In what could likely be the most significant moment in American foreign policy since the end of World War II, US president Donald Trump withdrew from the Paris climate accord this week, citing his displeasure that America was being forced to contribute disproportionately in the global fight against climate change.
As landmark as it is, Trump’s decision did not come as a surprise – he had long railed against the Paris accord, both as candidate and as president, and has long opposed America’s role in organising global cooperation because of what he sees as “bad deals” for Washington.
Trump’s withdrawal from the accord might not yet be cause for despair in the global war on climate change; in the moments before and after the announcement, business leaders, governors, mayors and corporations across America came together to pledge that they would continue to adhere to emission targets.
In fact, the train may well have left the station well before Trump became president. In the past year alone, jobs in America’s solar industry jumped by almost 25 per cent – employing more people in 2016 than coal or natural gas plants. At worst, Trump’s decision might just present smaller countries with an opportunity to disregard the accord, given that the world’s biggest polluter is out of it.
But Trump’s withdrawal this week is symbolic of his larger foreign policy in many ways. This may well be the surest sign of America’s abdication of global leadership and its renunciation of organising global cooperation – a role it has played since the end of World War II in the protection of its interests and allies.
And that paradigm shift has thrown Washington’s alliances into jeopardy. Shortly after Trump left Europe at the end of his whirlwind tour a few days ago, German chancellor Angela Merkel spoke ominously of a trans-Atlantic partnership in uncertainty.
“Europe [needs] to take our fate into our own hands,” she said. That came on the heels of a contentious visit by the US president in which he continued his sharp criticism of NATO allies for not “paying their fair share”.
Earlier last month, in no small measure, Israel was miffed after Trump divulged classified intelligence from that country to Russian officials at the White House.
Trump’s “America First” agenda was meant to move the US away from its role as a global superpower towards a more transactional foreign policy. Trump does not see a foreign policy based on calculations of preserving America’s global leadership or the world order it established; he administers foreign policy on a win-loss business-like approach.
The message is that Washington will no longer seek to set the global agenda, as it has done over the last seven decades, but will rather be content with playing a zero-sum price-taker game. And it will certainly not be willing to take on greater responsibility in order to foster global cooperation against global challenges, as it did in bringing together the Paris climate summit.
Nothing signalled the impending global power shift more than China’s own reaction to Washington’s unilateral withdrawal this week. Ahead of Trump’s announcement, the Chinese foreign ministry said, “climate change is a global challenge”, asserting that Beijing would follow through on its own commitments under the deal.
Having seen the Trump administration isolate itself on the one issue that everybody else seems to agree on, China would not want to miss out on the chance to lead a global agenda.
This is a pattern that has been developing over the past few months. In January, as Trump was taking office, Chinese president Xi Jinping countered his protectionist rhetoric by pledging to preserve globalisation. Then, as Trump was winding down the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal, Xi was launching his landmark One Belt, One Road (OBOR) project to connect three continents with roadways and railways. As Washington’s traditional alliances in Europe and Asia unravel, the space for global leadership will only open up further.
All this means that global power distribution – as we know it – is in a state of flux. The status quo of Pax Americana, with its many global institutions spearheaded by Washington, will almost certainly change in the months and years to come, as American foreign policy pulls away from globalism towards “transactionalism”.
The new global power distribution could well bring with it a modified world order, as a new set of actors take on the mantle of setting the global agenda and organising multilateral cooperation.
For India, this presents both an opportunity and a threat. Take climate change itself. For years, New Delhi has been reliant on emission cuts in the West in order to keep global temperatures under check. All the same, its agrarian economy has borne the brunt in recent years, as erratic monsoon patterns and warmer ocean waters have led to unpredictable farming and fishing seasons.
As America withdraws from its role in organising the global war on climate change, New Delhi will have to act quickly to stop countries from deciding the fate of its own climate and economy.
This will likely be the situation in the broader world for the years to come. As Washington decides that it no longer has an interest in spending millions on maritime security in the faraway seas of the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea, New Delhi will have to act in protection of its own national security. As countries wrestle to fill the power vacuum left by Washington in setting the global agenda, New Delhi will have to ensure that the new status quo is not defined to its detriment.
But the global power vacuum is as much an opportunity as it is a threat. For years, New Delhi has cribbed about what it sees as its disproportionately minimal representation in global decision-making. Now, New Delhi has an active national interest in ensuring that the shift in global power does not leave it short-changed, and that it plays a greater role in the impending multipolar world.
In that sense, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris accord may well present a watershed moment in Indian foreign policy. India’s direct economic interests in climate change could force New Delhi to assume a greater global role in fighting that challenge.
As Trump pulls America out of global leadership, India would have to move quickly to protect its own national interests in the new status quo under definition.
(c) 2014-15, India Today Group