As a reformed unilateralist, I can understand the frisson of excitement that President Donald Trump and his supporters are experiencing after having thumbed their noses — or, perhaps more accurately, lifted their middle fingers — at the rest of the world by exiting the Paris climate accords.
In fact, annoying our allies, the Europeans in particular, seemed to be a big part of the calculus behind Trump’s decision to leave the voluntary, nonbinding agreement. He could have easily stayed in, as recommended by Ohio’s Gov. John Kasich, and simply adjusted the U.S. implementation plan to be less strict than the one favored by President Barack Obama. But no. He wanted to send a defiant message of unilateralism — of America First and screw the rest of you. The Washington Post even reports: “One senior White House official characterized disappointing European allies as ‘a secondary benefit’ of Trump’s decision to withdraw.”
I can sympathize, having written the following words about France in 2003, when that country was resisting the George W. Bush administration’s plans to invade Iraq: “It would take a psychoanalyst of Freud’s eminence fully to deconstruct the farrago of delusions, resentments and neuroses that guide French policy on Iraq.” I was hardly alone or even the worst sufferer from this American superiority syndrome in those heady days after the swift and unexpected downfall of the Taliban. The French were widely reviled as “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” and french fries were being renamed “freedom fries.”
It’s easy to fall prey to all the cheap stereotypes about the supposedly effete, ineffectual Europeans and the French in particular. Hence Trump’s boast that “I was elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris.” Pittsburgh voted overwhelmingly for Hillary Clinton and its mayor supports the Paris agreement, but never mind — it’s a sound bite that plays into deeply rooted American prejudices.
Ever since our founding, there has been a tendency among Americans to think that we are morally pure — “a shining city on a hill” — compared with the sordid Old World from which most of us came. Our collective sense of superiority grew in the 20th century, when we had to rescue Europeans twice from the threat of German aggression — and then stick around to protect them from Russian aggression.
It’s easy to think we have nothing to learn from our junior partners in the Western alliance, and even to disdain that alliance altogether, as Trump did by refusing to affirm NATO’s Article 5 on his trip to Europe. For good measure, the president lashed out at the mayor of London following Saturday night’s terrorist attack, tweeting: “At least 7 dead and 48 wounded in terror attack and Mayor of London says there is ‘no reason to be alarmed!’” (In fact, Mayor Sadiq Khan had said there was no reason to be alarmed about a heightened police presence — not about the threat of terrorism.) No matter, Trump doubled down and attacked Khan again the following day.
The temptation to say “to hell with you” can be particularly alluring because Europeans can still display condescension toward Americans, particularly of the unsophisticated variety. Trump, with his Brobdingnagian inferiority complex and his insatiable appetite for approbation, must feel this keenly. Little wonder that he prefers the autocratic Saudis to the democratic Europeans: the former kowtow to him, while the latter look down on him — and he knows it. Trump’s vendetta against Khan dates back to last year, when the London mayor upbraided him for his “ignorant views about Islam.” That’s precisely the kind of insult that the ignorant president can’t stand.
But here’s the thing. Americans aren’t always right, and Europeans aren’t always wrong. Supporters of the Iraq War, like me, should have listened more to Europeans’ well-founded concerns about the unforeseen consequences of toppling Saddam Hussein. Likewise, the Lyndon Johnson administration should have listened to European opposition before embarking on a misbegotten war in Vietnam, which not even the British backed. Today, the Trump administration is making a mistake by ignoring European, indeed global, support for the Paris agreement. It won’t end global warming — a genuine problem, not a Chinese hoax as Trump seems to imagine — but it will make a significant start without handcuffing any of the participants to rigid emissions quotas.
While the United States is a great and powerful country, we are much stronger when we work together with a European Union, which has a population bigger than ours (508 million versus 321 million) and a collective gross domestic product nearly as large ($16.5 trillion versus $17.9 trillion). The Europeans, to be sure, are often so disunited and lacking in military capabilities that they need American leadership — as, for example, in the deployment of Pershing II and cruise missiles in the 1980s or the intervention in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s. But they bring a lot to the table, too, not least a sophisticated outlook on the world that is rooted in common Western ideals but that often leads them to different conclusions.
In our system of government we recognize that no one individual — not even the president — has all the answers. That’s why presidential authority is carefully circumscribed by checks and balances. But those limitations are less evident in foreign policy. The commander in chief can exercise nearly unbounded discretion to initiate hostilities or to pull out of an international agreement if, like the Paris accords, it hasn’t been ratified by the Senate.
There are, nevertheless, good reasons why presidents should try to win international support for their actions. It’s not only because we need help from other countries, although we do. It’s also because there can be greater wisdom in the international community than that possessed by the president and his insular coterie of advisors.
That’s not to say that the United States is always wrong to act alone — sometimes it may be necessary. But in general if Washington is acting in ways that the entire world, and our closest allies in particular, regard as wrongheaded, we should pause and reconsider. Maybe, just maybe, we are wrong and they are right. That’s a lesson I learned the hard way after 2003. Trump and his supporters may someday learn the same lesson if his pullback from global leadership allows the Chinese, Russians, and other rivals to fill the vacuum we are leaving behind.