In a June 15th article, Virginia Review of Politics staff writer, Adam Kimelman, downplays the negative impact of President Trump withdrawing the United States from the Paris Climate Accords. Kimelman argues that our expectations for the agreement far outweigh its potential to tackle the issue of climate change. While it is important to assess the limitations of any agreement or piece of legislation, the analysis should not have stopped there. We set out here to consider what Kimelman does not: the significant ramifications for American global power and leadership posed by Trump’s withdrawal. Specifically, the departure from Paris has delivered a striking blow to American credibility and reliability; it saps, rather than enhances, American power in the international arena.
In his article, Kimelman quickly dismisses concerns about diplomatic consequences by saying that the Trump Administration has survived international blowback over other mishaps. He asks, if Trump can get away with giving away classified code-word information to the Russian Foreign Minister, who says he can’t get away with pulling out of the Paris Agreement? This argument is neither a good comparison nor does it hold up under scrutiny. It is irresponsible to equate pulling out of the worldwide Paris Agreement to a gaffe that harms one of the US’s bilateral relationships. While upholding key bilateral alliances (such as the US-Israel one) is important, the impacts of withdrawing from a global multilateral commitment are much more far-ranging. The quality of bilateral relationships is more prone to ebbs and flows as administrations come and go. How the US conducts itself towards the world at large, on the other hand, has a more lasting effect on its power and credibility. Global actors expect sustained consistency. If the United States does not show consistency in its propagation of multilateralism, then the world will look elsewhere for leadership.
Even if President Trump does attempt to move toward a new deal (which seems unlikely), the rest of the world will not drop everything to join a new Trump-spearheaded agreement. Trump’s controversial image aside, this is due to the fundamental property of tit-for-tat in international relations. When states make bilateral or multilateral arrangements, they agree to cooperate over a period of time to achieve the best possible outcome for all involved. When one state defects, the other states may go forward without the defector, punish it, or distance themselves from the defector until it has again proved itself to be a reliable cooperator. The latter is most applicable in this situation. The US defected on a multilateral arrangement whereby every state in the world other than Nicaragua and Syria agreed to cooperate. Reestablishing the US’s credibility as a leader — or even partner — on climate change will not be easy nor will it happen overnight. As Daniel Drezner of The Washington Post and Fletcher School of Diplomacy and Law has argued, the Paris withdrawal has even made it politically rewarding for leaders of other industrialized democracies to paint the US as the bad guy, and advocate for their own country’s leadership on the global stage. This is most evident with Macron in France and Merkel in Germany, both of whom have appealed to their respective populaces through sharp criticism of Trump and what his administration stands for. Rather than place the US in a position of greater leverage to create a new agreement, this move reduces the trustworthiness of the US and consequently its viability as a partner.
Furthermore, withdrawal woefully neglects the nuances of how power has developed internationally in the last thirty years. As observed over the years by Joseph Nye, preeminent political scientist and former Dean of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government, the most pressing recent challenges facing countries around the globe have been transnational by nature: terrorism, climate change, disease, cybercrime, increasing levels of migration, and the like. For Nye, power has become a positive sum game. This is not the old Westphalian order during which global power was simply a matter of who had the biggest and most advanced military or the highest growth rate and share of trade. These things are still important, but increasingly, power is a matter of who can instill hope and affect change on the international stage, through building durable coalitions and creating multilateral arrangements for addressing these border-transcending issues. Abdication of US leadership on these issues — at a time of tremendous uncertainty and when populations increasingly have turned inward — is disastrous for US power. Whether or not the Paris Agreement is the best deal the US could have reached is not a productive counterfactual. The fact of the matter is that withdrawal prohibits the US government from leading the way on climate change in the near future.
Moreover, soft power simply cannot be underestimated. Political scientist and journalist, Fareed Zakaria, makes an important assertion in his book, The Post-American World: that international power today is as much about power over ideas, agendas, and models of governance and development as it is anything else. While Kimelman appropriately points to the important role individuals and private enterprise can play in mitigating climate change, the government must create a model that states around the world want to follow. Perceptions of the US model of government and economy have taken a critical hit in the 21st century. The widely unpopular Iraq War, partisan gridlock, and the failure of the US economy in 2007-8 decreased the rest of the world’s confidence in the US model of politics and development. Regardless of any shortcomings, departure from the Paris Agreement deprives us of what was a key opportunity to improve international faith in the US as a partner and a role model.
