The world moves on
Donald Trump is letting American leadership lapse
If you think American exceptionalism is not that America is a world leader but that it basically is out of the game, then your view was confirmed by President Donald J. Trump’s just-concluded trip to Asia, which was a clear manifestation of this new status quo. President Barack Obama’s administration worked long years to build the Trans-Pacific Partnership into a multinational trade organization designed in part as a counter to China’s growing hegemony in Asia. Mr. Trump, upon coming to office, promptly pulled the United States out of the TPP — which now is organized and functioning, with 21 member countries cutting deals as the United States sits on the sidelines. Meanwhile, as their collective clout grows, Mr. Trump’s efforts to negotiate “better” bilateral trade relationships with individual TPP members are going pretty much nowhere. An even more glaring example of American self-exclusion has to do with climate change. With Nicaragua and even decimated Syria signing on to the 2015 Paris agreement over the past few weeks, the United States now is the only country still out of the game, thanks to Mr. Trump and his merry band. Because the United States won’t formally exit the Paris agreement until 2020, it now is discussing climate change with the other nations of the world in Bonn, Germany. The Trump administration sent a team to pitch, brace yourself, coal. Its presentation predictably was met by a half-full house and demonstrations. An unofficial U.S. delegation in Bonn was led by former Vice President Al Gore and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg (who financed a U.S. pavilion to the tune of $1 million) and included California Gov. Jerry Brown. They pledged that the United States will meet its climatechange commitments no matter what the Trump administration does. In the meantime, carbon emissions have accelerated after several years of decline. This apparently is not due to Trump administration-directed burning of coal or documents, but rather to the widespread burning of coal in China and India. For the most part, even intelligent skeptics who question whether global warming is caused by human activities have yielded to the concept that we had better do what we can about it, even as we continue to study the phenomenon. The increasing number of severe storms hitting the United States itself is catching the attention of the American public. Other evidence of the rest of world adopting a “we got along before we met you” attitude in the Trump era includes the European Union busily developing its own military force alongside NATO, and, perhaps down the road, in place of NATO. Mr. Trump has taken some cracks at the alliance, indicating that he and his administration might not fight in defense of fellow NATO members if they are attacked, particularly if they haven’t paid their “fair share” of NATO expenses. There always has been a decent argument that NATO members should assume more responsibility for their own defense. But the idea that they might be doing so now because they no longer trust the United States, under the leadership of Mr. Trump, is not a happy development. It isn’t even good for the United States in terms of a matter near and dear to Mr. Trump’s heart, U.S. arms sales, which he promoted shamelessly during his Asian trip. Finally, there is the question of how America’s increasingly being disregarded in the world plays at home. From one point of view, it would not be a bad thing for our country if it meant that we now will employ our resources to fix some of our domestic problems. We are told that we face a $300 billion bill to fix our water and sewer pipes over the next decade — that is, unless we all would like to experience the types of water contamination that recently have afflicted Pittsburgh and Flint, Mich — not to mention the problems of Toledo, Ohio, with its algae clogged Lake Erie waters. Three-hundred billion dollars sounds like a lot unless one notes that the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, now trailing into their teenage years, have cost American taxpayers trillions. The argument remains valid that America is strongest overseas when it is strongest at home. But there is nothing necessary about America backing off from its leadership role in collaborative trade, mutual defense or climate change to concentrate on problems at home. We can do both. What this requires is intelligent leadership, at home and in the international realm, without excessive reliance on military sales and strength. I don’t think that is too much to expect from our nation’s leaders. We can hope that Mr. Trump reviews the bidding at this point and adjusts his policies accordingly. But we might have to just wait him out.