Aubrey Gemignani
World News /05 Jul 2017

Trump’s Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement is Leaving a Global Leadership Void

By María Sofía Mascari Fridella for PGW Global

On June 1st, 2017, the United States, the second largest greenhouse gas emitter in the world, announced its withdrawal from the Paris Agreement on climate change. The global deal to reduce global emissions of greenhouse gases was ratified last year by almost 200 countries. Although the decision had been previously announced in Donald Trump’s campaign, his decision to follow through on his word came as a shock to the international community. Why did the US leave such a major framework for cooperation? What are the international effects of the US withdrawal? Will this decision propel American leadership? Or will it bury it?

The motives behind the decision and the international response, can both be linked to the implications that this may have on US global leadership.

Reassertion of America’s sovereignty

Mother Nature does not respect borders, nor jurisdictions as we know them today. The key to solving global problems has been a worldwide commitment and pledge to international organisations. The US’ withdrawal, however, stands in stark contrast to this. Citing a need to reassert America’s sovereignty, Washington’s reaction can be seen as a return to the classical conception born in the Treaties of Westphalia, where territorial integrity was the most important feature of a state.

This claim sets the US apart from the modern understanding of sovereignty, by disregarding the importance of new levels of governance. One of its key features -engagement with multilateral decision-making – is nowhere to be found in Trump’s speech. Conversely, it is a message to the world that the US retains the hegemonic dominance in international politics.

The reassurance of states to intensify efforts within the Paris Climate Accord illustrates how well established the idea of multilateralism and cooperation is. Opposition to the traditional idea of sovereignty referred to by the US was exemplified in the international response to stay true to current commitments despite the absence of the world’s sole superpower.

US Withdrawal an International backlash

Unlike some predictions, not a single country decided to follow the US decision to abandon the Paris Agreement. The international backlash was loud and clear, with recently elected French President Macron bearing the standard, advocating to ‘make the planet great again.’ Miguel Arias Cañete, European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, tweeted after the US decision: “Today’s announcement has galvanised us rather than weakened us, and this vacuum will be filled by new broad committed leadership.”

By the same token, in a joint statement, Germany and Italy regretted the US decision, rejecting Trump’s request to re-negotiate the agreement.

However, not only European states reacted to the US decision; China also had something to say. Even before the US withdrawal, Chinese President Xi Jinping claimed China “should protect the achievements of global governance, including the Paris Agreement.” Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, also reiterated China’s support to the Paris Agreement. The very same day of the US announcement, Li Keqiang declared that the fight against climate change is an international responsibility. Both the rank of the authorities that addressed the issue, as much as the speed in which they did so shows how significant global governance is for China. Through this integrational approach to international relations, China is continuing to pursue an image of responsible leadership.

The US’ lack of commitment to these guidelines puts a big question mark next to its role of international leader. In the meantime, China is working intensively to change its image to that of a mature and competent global actor.

US role in the international field and China’s involvement

The international community will not remain indulgent if the US fails to come to some sort of agreement on the implications of climate change. Disregarding environmental governance, and issues of global governance, in general, is detrimental for the US’ role and damages its relations with European and to an extent, global allies.

The decision to forgo environmental-friendly enterprises is proving unfavourable to American interests, particularly when compared to China, which is already heavily investing in renewable energy technology. A contributing factor is how Beijing appears to be ahead of the Paris Agreement’s schedule.

For some time now, the Asian Giant has been trying to enhance its international prestige and global image. For such purposes, China has enhanced its soft power in line with its regional military expansion. This retreat in American leadership from the Paris Agreement may lead Washington to withdraw its presence from other issues affecting the international community, thus generating a vacancy in global leadership. This prospect, however, is a long way from materialising. There are also questions to answer regarding China’s actual appetite in becoming a leader on international issues.

Changing times

The US decision to abandon the Paris Climate Accord is just one of the many indicators of how dynamic the international order is today. The world is shifting to a universal system based on cooperation and global partnership between international actors. It is likely that any state that cannot follow this pattern will have to face the consequences, even if it is arguably the most powerful nation ever.

If the US wants to maintain its role in the international arena, commitment to the international community cannot be underestimated. The US needs to leave the antiquated idea of classical sovereignty behind and stop behaving (or trying to behave) as a unilateral hegemon. A smarter, more diplomatic rhetoric must be struck if the US is to continue to be the global standard bearer on international issues.

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