Noah Harrison: U.S. risks losing role as world's leader

Saturday, December 2, 2017 - 10:17pm

Earlier this month, Syria announced its intention to sign the Paris climate accord, leaving the United States as the sole country in the world to jettison the historic deal. Though the U.S. is currently a signatory to the agreement, President Donald Trump has been resolute in his decision to withdraw from the deal, which would be implemented by 2020 at the earliest. The willingness of war-torn Syria to join the agreement elicited laments from climate activists over the U.S.’s lack of commitment to combating climate change. Furthermore, the development contributes to an alarming trend of the U.S. ceding its role as the world’s leader. 

Since the end of World War II, the U.S. has assumed a mantle of global leadership, both in promoting democracy and solving international issues. Its reputation as the world’s predominant leader has endured for decades, yet is faltering just 11 months into Donald Trump’s presidency.

Since Trump took office, global perceptions of the U.S. have dimmed. A Pew Research survey found the U.S.’s favorability ratings fell sharply from 64 to 49 percent, with only 22 percent confident in Trump’s ability to positively influence world affairs. Trump’s ratings are marginally worse than Chinese President Xi Jinping and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Interestingly, a healthier 58 percent of those polled had a favorable view of Americans, indicating that much of the drop in U.S. favorability is due to falling confidence in U.S. policies as opposed to animosity toward Americans in general.

These numbers inherently aren’t all that meaningful, and it would be highly misguided to judge U.S. policy based off foreign approval — nor should President Trump’s performance be evaluated based on his international approval ratings. Still, the U.S.’s slide in global perceptions can be traced to several of Trump’s policy positions, namely climate and trade. Trump’s positions on these two issues are eroding the U.S.’s position as the world’s foremost leader.

With regard to climate, Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement sends a message to the world that the U.S. cannot be relied on to limit and mitigate the effects of global warming. There is consensus among the scientific community that humanity is quickly approaching the point of no return when it comes to combating global warming. Without decisive action, the world will be unable to avoid the potentially catastrophic consequences of climate change, including sea level rise, ocean acidification and extreme weather.

The Paris accord established a framework for the comprehensive global collaboration required to limit warming. The agreement’s terms included achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by about 2050 and the investment of $100 billion into helping develop world transition to renewable energy sources. The deal also set an ambitious goal of limiting warming to a maximum of 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit. The U.S.’s withdrawal seriously weakens the odds of the agreement reaching its ambitious goals.

By pulling out of the deal, the U.S. is exacerbating the problem rather than contributing to the mitigation of climate change. Furthermore, given that the U.S. is the world’s second largest emitter of greenhouse gases, its refusal to contribute to global warming’s mitigation comes across as irresponsible and improper.

World leaders sharply criticized Trump’s decision to withdraw from the agreement, and it is apparent that the U.S.'s unwillingness to lead the world on the issue of climate change is adversely affecting its reputation abroad. Meanwhile, China appears more than content to assume the U.S.’s vacated leadership capacity on climate, with Chinese officials viewing the world forum on climate policy as an ideal setting through which to expand their global influence.

The Trump administration’s isolationist approach to trade is also diluting the country's status as a global leader. Trump campaigned on a fiercely anti-free trade platform, and upon taking office, Trump promptly withdrew from the Trans Pacific Partnership negotiations and began the process of renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

The U.S.’s opposition to free trade under Trump stands in contrast to most of the world. With the exception of Brexit, most European governments are currently trying to protect and strengthen the European Union, while developing countries across the world see free trade as the path toward economic prosperity. Most economists agree that free trade agreements are beneficial to the U.S. economy (or at least that the gains exceed the losses), but protectionist trade policy also threatens the its economic clout abroad. If the U.S. follows through with Trump’s anti-trade policy and isolates itself from the global economy, its economic influence and leadership will be weakened.

The U.S. clearly still values its ability to project power. Pew Research polls have found that while a plurality of Americans want the U.S. to be less involved in international affairs, a majority disagree with the notion that the U.S. should “mind its own business internationally.” Trump, like his predecessors before him, enjoys the ability to guide world affairs and relies extensively on the U.S.’s far-reaching military deployments to execute American foreign policy.

However, the U.S.’s ability to influence the world and shape international policy is enabled as much by its international prestige and economic leadership as it is by its military might. The world needs the U.S., with its vast resources and strength, to be active and involved in solving international issues, like climate change and the global economy, but Trump’s policies disengage the U.S. from these pressing issues. If Trump’s isolationism is codified in U.S. policy and continued beyond his presidency, American power will inevitably wane and the U.S. will perhaps irreversibly forfeit its role as the world’s foremost leader.

Noah Harrison can be reached at noahharr@umich.edu.