US President Donald Trump’s transactional approach to multinational agreements is very different from that of his predecessors. Whereas previous presidents have viewed international accords in the context of broader US trade and security strategy, Trump looks at them in isolation. To his mind, many agreements to which the US is a signatory are poorly negotiated, overly burdensome, or outdated and ill-suited for changing economic and security conditions.
Upon taking office, Trump pulled the US out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), an agreement among 12 Pacific Rim countries that would have created the world’s largest free-trade zone. But he says he will negotiate better bilateral treaties with those and other countries. And, after hearing from the leaders of Canada and Mexico, he has opted for “renegotiating” the North American Free Trade Agreement, rather than scuttling it entirely, as he had promised during his campaign.
More recently, on his first presidential trip abroad, Trump took some good first steps in the Middle East. But in a speech to NATO leaders, he removed a line that would have explicitly reaffirmed the US’s commitment to collective defense under Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty, rattling allies, and apparently even some of his top advisers. (More recently, he finally voiced support for the clause).
To understand the president’s approach requires moving beyond the shallow, partly self-inflicted media circus surrounding his every tweet. Instead, we should look at Trump’s own analysis of existing agreements in the context of his views on issues such as national security and working-class jobs and incomes.
Consider Trump’s recent decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate agreement, which was met with widespread condemnation from foreign leaders, environmentalists, and many CEOs, all decrying America’s retreat from global leadership.
I have little sympathy for the extremists on either side of this issue: those who think that global warming is a hoax, and those who use fears of an impending Armageddon to push for heavy-handed government regulation of the economy. Most of us would agree we should have a realistic set of policies to address the potentially serious risks of climate change over time, and at a reasonable cost.
The Paris climate agreement, for its part, would have had a minimal impact on the climate, even if every country actually complied with the non-binding emissions-reduction targets they have set for themselves. Large coal-burning countries such as China and India can keep emitting greenhouse gases until 2030, which will attenuate any net reduction in global emissions. Worse, the costs of this shift to developing countries will fall on advanced economies’ coal-producing states and energy-intensive manufacturing sectors, and these costs will be only partly offset by heavily subsidized renewable energies.
In the past decade, the US has reduced its emissions more than any other country, because the fracking revolution has allowed for inexpensive natural gas to replace coal in electricity generation, while preventing a price backlash against renewables. This trend will continue for the foreseeable future. And as other countries begin to phase out coal by producing or importing cheap, clean natural gas, they, too, will reduce their emissions.
Over the long term, the only way to limit serious climate-related problems is to develop better adaptation strategies, carbon-capture and sequestration technologies, and renewable-energy sources that can reach scale without government subsidies. Although the commercial costs of wind and solar are declining, these technologies still need large subsidies and usage mandates to account for less than 3% of global energy production.
Under the Paris agreement, the US and other rich countries are supposed to furnish $100 billion every year to support clean-energy systems in developing countries, including many countries that we would no longer regard as poor. If history is any guide, a sizable share of these contributions will be diverted to other purposes, or into the pockets of corrupt officials. Moreover, it is unlikely that the US Congress would ever have appropriated these funds in the first place, regardless of Trump’s decision.
Former US President Barack Obama invoked sole executive authority to sign the Paris agreement (as he did with the Iran nuclear agreement as well). And whereas past presidential directives have been reversible, either immediately or within a very short timeframe, the commitment that Obama made under the Paris agreement has a four-year withdrawal process that is binding on his successor. This radical expansion of executive power probably would not have withstood a legal challenge.
More to the point, the Paris agreement is a treaty, and therefore should have gone to the US Senate for ratification, which would have required a two-thirds supermajority. In fact, other governments that joined the accord are now submitting it to their respective legislatures for ratification as a treaty.
For perspective, it is worth remembering that former US President Bill Clinton never submitted the Kyoto Protocol to the Senate, not least because 95 senators had signed on to a “sense of the Senate” resolution against it. So, when President George W. Bush withdrew the US from that agreement, he relied on the same argument that Trump is now using to withdraw the US from the Paris accord.
Still, it would have been preferable if the US had stayed in the Paris agreement. Keeping a seat at the table would have given America more leverage over future commitments and agreements, including on other issues. Trump could have adjusted the US’s “nationally determined” emissions targets and financial commitments, possibly even increasing the Paris deal’s chances for Senate ratification.
Trump views himself as a great dealmaker. But it remains to be seen if his strategy of renegotiating or withdrawing from individual agreements will prove effective, boosting or harming geopolitical stability. If the gamble he is taking, one accord at a time, does not backfire, it could define a new doctrine for the US role in the world – at least for Trump’s base of disaffected working-class voters.