In ditching the Paris accord on climate change, President Trump has cemented his reputation as the international disrupter in chief with the latest in a string of decisions that foreign policy analysts believe could have profound consequences for U.S. global leadership.
“It’s going to seriously complicate any effort President Trump makes to build a counterterrorism coalition or mobilize the West on any set of policy issues,” said Bruce Jones, director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.
“It’s an odd calculation,” he said. “They gain nothing from leaving and lose a lot.”
Abandoning the 2015 accord championed by the Obama administration reflects Trump's disdain for big, multilateral agreements and alliances, an opinion he expressed often on the campaign trail and followed through in office by ditching the Trans-Pacific Partnership, threatening to leave the North American Free Trade Agreement and upbraiding NATO allies.
Barry Bennett, a political adviser to Trump during the campaign, said no one should be caught unaware by Trump’s actions.
“They should have gone to a rally,” he said. “They wouldn’t be surprised at all.”
Bennett described what is taking place as a recalibration of U.S. priorities.
“Sometimes we have valued our relationship with Europeans over the lives of hard-working Americans,” he said.
Last week at NATO, Trump left leaders uncertain about the U.S. commitment to come to Europe’s defense and led German Chancellor Angela Merkel to say that Europeans cannot rely on others. In the clearest foreshadowing he would nix the Paris pact, Trump was the only leader at a meeting of the Group of Seven leading industrial democracies who did not endorse it.
Trump’s approach underscores how in barely four months he has succeeded in reshaping America’s role in the world.
“Having pulled out of the Paris accord, after sowing doubt at NATO and killing the TPP, President Trump is on the way to ending the U.S.-led international order,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a firm that assesses political risks. “I think we’re heading toward a Hobbesian, each-on-his-own world.”
Many in the foreign policy establishment believe the pullbacks have undermined U.S. influence and credibility.
“Other countries will be less willing to engage with us,” said David Victor, director of the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation at the University of California at San Diego. “It creates a vacuum others will try to fill. It will make it harder for the United States to advance its interests.”
Much of what has rankled the foreign policy community are actions Trump promised during the campaign as part of his “America first” agenda. As a candidate, he repeatedly said that he would “cancel the Paris climate agreement.” In a document released toward the end of the campaign and outlining his plans for the first 100 days, Trump pledged to “cancel billions in payments to U.N. climate change programs and use the money to fix America’s water and environmental infrastructure.”
On other promises with foreign policy implications, Trump has shown more flexibility. He said he would “label China a currency manipulator,” a promise he has backed off while seeking more cooperation from Beijing in containing North Korea’s nuclear ambitions.
John Bolton, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, said that Trump has shown that unlike some European allies, he is not embracing “this ideological commitment to multilateralism for its own sake.”
Bolton said that the administration of President George W. Bush, in which he served, was branded as isolationist for several actions during its tenure, including a decision to pull out of the International Criminal Court. What was happening then — and now — is “a series of decisions about what was in the best interests of the United States,” he said.
Like Trump, Bush was just a few months into his presidency when he decided to withdraw the United States from a major multinational climate agreement negotiated by his predecessor. The 1997 Kyoto treaty on global warming had been signed by 192 nations, almost as many as the 195 that signed the Paris agreement.
Timothy Naftali, a presidential historian at New York University, said no president has done so much so early in his term to unilaterally alter the world order.
“Ronald Reagan had to have a partner in upending the world order, and that was Mikhail Gorbachev,” he said. “Nixon tried to change American foreign policy, but it took him several years. Trump seems to be doing it on caffeine.”
Many multinational institutions, with the United States in a leadership role, emerged from World War II when American dominance arose almost by default with so many other countries in ruins. But the old world order has been declining for years now, with China’s rise as an economic and military power.
Now, China is positioned to move into the void left by the United States. At the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping gave a speech extolling the virtues of globalized trade as the United States appeared to be turning inward. The U.S. abandonment of the Paris accord represents another opportunity. On Thursday, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang stood beside Merkel in Berlin and declared the fight against climate change a “global consensus” and an “international responsibility.” He noted that China was one of the first countries to ratify the Paris accord.
“Xi Jinping is sitting in Beijing and can’t believe what’s happening to him,” said Ivo Daalder, a former U.S. representative to NATO and now president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. “The United States’ retreat from leadership means China can move in America’s wake. We’re seeing the possibility of a shift in global leadership, away from Washington and the United States toward Beijing and China.”
Others see no cause for alarm. Stephen Moore, a distinguished visiting fellow at the Heritage Foundation, said that Trump was exerting a different kind of leadership by pulling out of an agreement that he said would cost middle-class jobs and lead to an increase in energy prices for Americans.
“The most important role for the United States is to lead by example,” said Moore, who has advised Trump on economic issues. “When we get it right on economic policy, it tends to get exported to the rest of the world. It’s important that the U.S. show leadership on free-market policies.”