Trump's withdrawal from the Paris accord is performative isolationism


donald trump shrug

Win McNamee

Donald Trump

A lot of people have been noting that President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement on climate change will leave the US as one of just three non-participating countries in the world. We are nearly alone on this. Isolated.


But I don't think this talking point means quite what people think it does.

It was possible to get nearly every country in the world to join the agreement because the agreement does not really do anything. The agreement allows countries to set their own targets for greenhouse gas emissions, and it prescribes no way to enforce those targets.

Since the agreement is fundamentally symbolic - an expression of global intent to combat climate change - Trump's choice to withdraw is similarly a symbol of his intent for the US to unencumber itself from international commitments.

Compared to other international agreements Trump complains about, Paris was easy to withdraw from. Doing so will not enrage key Republican political constituencies and will not produce much much in the way of policy effects. As I wrote yesterday, the agreement may even be marginally more effective without us involved.


Because of the agreement's non-binding nature, and because so many of the factors slowing the growth of greenhouse gas emissions are outside the purview of Trump and Congress, our withdrawal probably will not even have a material effect on emissions or global temperatures.

And that's why Trump left this agreement, rather than, say, NAFTA or NATO - binding agreements where withdrawal would impose tangible costs.

For all of Trump's "America First" talk, and for all the radical ideas he has expressed about international relations, he is doing surprisingly little to change America's place in the international order. Withdrawing from Paris is performative isolationism; so far, Trump has chickened out of pursuing real isolationism.

He considered starting the process to withdraw from NAFTA, but was talked out of it by his advisers. He instead pledged to re-negotiate the agreement to get better deals at the margin, for example on the sale of American dairy products to Canada - an issue that was also on President Barack Obama's agenda, and that would have been addressed in the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

He rattled his saber at China, declaring his intention to beat them on trade and flirting with recognizing Taiwan as an independent country. But President Xi Jinping got Trump to back down on Taiwan by giving him the silent treatment. Then, Trump declared victory on Chinese trade after reaching a tiny, beef-for-chicken trade deal where China got the better end of the stick.


Trump claimed he didn't need to be too harsh on China because the Chinese had acquiesced to his demand that they stop artificially weakening their currency - a step the Chinese had actually taken years before he took office.

If there is going to be a protectionist reimagining of America's trade policy under Trump, it is not yet in evidence. The steps he has taken so far, for example imposing tariffs on softwood lumber, are within the realm of normal actions undertaken by past presidents who were broadly committed to free trade, like George W. Bush.

The president has done his part to weaken the NATO alliance with his words, or lack thereof, but so far we remain officially committed to the alliance. The president's advisers insist he is committed to NATO's Article V mutual-defense agreement, even if the president has been reluctant to say as much out loud.

If Trump came into office intending to lift sanctions and reach détente with Russia, the widening scandal around his campaign - and the replacement of his pro-Russian national security adviser Michael Flynn with a normal human being - seem to have discouraged him from doing so. It does look like the Russians may get their tennis club on the eastern shore of Maryland back; I doubt that was Vladimir Putin's top concern.

Trump hasn't been able to retrench and realign the US in the ways he claims he wants to because the consequences would be too negative. Pulling out of NAFTA would shrink the US economy and cause the stock market to fall. Trump wants NATO for its help on anti-terror initiatives. Easing up too much on Russia right now would seem too fishy.


By contrast, withdrawing from the Paris agreement is little more than a middle-finger to the rest of the world. An obscene gesture, but a gesture nonetheless.

The most tangible problem created by our withdrawal from the accord may be a decline in America's global standing and leadership. But I tend to think that decline is largely a function of Trump's presidency itself; America would hardly be seen as a leader on climate change under Trump if we had instead stayed in the accord and ignored our emissions targets.

To the extent our withdrawal alienates the world from us, that aligns with Trump's intent in withdrawing, and does indeed make the US more isolated. But Trump has been reluctant to take more concrete and irrevocable isolating steps, for clear reasons.

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