Under the Trump administration, we are seeing a foreign policy that treats power in a narrow, zero-sum capacity. From chastising NATO allies for not contributing enough money, to withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, the Trump administration is showing that if a commitment inhibits the US in any way, the US will treat it with profound skepticism, if not oppose it. It is not just President Trump who is espousing this orientation. In their op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn attempt to defend “America First,” but instead come across as contradictory by declaring Trump’s intent to both “compete for advantage” and “foster cooperation.” Further, they emphasize Trump’s belief that the world “is not a global community” but an arena for competition. As Drezner explains, this hyperrealism runs against all semblances of American foreign policy in the last 70 years. The US did not always view the world as a playground for it to simply dictate terms (this isn't possible), but a place where mechanisms of cooperation could be institutionally safeguarded. When the US spearheaded new institutions, treaties, and other rule-making arrangements, it was an investment for the long term, for the purpose of collective security and prosperity. Under “America First,” Trump has instead sought to please his base through short-term appeals to those who misattribute their struggles to a sense that America is “losing” in the global arena. As we see here, inflated or false perceptions of decline can have the unfortunate effect of leading to policies that inadvertently accelerate a state’s decline.
Withdrawal from Paris provides further evidence for several intrinsic characteristics of the Trump foreign policy: a lack of coherent grand strategy, careless retrenchment, and a “crude” realism. Grand strategy refers to the presence of a coherent national goal to which the state aspires through utilizing economic, military, political, moral, and cultural means. R.D. Hooker Jr. of the National Defense University states that grand strategy, or the presence of a coherent one, “means that what the state does matters more than what the state says.” A state could be a vocal advocate of democracy and freedom, but unless it is actually acting to strengthen democracy and freedom both abroad and domestically, promoting democracy and freedom does not constitute a grand strategy. For instance, Russia’s constitution declares it a democratic state dedicated to republicanism and rule of law — yet we don’t see anyone lauding Russia for its grand commitment to democratic principles. By withdrawing from Paris, Trump further demonstrated that the US does not, in fact, have a coherent grand strategy. Former three-term House of Representatives member and current member of the Council on Foreign Relations Mark Kennedy recently noted how the Trump administration is playing in the international arena like a novice, while Russia and China are engaging the world with a more complex strategic compass. Our government’s ability to credibly commit to mitigating climate change took a major hit with Trump’s withdrawal. It has only intensified a growing international sense that the US is a noncommittal, self-interested egoist.
To be fair to the current administration, scholars of international relations have for some time now been observing critical challenges for US power and leadership in the global arena. In 2008, Zakaria coined the phrase “post-American world” to describe a world in which there is a “rise of the rest” — referring to emerging markets like India, Brazil, and China who are becoming stronger, wealthier and more capable of challenging US leadership on a regional level. In 2012, political scientists Ian Bremmer and David Gordon coined the phrase “G-Zero World” to describe a world in which the US was increasingly reluctant to propel the international agenda and provide global public goods like it did in the post-World War II order. Bremmer has since justifiably observed that globalization is continuing, but Americanization is not. In his recent book, A World in Disarray, Richard Haass, President of the Council on Foreign Relations, illustrates a world in which the post-World War II “global operating system,” led by the US, has run its course. This means American leadership is needed now more than ever to adapt the order it created after World War II in response to 21st century challenges.
The reality is, however, that although scholars like Haass, Bremmer, Zakaria, and Nye all saw various problems with how the US was operating before the Trump presidency, their assessments of the US were neither deterministic nor fatalistic. All discussed at length ways the US could adapt its leadership moving forward to the 21st century state of affairs, maintain its international leadership, and remain at the forefront of global power. In the early months of the Trump presidency, these recommendations have fallen on deaf ears.
Haass warns that if the US gives the rest of the world reason to doubt its reliability and commitment, one of two things will happen. First, countries may “take matters into their own hands” that they otherwise would look to the US to lead the way on. This inevitably results in suboptimal outcomes for the US, as countries follow their own priorities and visions without the US having set the agenda. Second, countries may align themselves with other powerful states rather than with the US. Outcry from around the world about Trump’s departure from Paris demonstrates clear evidence that the US is doing exactly what Haass warned against. For one, the US was universally panned for the decision. What’s more, as predicted by Haass, the European Union and China quickly announced they would be “joining forces to forge ahead … and accelerate the global transition to clean energy.” The dangers of leading the rest of the world to question the US’s reliability as a partner and a leader cannot be overstated. Throwing away opportunities for global leadership when much of the world still needs it is a self-defeating strategy.
The more the Trump Administration advances its intensely transactional, unreliable foreign policy, the less likely the US will be able to preserve its global leadership in the future as it faces the inevitable tests of great power decline. The careless retrenchment and hyperrealism characteristic to “America First” fail to heed the decades-old warnings of scholars about the evolving nature of US leadership. Failing to take into account the full diplomatic repercussions for decisions like the Paris withdrawal does a disservice to our understanding of where we are, and where we need to go to remain great.
Liam Kraft is a rising fourth-year in the College of Arts and Sciences, studying Foreign Affairs and Economics.
William Truban is a graduate of the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy Class of 2017.