There is one genuinely strong argument for remaining a signatory to the Paris Accord on climate change, but it’s one that the accord’s advocates cannot make: The agreement simply doesn’t do anything. Instead, the agreement’s supporters are reduced to declaring Donald Trump’s decision everything from a “traitorous act of war” to a display of racism. Among the deluge of emotionally-charged remonstrations that followed Trump’s announcement, perhaps none are as unconvincing or brazenly hypocritical as the notion that the president has “crippled U.S. leadership” abroad.
“This will be the day that the United States resigned as the leader of the free world,” a distraught Fareed Zakaria insisted. Rutgers University professor Simon Reich asserted that posterity might come to regard June 1 as “the day that America’s global leadership ended.” “[T]he moment marks Trump’s decision to cede world leadership in the service of a different brand of American ideology,” ABC News analyst Rick Klein wrote.
More audaciously, the former administration jumped into the debate with unearned confidence, reprimanding Trump for abdicating America’s role in the world. “The rest of the world will watch in horror,” asserted former Deputy National Security Advisor and proud manipulator of willingly manipulable reporters, Ben Rhodes. “Much harder to bring nations like India along if the U.S. vacates its leadership position,” former Vice President Joe Biden added. Even Barack Obama lamented the “absence of American leadership” as the U.S. joins a “small handful of nations who reject the future.”
These are tough words from an administration that made a virtue of its discomfort with America’s geopolitical dominance. It was, after all, an unnamed Obama staffer who coined the doctrine of “leading from behind” when it came to pursuing humanitarian intervention over the skies of Libya in 2011. That was to be a European-led mission if only to seek some absolution for the sins of Bush-era unilateralism. Leadership, in that case, was described by Ben Rhodes as flogging “multilateral organizations and bilateral relationships.” Obama defined it as creating the space in which the rest of the world felt compelled to fill the void left by the global hegemon. In other words, true leadership is found only in refusing to lead. Obama let the global community, the Arab world, and the Europeans set the terms for that mission and quarrel among themselves when its objectives were not met. Today, Libya is a failed state.
Obama never accepted America’s role as the preeminent global power. The rationale for his Iran rapprochement was to create a Shiite power center that could counter the region’s dominant Sunni-majority states, leaving behind a balance that would allow the U.S. to extricate itself from the region. Obama sought to adjust the American public to the idea of withdrawal from Afghanistan on negotiated terms with the Taliban. He allowed Syria to fester and Russia to fill the vacuum left by his retreat from the global stage.
Obama was always ill at ease with the criticism of his reluctance to see American military force as a key instrument of U.S. policymaking, but his skepticism did more to demonstrate the centrality of American military might than any muscle flexing could have.
The hand-wringers at home who mourned the death of the American Century on Thursday were joined by hand-wringers abroad. Chinese state media called Trump’s decision “reckless and foolish.” Some may wonder why a strategic competitor with the United States would object to its decision to surrender global influence voluntarily, but that’s a digression.
Trump’s move equally vexes America’s allies. The Americans are “turning their backs on the wisdom of humanity,” said the self-described “angry” Japanese environment minister. Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, issued a veiled threat against the United States on Thursday when he said that the EU’s relationship with China is becoming “more and more important” as a result of Trump’s policies. “I don’t think it’s good that there is a picture evolving where, in the future, we would do more with China than with the United States,” Juncker confessed. Nevertheless, he vowed to amputate his own nose anyway.
America may be ceding undeserved leverage to China but it will be some time before the United States loses its global leadership role. The United States remains the nation most capable of force projection abroad. It has more basing agreements, forward-deployed military, and mission-ready blue-water naval assets than any other country on earth, and vastly more than any other aspiring competitor. That fact alone ensures America’s prohibitive global dominance will continue in the absence of a kinetic military challenge by another state. All the inked agreements on earth could be torn to shreds, and America would maintain that dominance, no matter how visibly irritated that makes so-called “soft power” advocates.
Moreover, there is no substitute for access to the American market or the global reserve currency, the U.S. Dollar. Even as it became clear the U.S. would withdraw from the Paris Accord, a seething Juncker told his European compatriots that his Commission would do its best to block bilateral trade agreements between EU member states and the U.S. The implied alternative, then, is the formation of an EU-U.S. free trade agreement. That confirms Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross’s assertion this week that the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) free trade agreement remains a viable option. This is not what marginalization looks like.
Even on the matter of environmental regulation, the United States has hardly broken with tradition. The United States failed to ratify the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and did not fully implement the framework it agreed to at the 2012 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. And yet, somehow, America’s prohibitive military, diplomatic, and commercial dominance persisted. The Paris agreement was only the most recent accord that set no legally binding limitations on emissions, thus ensuring the giddy participation of virtually every nation on the planet. As of 2012, the UN Environment Programme was complaining of “treaty congestion.” World leaders are happy to affix their signatures to toothless climate pacts; more than 500 environmental treaties were crafted in the last 50 years. The problem isn’t the number of treaties but the fact that real polluters rarely observe them.
Trump supporters inclined to view this decision through the prism of politics have found all the justification they need in the agony of Democrats, but negative partisanship does not suffice for logic. The displays of liberal tribal affinity that take the form of apocalyptic climate predictions are as off-putting to the uninitiated as are the right’s assertions that a cultural “civil war” is upon us. In the wake of Trump’s decision to abandon the Paris Accord, however, the Democratic Party has demonstrated that it is committed to a warped idea of what constitutes American power and authority. By contrast, and despite all his myriad faults, Donald Trump has not.