By Alan W. Dowd
What was supposed to be a routine congratulatory phone call between America’s president and a newly elected foreign leader has mushroomed into a political scandal and constitutional showdown. Others can more effectively discuss the political and legal implications of President Donald Trump’s discussions with—and requests of—President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine. What’s been overshadowed amidst all the talk of quid pro quos and impeachment—and understandably so, given the stakes—are the foreign policy, security, and even moral implications of this episode.
Trump began his July phone call with Zelensky by reminding his young counterpart that “we do a lot for Ukraine…the United States has been very, very good to Ukraine.”
Indeed, the US has sent more than $1 billion to Kyiv since Russia’s 2014 invasion of the nascent democracy. In the summer of 2019, another $400 million in military aid was headed for Ukraine, but Trump put a hold on that tranche a week before his call with Zelensky.
During that call, after his not-so-subtle reminder that “we do a lot for Ukraine,” Trump told the newly minted leader of a nation literally fighting for its life—a nation that was invaded without cause and violated without remorse, was occupied by Russian troops and Russian-backed militia, and has lost 13,000 lives (a quarter of them civilians) in a war of aggression—that he wants something in return: “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution and a lot of people want to find out about that, so whatever you can do with the attorney general would be great. Biden went around bragging that he stopped the prosecution so if you can look into it.”
Zelensky’s response: “The next prosecutor-general will be 100 percent my person, my candidate, who will be approved, by the parliament and will start as a new prosecutor in September. He or she will look into the situation.”
With his country in desperate need of help, what else could Zelensky say or do? As Ambassador William Taylor explained in his statement to the committee investigating this sad and saddening episode, “Ukraine is…under armed attack from Russia,” and “the security assistance we provide is crucial to Ukraine’s defense against Russian aggression.”
Without question, presidents often make American aid contingent on the words, deeds, and policies of the aid recipients. That’s one of the main reasons the US deploys foreign aid, though it is not the only reason. American presidents—and the nation they serve—also deliver aid to nations in need because the American people care about the world around them. They recognize that helping other nations defend themselves, feed their people, and stabilize their societies ultimately serves America’s interests. And at some level, the American people have internalized and accepted the biblical admonishment that “to whom much is given, much is expected.”
What’s different about the conditions Trump seems to have placed on this aid package to Ukraine is that they were tied not to the national interest or humanitarian concerns, but rather to Trump’s personal political interest.
I used the words “sad” and “saddening” partly because of what Ukraine has been subjected to, and partly because of what this episode says about the United States.
Taylor’s testimony paints the picture of a Ukrainian government scrambling to do whatever it takes and willing to do whatever is asked—TV interviews, official public statements, internal investigations—in order to secure the weapons needed to defend itself. It’s sad that America would force a desperate nation to do such things at such a moment—sadder still to think an American president would hold back promised military aid to extract from a new leader and his small, embattled nation a pledge to investigate a political opponent.
Moreover, it’s saddening to think America is acting just like any other nation with the power to use and move around smaller, weaker countries like pawns on a chess board—and then discard them when they are no longer needed.
This will undermine how U.S. allies and partners interact with Washington. If the White House releases transcripts of phone calls with foreign leaders so shortsightedly and thoughtlessly, how can we expect them to talk candidly the next time America’s president calls? And what of the U.S.-Ukraine relationship? To be sure, it is something less than an alliance—Ukraine is not a member of NATO—but Kiev and Washington had built a partnership in the years since the Russian invasion of Ukraine. That partnership, founded on strong bipartisan support in Congress for military-security assistance for Ukraine, was helping Ukraine gravitate toward the West; resist Russian aggression; and maintain its identity and independence from Russia. But in the wake the Trump-Zelensky call, Ukraine runs the risk, through no fault of its own, of becoming a partisan issue in Washington—and the United States has surely damaged its image and standing in Kiev.
All of this is of a piece with Trump’s transactional approach to foreign policy. We glimpsed it early on with his jarring suggestion that he would defend NATO members under attack—an ironclad requirement of the North Atlantic Treaty—only if they “fulfilled their obligations to us.” We saw evidence of it when his secret talks with the Taliban were exposed to the light—talks that left out our partners in Afghanistan’s democratic government. And it was glaringly obvious in his abrupt decision to leave the Syrian Democratic Forces and the Kurdish minority they defend to the tender mercies of Turkey’s army.
No, Trump is not the first president to put conditions on aid to a foreign land, but he may be the first to do so in order to score petty political points.
Trump is not the first president to be transactional, but he may be the first to be transactional and get nothing in the transaction. Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has flouted all democratic norms, kicked America and NATO in the teeth, and cozied up to Moscow; yet he got a green light to carve out a buffer zone in northern Syria. Kim Jong-un got a presidential photo-op and propaganda coup—and kept his nukes and kept testing missiles.
Trump is not the first president to demand that allies do more, but he is certainly the first to threaten to pull out of NATO.
Trump is not the first president to make deals with strongmen. That’s part of statecraft and keeping the peace in a broken world. But he may be the first to welcome the praise of strongmen and to take their word over his own cabinet officials.
As people of faith and Americans (in that order) we should care about this.
Paul describes us as “Christ’s ambassadors.” Yes, that means we live in a foreign land. But to extend Paul’s metaphor, it also means this country is our diplomatic posting. This piece of earth matters enough to heaven that God placed us here to represent him as best we can, share our blessings with those in need, do justice and show mercy, defend the defenseless and innocent, and help our temporary home—this “City of Man”—learn the ways of our eternal home—the “City of God.”
In this regard, there has always been—and always will be—a tension for America between conducting itself as a great power and striving to be a good neighbor. Some have argued that America can be one or the other—but not both. I tend to disagree with that either-or choice. Like Eisenhower and Reagan, I believe America is great because she is good. But if forced to choose—if being a great power means that America must be purely transactional, that America must engage in cut-throat realpolitik, that values are tossed aside—I would rather she be good than great.