WASHINGTON – With his backward policies and his tiresome antics, President Donald Trump seems to be trying his best to do something that ought to be impossible: Make the U.S. presidency irrelevant to world progress.
Climate change offers one example. Trump tried hard to build suspense for Thursday’s announcement about whether he would honor or trash the landmark Paris accord; doubtless he’d rather have attention focused on greenhouse gases than on the snowballing Russia investigations. At this point, however, I have to wonder what difference the decision to leave the agreement actually makes.
Trump’s pro-coal program of deregulation – a quixotic attempt to revive an industry being strangled by global market forces, not politicians – and his boosterish advocacy of oil and gas mean the U.S. has little chance of meeting its Paris emissions targets anyway. The real-world impact of Trump’s choice is more diplomatic than environmental.
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More important are his domestic policies. And even if Trump succeeds in weakening federal fuel economy standards, automakers will be unable to ignore California’s tougher requirements, which are also imposed by 12 other states – comprising more than one-third of the U.S. vehicle market. The administration can seek to override the California standards, but such a move would lead to a lengthy court battle. George W. Bush filed such a challenge in 2007 but California sued, and the case was still pending when Barack Obama took office in 2009 and abandoned it.
The only other nations that have rejected the Paris pact are Syria and Nicaragua – not the kind of company the United States usually keeps. The rest of the world is going about the business of making big investments in clean-energy technology. The next breakthrough in solar power is likely to be made in China or Germany, not here.
Energy policy is just one area where Trump is encouraging the rest of the world to go on without us. Much more urgently, Trump has called into question the U.S. commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance, which for seven decades has been the world’s most important guarantor of peace and engine of prosperity.
Following Trump’s first overseas trip as president, which included NATO and G-7 summit meetings, German Chancellor Angela Merkel declared that Europe “really must take our fate into our own hands.” She said the time when the continent could rely on others, meaning the United States, was “over to a certain extent.”
Merkel is a cautious politician who carefully measures her words. There have been many times over the years when Europe and the United States were not on the same page, but this moment feels different. Trump has raised doubts about the relationship in a way none of his predecessors did even at moments of sharp disagreement.
Trump scolded European leaders for not spending more on defense, saying that they have failed to meet their “financial obligations” and that the status quo is “unfair to American taxpayers.” He failed to offer an unconditional guarantee of European security. In private talks, he harshly complained about Germany’s trade surplus with the United States.
Britain’s “Brexit” vote and Trump’s “America first” rhetoric appear to have ironically brought the continental members of the European Union closer together. Germany, France, Italy, Spain and the other nations in the bloc have the wherewithal to provide for their own defense – and surely will do so if they don’t believe they can rely on the United States. Someone tell me how this would make the world safer.
Part of the problem is that the Europeans see Trump as going out of his way to forge a friendlier and more cooperative relationship with Russian strongman Vladimir Putin, whom EU members such as Poland and the Baltic States rightly consider a threat.
Trump got a warmer welcome, and did less to give offense, during the Middle East leg of the trip. The speech in which he sought to address the Muslim world could have been better but also could have been worse, given his previous antipathy toward the 1.6 billion followers of Islam.
But Trump has given responsibility for forging peace between Israelis and Palestinians to a total amateur, his son-in-law Jared Kushner. The president declines to adopt the customary U.S. stance in favor of democracy and human rights, instead offering autocratic leaders such as Saudi Arabia’s King Salman and Egypt’s Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi his uncritical embrace. Such realpolitik has come back to haunt the United States in the past, and it will again.
Trump is abdicating all moral power. The world has no choice but to move on.
Eugene Robinson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.