Let’s make one thing clear from the outset: There is no such thing as a “moral superpower.” By that I don’t mean that a superpower can’t behave in moral ways, but rather that morality alone can’t make a nation powerful. Specifically, as the term is used today, adherence to leftist norms on climate, immigration, or social-welfare policy does not grant meaningful international authority. In international relations, power flows through military and economic strength combined with the choice to exert that strength to impose the national will. Leadership is a function of power, and leadership without power isn’t leadership at all.
Keep those realities in mind as you read and ponder hyperbolic analyses in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement. According to some, this was the moment when America abdicated its international leadership. This was the moment when our allies would start to turn their backs on their most powerful international partner. Consider these comments, in a Washington Post news analysis of Trump’s decision:
“It’s going to seriously complicate any effort President Trump makes to build a counterterrorism coalition or mobilize the West on any set of policy issues,” said Bruce Jones, director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.
“Having pulled out of the Paris accord, after sowing doubt at NATO and killing the TPP, President Trump is on the way to ending the U.S.-led international order,” said Cliff Kupchan, chairman of the Eurasia Group, a firm that assesses political risks. “I think we’re heading toward a Hobbesian, each-on-his-own world.”
No. This is flat-out wrong. The worst impact on international relations may be a series of petty or petulant retaliatory decisions that do precisely nothing to permanently either adjust the world balance of power or render America a bystander in world affairs. The likely impact is little more than a series of tweets and public temper tantrums — much sound and fury, signifying no real change in the international order.
How do I know this? First, America has a long, bipartisan tradition of rejecting international climate pacts without fundamentally altering its role in the world. We’ve seen this movie before. In 1997, President Clinton signed the Kyoto Protocol, hoping to bind the United States to an agreement to combat climate change. The Senate responded with the bipartisan Byrd-Hagel resolution, rejecting the protocol by a whopping 95–0 margin. In 2001, President Bush announced that the U.S. wouldn’t even voluntarily implement the agreement, breaking with 140 countries that had ratified the pact. America retained its international influence.
Second, and more important, decades of national choices have left Trump’s political opponents with no real option other than feeble protest and symbolic gestures. America is indispensable to the national security of every single one of its allies. America is arguably even indispensable to the economy of every single one of its allies. So long as America remains in NATO, keeps its treaty obligations elsewhere, and maintains its economic strength, it is and will be the leader of the free world, and the world’s dominant global power.
America is indispensable to the national security of every single one of its allies. America is arguably even indispensable to the economy of every single one of its allies.
Will Germany, in a snit over Paris, actually take the international lead outside of Europe? Hardly. It can’t even maintain basic security in Europe without the United States. Its military is incapable of projecting power and suffers appalling readiness gaps. In the recent past less than half of its best fighters were operational, and it’s currently strained supporting token forces abroad.
Is China capable of becoming a world leader? Well, to the extent that European elites actually care about morality, the People’s Republic of China is hardly preferable to the United States of America. And good luck securing Chinese help against jihadists in the Middle East or Putin in Europe.
As I said in an NPR interview on this topic yesterday, I’ll believe the Trump administration is truly taking a step back from the world if, say, it withdraws the Second Cavalry Regiment from Germany or the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team from Italy. I’ll believe we’re abdicating our leadership when we’re removing missile-defense batteries from South Korea rather than rushing them into action to meet emerging North Korean threats. Oh, and I’ll believe that Germany is ready to assert itself on the world stage when it more than triples its defense budget, quintuples its fighter force, and builds even one aircraft carrier.
Indeed, if you want to address a failure in world leadership, let’s discuss the Obama administration. Despite its late-term commitment to join a voluntary, non-binding international climate compact, it took a number of concrete actions that created enormous international power vacuums. It pulled completely out of Iraq, leaving space for ISIS to grow and launch its blitzkrieg across Syria and Iraq. Through inaction, apathy, and error, it stood by as Syria slipped into genocidal chaos and Russia launched a ground invasion of Ukraine. It “led from behind” as the Libyan civil war turned into a deadly battle between competing jihadist militias.
Perhaps the single most positive aspect of the young Trump administration is the extent to which it has so far rejected isolationism in favor of American strength. Rather than doubling down on campaign rhetoric declaring NATO “obsolete,” Trump has reaffirmed our national commitment to the alliance. Asking allies to spend more on defense is asking them to strengthen the alliance. Rather than foolishly indulging the impulse to wash our hands of Middle Eastern conflicts, Trump has stepped up American military operations and is considering ramping up the American military presence in theaters of active conflict.
This shouldn’t be read as an endorsement of all aspects of Trump’s foreign policy. His protectionist impulses are economically dubious, and his public (and private) statements are undisciplined and unnecessarily erratic. But he has not put America in a posture of strategic retreat, and withdrawing from a single voluntary, nonbinding international pact doesn’t change that fact. Pay no attention to the hyperbole. America still leads.