How Michael Cohen May Shake Up U.S. Foreign Policy

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- American politics has never really stopped at the water’s edge, regardless of the old adage. This being the case, the guilty plea of Michael Cohen — in which the president’s former lawyer implicated him in violations of campaign finance law and, even more seriously, an effort to defraud the American electorate — signals the onset of increased turbulence in not just U.S. politics but foreign policy as well.

This would hardly be the first time that a president’s political or legal travails have influenced foreign diplomacy and the debates surrounding it. In June and July 1974, the consequences of Watergate were rapidly catching up to Richard Nixon. The president used a series of overseas trips to Europe, the Middle East and the Soviet Union as a means of psychological escape from his worsening political predicament, and as a bid to persuade voters and Congress that he remained geopolitically indispensable.

A decade later, Ronald Reagan’s political advisers — although less so the president himself — similarly used the president’s path-breaking diplomacy with the Soviet Union to draw attention away from the Iran-Contra scandal.

And in August 1998, Bill Clinton was accused —unfairly — of launching cruise missile strikes on suspected al-Qaeda targets as a way of distracting the public from the Monica Lewinsky affair. In the subsequent months, a fear of appearing to “wag the dog” may actually have inhibited Clinton from more aggressively prosecuting the fight against Osama bin Laden.

For Donald Trump, scandal at home seems especially likely to influence U.S. conduct abroad. His political and legal troubles are growing by the day, as the list of advisers and associates convicted of felonies grows, as new information about Trump’s own alleged misconduct emerges, and as evidence regarding shady and potentially illegal ties between Russia and the people surrounding Trump mounts.

Admittedly, prediction is often a fool’s errand in dealing with a president whose policies can shift as quickly as his moods. Yet given what we know about Trump, there are at least four plausible ways in which U.S. policy could well be affected.

First, and probably most salubrious, Trump will continue to be handcuffed on the most perplexing issue of his foreign policy: Russia. Already, during the first 20 months of his presidency, the cloud of suspicion hanging over Trump’s relationship with Russia has made it politically impossible for him to seal the partnership with Putin he so badly wants.

Congress has inserted itself into U.S. diplomacy to a remarkable degree, passing strict sanctions that the president is essentially powerless to waive (although he has on occasion ignored them) and, just recently, prohibiting Trump from using appropriated funds to recognize Russia’s annexation of Crimea.

Trump may be stubborn enough to continue looking for opportunities to cooperate with the Kremlin on counterterrorism or other issues. But as the scrutiny concerning the president’s ties to Russia intensifies, so will congressional resistance to anything that looks like a Trump-Putin bargain.

Second, as Trump’s woes worsen, he will become ever more beholden to his base. The president knows that his diehard support among a solid bloc of Republican voters is what keeps GOP members of Congress behind him and the threat of impeachment at bay. So he will probably look for ways of energizing that base via foreign policy.

That could mean imposing more tariffs on key trading partners, whether rivals like China or allies like Japan, South Korea and the Europeans. It could also mean doubling down on a hardline immigration policy, even if it means shutting down the government to secure funding for Trump’s beloved border wall. Some of these moves — such as more tariffs — would annoy rather than invigorate many GOP members of Congress. Yet Trump is likely to calculate that so long as his base supports him, congressional Republicans will not revolt.

Third, if we’ve learned anything about Trump, we should expect his foreign policy to become even more erratic. This could be a matter of design: he is a master of changing the subject. Just weeks ago, he responded to a bad news cycle by taking to Twitter and first threatening Iranian leaders — in all caps — and then offering to meet with them.

It could also be a matter of nature. Trump has a well-earned reputation for capricious comments and actions — threatening war with Venezuela, blowing up summits with allies, rapidly pivoting from hostility to bonhomie with leaders such as China’s Xi Jinping. He has a penchant for lashing out when he feels mistreated or threatened.

One can easily imagine Trump becoming all the more unpredictable as his domestic predicament worsens, whether by escalating confrontations with allies or adversaries, or perhaps by trying to cut new and probably inadequately prepared deals — on nukes with Iran and North Korea, on trade with China — in hopes of generating positive headlines. One way or another, this presidency is probably about to become even more head-spinning.

Finally, there is a strong possibility that Trump will simply become more distracted. By all accounts, he finds it difficult to focus on foreign policy issues — thus his preference for memos running one page or less on even the most complex diplomatic situations. As the president’s political survival consumes more of his time and attention, foreign policy will probably consume less.

That might not be so bad. Reports indicate that Trump’s national security team functions better when the president is not engaged, particularly on issues, such as NATO, where Trump’s preferences run counter to those of his advisers. A disengaged president could lead to a form of benign neglect.

Or maybe not. Even a distracted president can have disruptive effects when he does take an interest in foreign policy. Moreover, the American system of foreign policy is simply not designed to function well absent sustained leadership by the commander-in-chief. Whether the issue is combating Russian information warfare and election meddling or squaring up to a growing geopolitical and geo-economic challenge from China or some crisis as yet foreseen, the departments and agencies of the U.S. national security establishment need constructive presidential direction if they are to act effectively and cohesively. Unfortunately, the prospect of an embattled Trump providing that direction seems ever more remote.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Hal Brands is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the Henry Kissinger Distinguished Professor at Johns Hopkins University's School of Advanced International Studies and a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments. His newest book is "American Grand Strategy in the Age of Trump." 

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