The world is not a ‘global community’ but an arena where nations, non-government actors and businesses engage and compete for advantage…Rather than deny this elemental nature of international affairs, we embrace it. - Trump advisors H.R. McMaster and Gary Cohn
News editors are hardly able to keep up these days with the target-rich environment created by the Trump White House. Americans who pay attention to national and international events are in the same boat. A new major news story breaks these days before we’ve digested the previous one.
But before Donald Trump’s decision on the Paris climate accord is fully eclipsed by new headlines, it is important to take note of the insight it gave us into this Administration’s worldview, a view foretold during his campaign and his first trip abroad.
The climate decision and the prolonged debate that preceded it among Trump’s advisors are as clear an example as we are likely to see of the tension in the White House between two very different interpretations of international relations. One view is that engaging with other nations makes us stronger; the other view is that engagement makes us weaker. The view that prevailed in the Paris decision is that the international community is not a community; it’s a dogfight, a zero-sum game, a world of winners and losers.
Trump is especially susceptible to this view as he struggles to make the transition from the highest level of business to the highest level of international affairs. The statement by McMaster and Cohn may be a suitable description of the business world, but it is only partly true of international relations, especially in this time of challenges, networks and needs that are inherently global in nature and scale.
Trump The Wary Tycoon rather than Trump The Emerging Statesman came through in the Rose Garden speech where he tried to explain his decision on the Paris accord. Trump said the accord was all about “other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States.” When international leaders gave themselves a standing ovation in Paris to celebrate an agreement 20 difficult years in the making, Trump figured they were happy “for the simple reason that it put our country, the United States of America, which we all love, at a very, very big economic disadvantage.”
Let’s think about this. Yes, nations compete. They jockey for strategic advantages in everything from commerce to military superiority. It is often the case, however, that nations survive and succeed by collaborating with others. Peace and progress often require a dog team rather than a dogfight.
One nation’s epidemic can quickly become a global pandemic.
Today, largely as a result of industrialization and economic progress, there are an unprecedented number of physical realities that make international collaboration necessary. Many of our more serious environmental issues are in that category, such as maintaining the important role of healthy forests as the “lungs of the Earth”; protecting biodiversity and its gifts to human well-being; sustaining fish stocks for the one billion people who share the ocean and depend upon it for protein; and climate change, where local pollution has global consequences.
Rather than thinking of nations as pit bulls, Trump can look to the example of the 30-year-old Montreal Protocol in which nations are collaborating to repair the hole created in the stratospheric ozone layer by a family of chemicals used in consumer products. With the help of U.S. leadership, the Protocol became the first treaty in history to win ratification by all countries. It is expected to prevent 2 million cases of skin cancer every year by 2030, as well as cataracts, the disruption of marine ecosystems and damages to farm crops.
For better and worse, international connections exist in many other areas, too. One nation’s epidemic can quickly become a global pandemic. The proliferation of computers and the internet connects the world, but also makes us all vulnerable to cybersecurity threats. Nine nations have nuclear weapons; collaboration is necessary to keep one of them from pushing the button. Many of us believe we have a moral obligation to help end poverty by assisting economic development in less developed nations, but there are practical benefits, too. Poverty breeds problems that cross borders, including refugees, conflicts and disease. Even those of us concerned only about corporate profits can recognize that alleviating poverty turns less-developed economies into new markets.
As climate change progresses – an eventuality made more certain with Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris pact – many of its local impacts will ripple across the world. We are likely to see more frequent weather disasters, for example, with consequences like the extreme heat and wildfires in Russia that helped push global food prices up 50% and put stress on the world economy in 2010.
As President, Trump must learn to maintain a balance between America’s sovereignty and its responsibility to the international community. With skill and good will, it can be done. His first step would be to veto the so-called nationalists in the White House, whose myopia is already disconnecting the United States from the world in which we actually live.
Author’s Note: For a deeper look into this subject, see David Brooks’ June 2 op-ed in the New York Times.