U.S. Exit of Paris Agreement Means More Trouble for the Liberal World Order
President Trump’s rejection of the Paris Climate Agreement amounts to another repudiation of the U.S.-led liberal world order. The arguments that the agreement somehow bound the United States to rules that would damage our economy are specious — U.S. climate and energy policies are already in the process of being changed — and the United States would not cede any sovereignty by remaining in the accord. Rather, this decision is further evidence that Trump is indifferent (at best) to the global multilateral framework that has served as the basis of U.S. leadership and prosperity for decades. It is consistent with his decision to jettison the Trans-Pacific Partnership, his proposed massive budget cuts to the State Department and USAID, and the disturbing “America First” op-ed by National Security Advisor McMaster and National Economic Council Director Cohn depicting the world as a bleak competitive venue where values are divorced from and take a back seat to national interests. This is all very corrosive to a rules-based international order and accelerates the arrival of Ian Bremmer’s G-Zero World of a leadership vacuum where it is every nation for itself. That is a recipe for economic turmoil and heightened risk of armed conflict, clearly not in the U.S. interest.
The president’s decision on the Paris Agreement will not change key dynamics driving the U.S. climate agenda such as the role of the states, cities, and the private sector. If, in addition, Michael Bloomberg assumes the mantle of shadow U.S. climate change guru, which seems quite possible, then perhaps much of the international agenda can move forward with robust U.S. participation. However, it was U.S. leadership, in particular from President Obama, that brought other countries on board with significant climate pledges in the lead up to Paris, and without presidential engagement there is a greater risk that other countries will also fail to follow through on those commitments. Indeed, the Paris Agreement is an intriguing experiment in a new kind of governance framework for dealing with global challenges based on a bottom-up approach of national pledges and peer pressure that may now be in doubt. The climate agenda also was one area where the United States and China worked together well — it would be a shame to lose that pillar of a generally fraught relationship.
There is a certain amount of hysteria among environmental activists about Trump’s decision that hopefully will prove unjustified. But that panic can be excused given the president’s remarks justifying his decision to pull out of the agreement that were full of misstatements and disingenuous claims. One cannot listen to the president and come away thinking that he really cares about the climate.
Some argue that the true underpinning of the global order is U.S. hard power that Trump intends to beef up further. So a few dings to the soft power side of the equation will not be consequential — the United States can still impose its will when necessary, and for the common good. Hard power, however, cannot compensate for a U.S. retreat on multilateral engagement based on soft power, of which Trump’s decision on the Paris Agreement is a prime example. The challenges that my colleague Dan Twining described — Russian revanchism, Chinese assertiveness, jihadi terrorism, and state collapse in the Middle East — cannot be solved by hard power alone. China relies as much on soft power (e.g. One Belt, One Road) as on hard power to advance its interests. Remember, as well, that the U.S. military has been in the forefront of raising concern about climate change as a national security threat — they see climate change as a significant threat multiplier.
With Trump’s decision on the Paris Agreement it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the United States is in serious retreat from the world. The climate agenda may well survive, but the liberal order underpinning U.S. peace and prosperity is gasping for breath.
The views expressed in GMF publications and commentary are the views of the author alone.