How Impeachment Has Shaped U.S. Foreign Policy

Historians who study impeachment tend to treat it as a domestic political affair: the bloody combat of partisan politics taken to its extreme, threatening the very survival of a presidency. But when the commander in chief must fight for his political life, the repercussions inevitably ripple around the world. In theory at least, foreign policy and domestic politics are supposed to occupy separate domains. In practice, presidents face tremendous pressure to use foreign policy to bolster their domestic political fortunes—never more so than when they face the threat of impeachment. U.S. adversaries can likewise be tempted to exploit a weakened American president to advance their regional ambitions or to subvert the international system. Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton both faced challenges from U.S. adversaries when their presidencies were on the line, and both sought flashy foreign policy achievements that would distract from their political woes.  

In this exhaustive three-part series, CNN presidential historian Timothy Naftali plumbs the Nixon and Clinton impeachment sagas for insight into the global dimensions of President Donald Trump’s current crisis. Naftali, who is an associate clinical professor of public service at New York University, draws on reams of recently declassified documents as well as memoirs, oral histories, and other archival materials to weave together the previously untold story of U.S. foreign policy during the last two impeachment crises. Part One examines the Watergate scandal, during which Nixon’s controversial policy of détente with the Soviet Union lay on the line. An addled president nonetheless delegated his foreign policy to an enormously empowered secretary of state, Henry Kissinger. Part Two delves into the 1998 impeachment, during which Clinton did the opposite, keeping a tight leash on his national security aides as they sought to broker an attention-grabbing peace deal in the Middle East. The lessons from these two historical episodes are manifold, and they help to explain how the world has reacted to Trump’s impeachment drama, which is explored in Part Three.

— The editors of Foreign Affairs