WASHINGTON — President Trump has managed to turn America First into America Isolated.
In pulling out of the Paris climate accord, Mr. Trump has created a vacuum of global leadership that presents ripe opportunities to allies and adversaries alike to reorder the world’s power structure. His decision is perhaps the greatest strategic gift to the Chinese, who are eager to fill the void that Washington is leaving around the world on everything from setting the rules of trade and environmental standards to financing the infrastructure projects that give Beijing vast influence.
Mr. Trump’s remarks in the Rose Garden on Thursday were also a retreat from leadership on the one issue, climate change, that unified America’s European allies, its rising superpower competitor in the Pacific, and even some of its adversaries, including Iran. He did it over the objections of much of the American business community and his secretary of state, Rex W. Tillerson, who embraced the Paris accord when he ran Exxon Mobil, less out of a sense of moral responsibility and more as part of the new price of doing business around the world.
As Mr. Trump announced his decision, the Paris agreement’s goals were conspicuously reaffirmed by friends and rivals alike, including nations where it would have the most impact, like China and India, as well as the major European Union states and Russia.
The announcement came only days after he declined to give his NATO allies a forceful reaffirmation of America’s commitment to their security, and a few months after he abandoned a trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, that was designed to put the United States at the center of a trade group that would compete with — and, some argue, contain — China’s fast-growing economic might.
“The irony here is that people worried that Trump would come in and make the world safe for Russian meddling,” said Richard N. Haass, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, who was briefly considered, then rejected, for a top post in the new administration. “He may yet do that,” Mr. Haass added, “but he has certainly made the world safe for Chinese influence.”Continue reading the main story
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The president, and his defenders, argue that such views are held by an elite group of globalists who have lost sight of the essential element of American power: economic growth. Mr. Trump made that argument explicitly in the Rose Garden with his contention that the Paris accord amounted to nothing more than “a massive redistribution of United States wealth to other countries.”
In short, he turned the concept of the agreement on its head. While President Barack Obama argued that the United Nations Green Climate Fund — a financial institution to help poorer nations combat the effects of climate change — would benefit the world, Mr. Trump argued that the American donations to the fund, which he halted, would beggar the country.
“Our withdrawal from the agreement represents a reassertion of America’s sovereignty,” Mr. Trump said.
That, in short, encapsulates how Mr. Trump’s view of preserving American power differs from all of his predecessors, back to President Harry S. Truman. His proposed cuts to contributions to the United Nations and to American foreign aid are based on a presumption that only economic and military power count. “Soft power” — investments in alliances and broader global projects — are, in his view, designed to drain influence, not add to it, evident in the fact that he did not include the State Department among the agencies that are central to national security, and thus require budget increases.
It will take years to determine the long-term effects of his decision to abandon the Paris agreement, to the environment and to the global order. It will not break alliances: Europe is hardly about to embrace a broken, corrupt Russia, and China’s neighbors are simultaneously drawn to its immense wealth and repelled by its self-interested ambitions.
But Mr. Trump has added to the arguments of leaders around the world that it is time to rebalance their portfolios by effectively selling some of their stock in Washington. Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany has already announced her plan to hedge her bets, declaring last weekend after meeting Mr. Trump that she had realized “the times when we could completely rely on others are, to an extent, over.”
That may be temporary: It is still possible that Mr. Trump’s announcement on Thursday will amount to a blip in history, a withdrawal that takes so long — four years — that it could be reversed after the next presidential election. But for now it leaves the United States declaring that it is better outside the accord than in, a position that, besides America, has so far only been taken by Syria and Nicaragua. (Syria did not sign on because it is locked in civil war, Nicaragua because it believes the world’s richest nations did not sacrifice enough.)
But it is the relative power balance with China that absorbs anyone who studies the dance of great powers. Even before Mr. Trump’s announcement, President Xi Jinping had figured out how to embrace the rhetoric, if not the substance, of global leadership.
Mr. Xi is no free trader, and his nation has overtaken the United States as the greatest emitter of carbon by a factor of two. Only three years ago, it was a deal between Mr. Obama and Mr. Xi that laid the groundwork for what became the broader Paris agreement.
Yet for months the Chinese president has been stepping unto the breach, including giving speeches at the annual meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, that made it sound like China alone was ready to adopt the role of global standard-setter that Washington has occupied since the end of World War II.
“What the Paris accord represented, in a fractured world, was finally some international consensus, led by two big polluters, China and the United States, on a common course of action,” said Graham T. Allison, the author of a new book, “Destined For War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?”
“What you’d expect us to do is sustain our position by maintaining our most important relationship around the world and address what the citizens of our allies consider their most important problems: economic growth and an environment that sustains their children and grandchildren,’’ he added. “Instead, we are absenting the field.”
That sentiment was evident on Thursday in Berlin. Just hours before Mr. Trump spoke, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, stood alongside Ms. Merkel, and used careful words as he described China as a champion of the accord. China believed that fighting climate change was an “international responsibility,” Mr. Li said, the kind of declaration that American diplomats have made for years when making the case to combat terrorism or nuclear proliferation or hunger.
China has long viewed the possibility of a partnership with Europe as a balancing strategy against the United States. Now, with Mr. Trump questioning the basis of NATO, the Chinese are hoping that their partnership with Europe on the climate accord may allow that relationship to come to fruition faster than their grand strategy imagined.
Naturally, the Chinese are using the biggest weapon in their quiver: Money. Their plan, known as “One Belt, One Road,” is meant to buy China influence from Ethiopia to Britain, from Malaysia to Hungary, all the while refashioning the global economic order.
Mr. Xi announced the sweeping initiative last month, envisioning spending $1 trillion on huge infrastructure projects across Africa, Asia and Europe. It is a plan with echoes of the Marshall Plan and other American efforts at aid and investment, but on a scale with little precedent in modern history. And the clear subtext is that it is past time to toss out the rules of aging, American-dominated international institutions, and to conduct commerce on China’s terms.