In March 2001, two months after his inauguration, President George W. Bush announced that the United State would not be ratifying its signature on the Kyoto Protocol, which aimed to reduce climate-changing greenhouse gases. The Protocol, he said, unfairly exempted developing countries and placed an unbearable burden on American businesses. Bush’s statement sparked worldwide protests, with the most vocal criticism voiced by then German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. If not for the September 11 terror attacks and the ensuing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, America’s withdrawal from Kyoto may have been perceived as a turning point in relations between the United States and the Western world, especially Europe.
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In this regard, there wasn’t anything really revolutionary in Donald Trump’s announcement last week that the United States would withdraw from the Paris Accord, which also aims to limit emissions of greenhouse gases, albeit in a less binding manner. Trump’s move is a reflection of the American right’s abiding negation of the scientific basis of man-made global warming and of traditional conservative antipathy towards multilateral agreements, especially those that mandate government regulation of private businesses.
But the world has changed in the 16 years since Bush’s withdrawal from Kyoto. The international community, including the non-developed world, is more alarmed today by the threat of global warming and more committed to trying to counter it. No less importantly, even though Bush’s election was also greeted with criticism and apprehension, especially after the contested recount in Florida, in 2001 he was still far from being reviled on the world stage as he was during his second term, after long years of the War in Iraq. Trump, on the other hand, was viewed with hostility and trepidation even before he came into the White House, and in four short months he has probably succeeded in becoming even more hated than Bush was at his worst.
Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris Accord seemed to corroborate some of the world’s worst fears, not only of him but of his alt-right advisers, such as Steve Bannon, as well. It poured high-octane fuel on the already smoldering embers of the world’s distrust and dislike towards the new American president. Thus, even though Washington is already re-shifting its focus to the never-ending stream of revelations concerning Trump’s ties to the Kremlin and is gearing up for former FBI Director James Comey’s potentially earth-shaking public testimony on Thursday, Trump’s withdrawal from Paris could still go down in history as a watershed moment in his presidency. It might spark or at least accelerate historic, game-changing trends, including:
A. The statement tarnished America’s image and damaged its leadership role in the world. It could isolate the United States on the world stage and even paint it as a “rogue state” that is actively undermining the consensual goals and values of the international community, or at least the democratic world. The isolationist tendency embodied by Trump in his “America First” slogan could be strengthened.
B. The withdrawal from the Paris deal has enraged Europe, further harmed the North Atlantic alliance, and emboldened the new Eurocentric axis of Germany’s Angela Merkel and France’s Emmanuel Macron. The escalating tensions between the U.S. and Europe have spurred China to try and fill the vacuum and expand its influence over the European Community. More ominously, the rift between its two adversaries could spur Russia to test NATO through provocations in the Baltic States, for examples. Moscow might measure its steps so that they would be more than enough to spark alarm in Europe but won’t be taken by Washington as serious enough to risk a confrontation.
C. The United States is the only Western country in which man-made global warming is in such dispute. The American right denies the validity of the scientific basis of the climatic threat while American liberals have embraced the battle for the environment, influenced, inter alia, by former Vice President Al Gore. Trump’s statement on Thursday fanned the flames of an ongoing conflict and expanded the already significant political polarization in American politics. It spurred Democratic governors and mayors to announce that they would go their own way - with the financial support of former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg - and try to uphold the Paris Accord despite the administration’s withdrawal. Emulating the behavior of some Republican states towards the Obama administration, these are the first signs of a liberal “intifada” against Trump. Even though secession or any kind of formal break with the Federal government is both illegal and inconceivable, the war between Washington and the states could deteriorate to dangerous confrontations.
D. The storm created by Trump’s announcement will inevitably strengthen combative Democrats who advocate a gloves-off approach to Trump, but it also fortifies the president’s own stature, not only among his die hard supporters but among American conservatives in general. Contrary to their suspicions about his possible collusion with the Kremlin or their reservations about nepotism and conflicts of interest in the White House and even their opposition to Trump’s efforts to impose a ban on Muslim entry to the United States, much of the American right is as skeptical as he is about climate change, as opposed as he is to the Paris agreement and as disdainful as he is about international agreements, especially those so avidly supported by Europe. Trump is now perceived by his supporters as a president who stands up to a hypocritical world and the hostile media and those despicable liberals and as someone who keeps his promises, unlike other Republican leaders who inevitably disappoint. Trump is making the right wing’s dream of erasing Obama’s legacy come true, while thumbing his nose at the world that supported him.
The main question now is whether Trump will attempt to take steps to balance the backlash against him - for example by pushing aggressively for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations - or whether he will react by hunkering down in his White House bunker to plan his next controversial step. Like Benjamin Netanyahu, Trump tends to turn a blind eye to his own limitations and a deaf ear to criticism of his moves, which then leads him to view protest and dissent as personal and malicious, which then induces him in turn to become even more paranoid, wallow in self-pity and seek new ways to strike out. But while Netanyahu almost always remains in control of himself, Trump is hotheaded and impulsive. Which is why the shock from his withdrawal from the Paris accords could be just the prelude to the earthquakes that will soon follow.