The US President Donald Trump’s announcement on pull out from the Paris Accord has triggered an extraordinary reversal of roles in the international opinion. Those who traditionally doted on the US to provide moral clarity and «values» feel shocked at the self-centredness of Trump’s decision, while those who incessantly berated US imperialism change tack to condemn US retrenchment from the lead role in meeting global challenges.
The big question is: When was it that the US was the paragon of moral clarity and consistency, or was incapable of hypocrisy? Just a week before Trump’s announcement on climate change he was in Saudi Arabia where he wrapped up a Leviathan arms deal exceeding $110 billion with a regime that is known to be waging a brutal war in Yemen and supporting extremist in Syria, whose regime is synonymous with Wahhabism, and whose role in the 9/11 attacks is an open secret. And, come to think of it, the arms deal is a carry-over from the Barack Obama administration. Clearly, the US doesn’t think that little details of democracy are applicable to Saudi Arabia.
Simply put, the US invariably acted in self-interest. «America First» has been the cornerstone of the US foreign policies all along – except that Trump openly expounds it.
A photo is making the rounds of former US Secretary of State John Kerry signing the Paris climate accord last December while holding in his arms his granddaughter, 2-year old Isabelle. Trump’s critics say the photo is simply «heartbreaking». Kerry himself taunted Trump that «billions of grandkids will have to live with this decision, however it lands. Think of them, please».
Yet, neither Kerry nor Obama had the slightest of doubt while shepherding India, China and other emerging giants to sign on to the Paris deal, that there was no way they’d get the US Senate to ratify the agreement and that the consensus deal they swung in Paris will never have the sanctity of a binding treaty. In plain terms, they chalked up a «legacy» for the Obama presidency.
Obama expected the world community to trust that the US maintained faith. Trump at least has been honest about his scepticism of the deal, along with the bulk of the Republican Party and a very substantial section of American public opinion.
The short point is that we tend to overlook that historically Washington never accepted any notion of international oversight on US governance. Trump echoed a fact of American history when he declared last Thursday, «Foreign leaders in Europe, Asia and across the world should not have more to say with respect to the US economy than our own citizens and their elected representatives. Thus our withdrawal from the (Paris) agreement represents a reassertion of America's sovereignty».
Trump’s stance on climate change is consistent with his rejection of the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement and his criticism of NFTA free trade zone and NATO.
Indeed, Trump knows that there’s money in the climate business, as renewables are already reaching critical mass as technology. So, he has not rejected climate change science, but what he abhorred was the idea of a global alliance over it.
To be sure, Trump will promote US business and industry to cash in on green technology, while on the other hand he’s also pandering to his core constituency in US politics. Based on Trump’s remarks, he still wants to address the issue of climate change. He said, «We are getting out, but we are starting to negotiate and we’ll see if we can make a deal that’s fair».
The leaders of France, Germany and Italy issued a joint statement saying they considered the Paris agreement cannot be renegotiated, describing it as «a vital instrument for our planet, societies and economies». But then, Paris agreement being nonbinding, it ultimately depends on each country taking its own actions. And, the bottom line is that without US participation in broader efforts, it will be simply unrealistic for countries still in the agreement to achieve the aims and objectives of combating climate change. Period.
What happens next?
For a start, China has overnight become a likeable superpower. Of course, China is receiving warmer greetings from nations that feel spurned by Trump’s aversion toward globalization and his lukewarm attitude toward multilateralism. On the other hand, Beijing is providing platforms for all such nations disenchanted with Trump to plug into a Chinese world order. The most prominent is «One Belt, One Road,» the signature trade initiative that locates China at the centre of the world economy.
However, China does not believe in alliances. It prioritizes relationships in bilateral terms. Equally, China will not be mistaken as a liberal, globalist power by countries such as Germany or Australia – or the European Union for that matter. The EU and China could not even agree on a joint statement last week regarding climate change. Ironically, EU’s anti-subsidy and anti-investment tariffs against China include Chinese solar energy products.
Suffice to say, China has become a standard-bearer of climate change by default. According to noted China hand at the New York Times, Edward Wong, there is much «internal resistance» in China still to policies aimed at cutting use of coal (which currently meets 62% of China’s energy needs.) Therefore, how proactive China will be in making more ambitious commitments in the coming years remains uncertain. All that can be said with certainty is that China will exploit any additional space available from the US pull out to expand its increasing dominance in the renewable energy industry.
All in all, therefore, while Trump’s decision on pull out creates a vacuum, it is highly improbable that a coherent EU-China alternative will replace the US’ lead role. China will remain a unilateral actor, driven by its environmental crisis and the alluring prospect of dominating the world’s renewable energy industry.
It also needs to be factored in that the two European leaders most critical of Trump at the moment – German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron – are largely playing to their domestic audiences. There is a «feel good» in France and Germany today for centrist politics due to the economic growth of the Eurozone and an easing of the refugee problem. Both Merkel and Macron are greatly put off by Trump’s «America First» performance at the NATO summit recently, especially his lecturing on defence budget and his failure to reiterate the US’ commitment to Article 5 of the alliance’s charter.
However, the bottom line is that NATO remains the central plank of European defence and it is critically dependent on US military muscle. The rift over climate change cannot impede the steady deepening of the transatlantic military links. A European defence initiative remains a long haul, if not a pipedream. Make no mistake, Macron could turn out to be both a friend and an adversary to Merkel as time passes. Macron is with Merkel shoulder to shoulder to keep the EU together, but their respective visions for the bloc vary.
Fundamentally, therefore, nothing much may have changed. The heart of the matter is that the global economy may already be moving away inexorably from fossil fuels and toward renewables, simply due to technological innovation and cost savings. Quite obviously, the smart thing to do will be to make and use those technologies. Trump’s rejection of Paris Accord cannot after all stop climate change science on its tracks.