The full impact of President Trump’s announcement that the U.S. will withdraw from the Paris climate accord will not be fully realized for years, and indeed, decades to come. But the withdrawal is part of a series of disavowals of international agreements and commitments that were created after World War II. It represents a fundamental change away from engagement with allies and partners in the global community to a mindset sees every interaction with a foreign partner as a zero-sum situation, with only one country benefitting from the dealing.
The administration’s actions can be analyzed in the framework offered by Albert O. Hirschman’s in Exit, Voice and Loyalty. A member of an organization or an agreement that commits its members to a course of action, who is dissatisfied with the current arrangements, can decide whether to leave (“exit”), or remain and seek to correct the perceived problems. Those with more basic loyalty to the goals or principles of the existing arrangement are more likely to choose the latter option. Clearly the Trump administration does not share the loyalty to the international liberal order.
This position has its roots in U.S. history. The country initially sought to avoid involvement in World War I, and it took years of German offenses (such as the sinking of the Lusitania) before President Wilson could obtain agreement to enter the war. However, the Senate failed to approve U.S. membership in the League of Nations, and during the 1930s there was little interest in opposing German expansion in Europe or Japanese incursion in Asia. Only with the bombing of Pearl Harbor could President Roosevelt receive approval to take up arms against Japan, and Hitler’s declaration of war on the U.S. solved the problem of justifying a European conflict at the same time.
These experiences and the emergence of the U.S. as a global superpower after the war led to a fundamental change in the U.S. position. John Ruggie and others have described the rise of multilateralism, a system of international alliances and intergovernmental organizations formed under U.S. leadership for the purpose of achieving shared objectives. In many cases, these were global public goods. The institutions ranged from the United Nations to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and more recently, the Paris Accord. While the fortunes of these organizations and pacts fluctuated over time, they contributed to international peace despite a half century of “cold war” between the Soviet Union and the U.S. They also facilitated the process of economic globalization that accelerated during the 1990s after the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the entry of China into the global economy.
All these organizations face challenges. The emerging market nations, for example, have sought a larger role within the IMF and the World Bank. NATO has grappled with redefining its mission in the post-Soviet world. But the success of all these efforts depends in large part on the involvement of the U.S. Agreements can be reached without U.S. participation But this country accounts for almost one-quarter of the global economy, and holds a commanding lead in terms of innovation. It will be difficult to organize a response to a global challenge without the involvement of the hegemonic country.
President Trump believes that he can achieve a better deal for the U.S. by negotiating with other countries on a bilateral basis. The results to date do not back this up (see also here). This does not mean that we can not do a better job of minimizing the disruptions that globalization entails. But devising a better safety net is primarily a domestic issue, and revising international accords is easier to achieve when there are gains for both sides.
More importantly, many of the key challenges we face—environmental, economic, defense—are not zero-sum issues. Cleaner air, a stable financial system or security in other nations do not threaten the U.S.; indeed, many of these are public goods that can not be obtained without international cooperation. Walking away from international agreements in a fit of nationalist pique only lowers the prospects of future peace and prosperity.