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The Usurpation of U.S. Foreign Policy

How the Trump-Zelensky Call Corrodes American Power

Trump at Joint Base Andrews in Maryland, September 2019 Doug Mills / The New York Times / ​Redux

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

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