I was in a jostling conversation last week with a friend of mine who has worked in British politics for many years. We were trying to decide who had it worse: him with his Brexit or me with my (well, not mine!) Donald Trump. We both agreed that I had it crueler since his parliament actually stood up to its leader, and my -- let's call them issues -- were manifesting and multiplying mercilessly.
"What in the world is going on over there?" he questioned. I shot back, "No, you should have said, what in the world does the world think of us?"
Trump's train wreck of diplomacy with Ukraine has exemplified that the United States foreign policy, as a whole, has been under considerable strain for the last two and half years. It was astonishingly feckless prior to the whistleblower complaint filed last month. Trump and his bungling acolytes have been wreaking havoc on our allies since January 2017 while showering praise on our adversaries.
Trump gushes about love letters from his authoritarian crush in North Korea, and winks and nods at his prize papa, the pumped-up Putin, and he has simultaneously derided U.S. mainstays. He criticized former British Prime Minister Theresa May, sneered -- and shoved -- one of NATO's newest members, the Montenegrin prime minister, and called comments by the female Danish prime minister "nasty" (as is his wont with women) after she gobsmacked his Greenland aspirations.
How is this head-spinning behavior and the policies that the Trump administration haphazardly implements or jarringly pulls out of tolerated on the world stage? Will the United States be able to recover its ravaged reputation abroad?
This week two diplomats, the former Ukrainian U.S. Ambassador Marie Yovanovitch (who Trump unceremoniously dismissed) and current U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland (who is knee-deep in naughtiness), were scheduled to testify in front of three House committees investigating the whistleblower complaint; as of press time, Trump was blocking their testimony. I decided to reach out to an esteemed and endearing former ambassador to shed some light on the current state of U.S. perception around the world.
Rufus Gifford is the former U.S. Ambassador to Denmark under President Obama and the star of the award-winning Netflix docuseriesI Am the Ambassador; he's also gay. Given his strong experience in diplomacy and his connection to the Danish, I first asked him if he had any reaction to the Greenland no-go and Trump's nasty sneer.
"I happened to be in Denmark during that time," Gifford recalled. "The Danish queen had invited the president for a state visit, and in a temper tantrum about Greenland, he canceled a short time before. The Danes and Americans spent a lot of money for this visit, with months of planning. Whether its Trump or someone else, it's the American president, and that is big deal for any country.
"I noticed that the reaction to Trump not coming was met with a collective shrug and eyeroll by the Danes. Most of them really didn't want him to come in the first place. Trump's snub became a joke, and that was very sad," observed Gifford. "Six weeks later, I was in the country with President Obama, and I was walking down the streets of Denmark, and they were lined with American flags. It choked me up because, regardless of Trump's snub, the country still values the relationship it has with the U.S."
To Gifford, this scenario is a perfect example and metaphor about what has happened to the brand of the United States overseas. While it's taken a hit, America as a country is still respected.
"Particularly in Western Europe the American brand is taking a hit. For the last 75 years, since World War II, we have been the leader among our allies, with strong treaties, relationships and traditional alliances such as NATO. Then the Trump administration started to disrupt this, by criticizing NATO, and alarmingly and swiftly pulling out of the Paris climate treaty accord and the Iran Joint Plan of Action Nuclear agreement, a complete disruption to our, and our allies, foreign policies."
Gifford added that American foreign policy has been somewhat consistent through changes in presidential administrations. Regardless of who the incoming president's predecessor was, there was steadiness for procedure and reliability on the U.S. Until now.
"The U.S. president has been the undisputed leader of democracy in the world. This president's dogma and chaos, and his overtly political actions have diminished our standing significantly," explained Gifford. "Without exception, countries around the world have lost faith in the Trump administration and the American presidency and government. Now having said that, they have not lost faith in America. Our country, because of our history, still holds enormous sway."
Which might explain some of the reasoning, and reactions to Trump and his administration's recent, blatant political overtures to Australia, Italy, the U.K., and of course Ukraine. "The challenge for other countries is this. Because the attorney general and Rudy Giuliani have been empowered by an American president, our partner countries are inclined to meet with them and consider to do what they are told, because the request comes from the United States. Presidential asks are taken very seriously around the world and most certainly they were consequential to the newly elected president of Ukraine, despite the overtly political and illegal nature of the request and who was driving those requests," Gifford said.
"I find this entire Ukraine scandal very troubling, and one of the reasons is the involvement of Ambassador Sondland," pronounced Gifford. "First of all, Ukraine is not an E.U. member, so his role, to me, through this entire episode seems to be a political one. Why was he there in the first place? And with the White House and State Department blocking him from testifying in front of Congress this week, it's clear that they have something to hide.
"As an ambassador, I was confirmed by the Senate for a specific job, just like Sondland, and his work in the Ukraine has absolutely nothing to do with the job he was confirmed for. It's just bizarre. The guy, who was a hotelier before assuming this post, is attempting to overrun career foreign services officers. The only reason he's neck deep in Kiev is because he's a Trump loyalist and clearly not working through the proper diplomatic channels."
Gifford went on to say that career foreign services officers aren't buying Sondland and the administration's attempts to push Ukraine for an inquiry into Joe Biden and his son Hunter. Gifford feels that the vast majority of foreign service people have turned their backs on the requests. And the reason, according to Gifford, is that they are putting their country first. Ironically, the presidential push for an investigation is forcing Ukrainian officials to also consider putting American interests first in an unseemly way.
"This whole thing feels un-American. Everything about the U.S. power dynamic exists when we speak to every country in the world, and it most certainly was enormously felt in Ukraine," Gifford held. "We are the United States. When we ask for something, we expect something in return. Thus, everything we do with other countries is a quid pro quo -- everything, and every politician and political leader knows that. When the president makes a request, it's quid pro quo because of the encirclement of our power dynamic. They need us more than we need them. How do you think the Ukrainians are going to react? They are going to try and figure out a way to give us what we want. This particular kind of threatening ask is not what America represents."
Accordingly, Gifford thinks the whistleblowers who are coming forward, and this entire scandal and impeachment inquiry, will actually begin to restore the reputation of the United States.
"The U.S. constitution is one of the most brilliant documents ever written, and it is being severely tested now. The processes the constitution put in place are starting to work, so long as the whistleblower protections are not dismantled.," interpreted Gifford. "As this unfolds, our allies are watching closely. They understand our politics -- that while Trump was elected, Hillary Clinton received three million more votes, for example. They also understand our system of government, and while they are giving us the benefit of the doubt now, they have hope, like we do, that our system acts the way it was designed to do."
Since the treasure trove of information from the whistleblowers reports have come out, Gifford said that he remains surprisingly positive about the outcome. "I think the House will vote to impeach, and the Senate will probably not get the two-thirds needed to convict; however, if the vote in the Senate to impeach is a majority, over 50, that will send a message to the country and the rest of the world that guilt outweighed innocence and that impeachment was worth it."
Gifford, the eternal optimist, is remaining hopeful that the end result will be that our allies convince and remind America, and our congressional leaders, of who we are and what we mean in the world. Further, he added that most countries are waiting (albeit hopeful too?) for the clock to run out on this president before they can rely on the U.S. again.
"I don't think anyone sees the end game as a Pence presidency," Gifford said. "The abuse of power needs to be part of the conversation heading into the 2020 elections so that voters and our allies know how corrupt the administration is. In the meantime, our allies need to carefully remind us about how Trump has dragged the American brand through the mud. The erosion of global respect for the United States should matter to everyone in our country and around the world. And if we get an administration change in 2020, the next president will have a lot of work to do rebuilding a winning U.S. brand."