Leaving the Paris Agreement is like Brexit: It’ll take years. The rest of Trump’s term, at least. And because the climate revolution is supposed to unfold over the very long term, it is possible that the American president may simply not have enough time to sabotage the process or crush the spirit kindled in Paris two years go.
What will indeed change, on the other hand, is that, because politics abhors a vacuum, the great rival empire, the one already poised to mount the first step of the podium of power—in a word, China—will rush into the breach and take advantage of this windfall to assert its leadership. Its leaders said as much upon arriving at the EU-China summit in Brussels just a few hours after Trump’s abdication speech. And how they indulged themselves when, pretending to forget that they are still the leading polluters of the planet, they shamelessly declared their intention to “cherish this hard-won outcome,” referring to the Paris Agreement. Not to mention the 64 countries they had just convened on May 15 (as chance would have it) around their New Silk Road initiative, which they now seem to be trying to regroup behind what appears likely to become (ignore the change in marching orders) their new grand directive?
The Leninists had a phrase for this sort of self-betrayal. Trump, already Putin’s “useful idiot,” instantly became Xi Jinping’s as well. And under his feet yawns Thucydides’s trap. Much discussed in the United States since the publication of Graham Allison’s book (Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap?, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017), the trap is the fateful moment when the reigning hegemon (Sparta, in Thucydides’s time) realizes that, through its own fault, it may have to cede its place to a newcomer (Athens). That realization is fateful because it nearly always leads to war.
The American president is also the unwitting catalyst of another maneuver—this one more benign than the first two—by a Europe that had seemed exhausted but now, thanks to Trump, has caught its breath. The concept in this case comes from Hegel, who wrote of acts, forces, and designs that, while pursuing their own ends, are secretly moving toward fulfillment of an idea or plan of they are unaware. That is exactly what is happening with the misadventures of Trumpism. Blared triumphantly into the air of an uncertain and feckless Europe, Trump’s America Firstism is producing the opposite result. Witness the German chancellor exhorting Europeans to “take our fate into our own hands”; witness the French president recasting the rhetoric of exceptionalism to invite Americans who still want to “make our planet great again” to return to Europe. In short, in Paris, Copenhagen, Prague, Warsaw, and perhaps London, we see a surge of self-reliance, a virtuous form of every-man-for-himself, a meta-political state of emergency resounding like a wake-up call for Princess Europa. Thucydides, seeing the coming war between Sparta and Athens, regretted the lack of a third power capable of disarming the trap. Between China and the United States, could Europe be that moderating power? Maybe. And that is the other prospect opened up by the otherwise dismaying turn of events.
And then there is yet another development for which we have Trump to thank: the electric shock (really an awakening of conscience) that he has caused in the United States, in the very heart of what may otherwise appear to be the citadel of climate skepticism. We have former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg announcing—from the Elysée Palace!—that he will pay the $15 million promised by Barack Obama to the United Nations as the American contribution to the joint climate struggle. Raising the banner of resistance are firms that either have always believed in the justice of the cause (Tesla, Disney) or have been pushed of late by their shareholders to at least pretend to believe (ExxonMobil) or have already invested too much in new energy research (Ford, General Electric) to now move backwards. And we have the dozens of big-city mayors who, using terms scarcely heard since the era of the founding fathers, are urging the federated states to block the road to perdition charted by the irresponsible federal authorities—essentially, to engage in civil disobedience. My friend Benjamin Barber entitled his last book What If Mayors Ran the World?: Decadent Nations, Great Cities (Rue Echiquier, 2015). In it he predicted, in a manner faithful to Fernand Braudel’s intuitions about the influence of world cities, the coming revenge of the megopolises “rooted in ancient history” that have sufficient courage, greatness, and freedom to “look to the future.” Well, there we have it. Barber, who just died, did not have time to see his prophecy realized. But that is where we stand. And, for believers in the civic culture, civility, and civilization that are the true vocation of cities, that is a pleasant surprise.
The problem, of course, is that the United States as such is temporarily out of the game and may allow the emerging order to be built without it. And that is a terrifying idea. For if one pursues the metaphor (and the return to antiquity) to its end, one has to acknowledge that the Thucydidean configuration has been reversed! America is playing the role not of Sparta, but of Athens. It is the spirit not of the martial city but of the Athenian agora that is being eliminated. And at that point it is hard to see who will step up as the moral, political, and military protector of the free cities of the future when the opposing empires now awakening begin to stir. That day will come sooner or later. And I’m not talking only about the Middle Kingdom.