In justifying their decision not to remove President Donald Trump from office, moderate Republican senators expressed their expectation that the impeachment process would encourage a chastised president to govern in a more rules-based, normalized manner. They couldn’t have guessed they would be proved wrong so quickly and dramatically.
Trump emerged from impeachment fists swinging, mobilizing his subordinates to act decisively against all those perceived to have wronged him. One example was the summary dismissal of State Department official Alexander Vindman, who was vilified by the pro-Trump media for his courageous appearance during the Congress investigation. He testified about how the US administration had pressured Ukraine’s president to open an investigation into entities associated with Trump’s political rivals. In recent days, Trump has used his Twitter feed to influence ongoing Justice Department investigations and declare himself to be America’s “chief law enforcement officer.”
Such actions have a chilling impact overseas, where the US traditionally has a normalizing influence for standards of good governance. What hope, then, for international pressure on states like the Philippines, Russia, Turkey, Egypt, Brazil, Israel and Hungary?
During his India trip last week, we were treated to Trump’s love-in with Prime Minister Narendra Modi. This coincided with India’s worst outbreak of religious violence in years — triggered by Modi’s Hindu supremacist policies, which undermine the citizenship rights of Muslims. Yet Modi is celebrated by a US administration that has taken a similarly cavalier approach to the rule of law.
This globe-straddling lawless environment is compounded by the neutering of international law and conflict resolution institutions. While China and Russia block UN Security Council actions, the Trump administration subverts international law by handing over hotly disputed Arab territories to Israel.
I see an ominous parallel to Trump’s hollowing-out of his administration in Britain’s civil service. Senior British officials largely blame the “poisonous, horrible atmosphere” across government on Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief hatchet man, Dominic Cummings. While the famously lethargic Johnson has been almost invisible since the December general election, Cummings has incurred hatred from across the political spectrum for waging a one-man guerrilla war against the principal departments of state.
Targets on Cummings’ “hit list” were reported to include the heads of the Foreign Office, the Treasury and the Home Office (Simon McDonald, Tom Scholar and Philip Rutnam, respectively) due to personal grudges or ideological differences over issues like Brexit. Rutnam was finally forced out on Saturday, when he announced he would sue the government for constructive dismissal due to the “vicious and orchestrated campaign” against him.
Governing institutions require perpetual modernization, but through considered, painstaking reforms — not with a sledgehammer.
Chancellor Sajid Javid was ousted in the latest Cabinet reshuffle after refusing to sack his entire advisory staff.
UK civil service appointments traditionally tend to be relatively independent of political influence, with officials remaining in their posts even during changes of the ruling party. While ministers (particularly in recent months) have come and gone with confusing rapidity, officials are expected to provide the necessary continuity.
Former officials expressed to me their horror at the prospect of moving toward a politicized US system, with “Stalinist purges” of officials not known to be staunch loyalists. Britain’s civil service risks losing its traditions of speaking truth to power and providing impartial advice on policy options. In the Johnson premiership — underpinned by Cummings’ reign of terror — the slavish loyalty of nonentities is valued over competency, experience and decency.
Governing institutions require perpetual modernization, but through considered, painstaking reforms — not with a sledgehammer. One can agree with elements of the policy agendas of Johnson or Trump, while feeling horrified at the havoc wreaked upon institutions to achieve their goals.
Johnson is again hinting at an economically ruinous no-deal Brexit as the next phase of EU trade negotiations loom, possibly as a route to sidestepping Europe-wide legislation on workers’ rights and food standards. Johnson’s reckless demand to end these highly complex talks by June — by which time they will hardly have got started — could have a colossal impact, given Britain’s dependence on Europe for more than 60 percent of its food exports and imports.
Everywhere we look, the world’s oldest democratic systems appear to have entered an age of senility, where established practices and safeguards are ignored or maliciously sabotaged at the behest of political and personal agendas. Climates of hyper-partisanship and pandemics of online conspiracy-mongering favor fringe agendas, populist xenophobes, and political mavericks. Across Europe, the proliferation of populism is having a disproportionate impact, with the resulting political fragmentation and polarization in states like Italy, Austria and Spain threatening to render some nations effectively ungovernable.
Thus, coronavirus isn’t the only highly contagious epidemic threatening civilization in 2020. Emergence from these populist dark ages may also be more traumatic and lengthy than people anticipate. US Democrats spent three years awaiting a charismatic, unifying figure who would win their candidacy and slay the Trump dragon. The farcically divisive Democratic primaries have dispelled this hope.
Considered and meticulously planned reform must always be preferred over the iconoclastic institutional vandalism of figures like Trump and Cummings or the self-serving constitutional rewrites of Vladimir Putin, Xi Jinping and Recep Tayyip Erdogan. Because, after years of global systems tearing themselves apart and firebrand populists doing their worst, there may be so little left of our rules-based political norms that simply resetting the clock may not be an option.
To prevent all this being swept away, citizens must stand up in defense of the rules-based systems that have enshrined our rights and freedoms, and provided more than 70 years of relative global peace, progress and prosperity.
Baria Alamuddin is an award-winning journalist and broadcaster in the Middle East and the UK. She is editor of the Media Services Syndicate and has interviewed numerous heads of state.