powerful. By offering incentives such as defensive alliances, economic aid, or political support, and then threatening to withhold or remove those inducements, powerful states can create dependencies and radically change the behavior of their less potent counterparts. If the state in question is powerful enough, it need not even make explicit its threats and promises. Its weaker consorts require no explanation of the power differential—it inflects each and every one of their interactions, in every issue area and at every level of government.
The United States today is the coercive power par excellence. Although constrained by the Soviet Union, its power reached commanding heights after World War II. Its leadership in international institutions allowed Washington to coax others into supporting its global agenda. U.S. economic might and the dollar’s role as the global currency of choice meant that Washington could make its aid conditional and wield powerful economic sanctions. U.S. military force, meanwhile, deterred adversaries, and mutual defense treaties protected allies while keeping them dependent on their benefactor.
Potent by midcentury, the United States’ coercive capacity bristled beyond compare by the Cold War’s end. With no major rivals, and a bountiful supply of aid, sanctions, and defensive threats and promises, it had the unique capacity to condition its global political environment to its liking. Unlike an empire, however, the United States never employed a system of compulsive hierarchy. Friends and rivals allowed Washington to amass tremendous geopolitical currency and to spend it, because it generally did not abuse it, or did not do so excessively. As the scholar John Ikenberry has noted, the United States’ particular brand of hegemony allowed others to benefit as well, contributing to a relatively enlightened hierarchy that was positive-sum, even if the gains were unequally distributed in Washington’s favor.
Trump’s misuse of U.S. power is so brazen that historical analogs are few.
To be sure, U.S. partners have fretted when the United States has threatened to end alliances or to cancel aid. In cases of egregious American overreach, as in Vietnam or Iraq, their vocal objections eventually helped Washington correct its course. But even when friends and allies have rejected Washington’s coercive logic altogether, U.S. policymakers have been able to explain its actions as genuine efforts to achieve dearly held national or global aims. The United States’ global position has therefore been secured not by its military and economic might alone; because the system had positive benefits for others, too, they had reason to support it.
Without that consensus, the power to coerce begins to wane. If Washington’s forays are conspicuous and its aims perfidious, its partners will not abet the next undertaking. There will be no coordinated sanctions effort, no further multilateral coalition of the willing. As the power to coerce begins to wither, so too does the ability to shape foreign affairs.
Trump’s misuse of U.S. power to enlist Ukraine and, according to the latest reports, allies such as Australia in the pursuit of his personal political vendettas is so brazen that historical analogs are few. One must go back to candidate Richard Nixon’s attempts to sabotage the 1968 Paris peace talks to end the Vietnam War—a flagrant effort to win an election by prolonging the carnage in Southeast Asia. Later known as the “Chennault Affair,” this indiscretion went undiscovered until after Nixon’s death, owing in no small part to his studious efforts to bury it; his own secretary of state argued that the gambit was likely illegal. Trump’s foreign policy misappropriation, however, is even more dizzying in its scope. Nixon, after all, was merely a deceitful presidential candidate at the time; the coercive powers of the presidency itself are far greater.
The founders failed to envision a world in which the president himself was the national security threat.
It is difficult to overstate the extent to which the Trump administration contorted U.S. foreign policy to pressure Ukraine. A set of studious national security processes was subverted for personal gain, with the resources of the State Department, including the secretary of state himself, engaged to execute extortion and subsequently bury it. A veteran career ambassador was undermined, recalled, and threatened. Intelligence capacities tasked with protecting the nation’s closest-held national security secrets were used to execute multiple cover-ups. Inspired though they were, the founders failed to envision a world in which the president himself was the national security threat.
The excess lay as much in the target as in the means. The president could scarcely have chosen a more vulnerable partner to exploit than Zelensky. Invaded by Russia in 2014, Ukraine has watched its sovereignty being gnawed at during five years of low-level conflict; the prospect of its complete dismemberment looms. The military aid package that Trump suspended and then dangled in front of Zelensky constituted nearly seven percent of Kiev’s defense budget. Even if Trump had never cut off the aid, his well-known affinity for Russia and repeated suggestions that Moscow and Kiev “make a deal” would have been ominous enough to make Zelensky feel his fate was at risk. Against the backdrop of Ukraine’s abject and existential dependency on U.S. support, no mention of aid or request for a favor was remotely necessary on Trump’s part. Likewise, long-standing U.S. treaty allies that depend on Washington for their national security have little recourse when the U.S. attorney general personally makes investigatory requests intended to overturn the findings of their intelligence communities in an attempt to provide domestic political cover for Trump.
This misuse of U.S. power could not have come at a worse time. The global order that endowed Washington with such extraordinary privilege is changing fast. As China continues its rapid ascent, the United States’ relative power erodes and with it the ability to set the terms of the international system. On issues ranging from defense to technology, trade, climate policy, North Korea, and Iran, only the support of U.S. partners can now steady the balance of power. U.S. strategists and policymakers have sought to enlist that support by invoking China’s nefarious activities on the global stage—the debt-trap diplomacy of Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, the militarization of the South China Sea, and China’s chilling use of digital surveillance. They paint a picture of an increasingly shuttered world that runs on conspicuous Chinese coercion. This narrative bears more than some truth, and in it the United States is the only alternative or retort.
The president’s decision to put the full thrust of U.S. foreign policy behind the naked extortion of vulnerable states has consequences that cannot be adjudicated in the House or Senate. They are bigger than one corrupt chief executive or one tainted election. They are nothing less than the durability of American preeminence when it is already under historic duress. The subtle power to coerce is an outgrowth of the United States’ strength, but it is consensual and contingent. If this infraction goes unanswered or, worse, becomes de rigueur, less potent states will divest themselves of American power. Abject abuse will beget nullification. With a competitor in the wings, eager to write its own set of rules, it is a privilege that will not soon be restored.