President Donald J. Trump has announced the U.S. withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, "an agreement within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) dealing with greenhouse gas emissions mitigation," signed originally during the presidency of Barack Obama with 194 other countries. Trump's speech, despite some redundancies, was one of the most defining moments in U.S. history. He spent considerable time listing the many ways that Agreement is bad for the U.S. economy, a burden on taxpayers, and insignificant as far as protecting the U.S. and world environment. He announced his intention to be environmentally friendly, but not to the point of shipping U.S. jobs overseas, putting a "lock and key" on American energy resources, or curtailing our prosperity and quality of life.
What changed the speech from merely expressing a straightforward policy decision, a speech that could have been designed by the proverbial policy wonk? What made Trump's Rose Garden announcement a speech with a unique national vision, one defining American exceptionalism, a speech restoring us to an understanding that the USA was destined to be and is unique among the nations of the world?
The economic facts would have been enough to justify our withdrawal from the Agreement. Nevertheless, the defining moment was when Trump said (my italics):
There are serious legal and constitutional issues as well. Foreign leaders in Europe, Asia, and across the world, should not have more to say with respect to the U.S. economy than our own citizens and their elected representatives, thus, our withdrawal from the agreement represents a reassertion of America's sovereignty. Our constitution is unique among all nations of the world. And it is my highest obligation and greatest honor to protect it. And I will[.] ... It would once have been unthinkable that an international agreement could prevent the United States from conducting its own domestic economic affairs, but this is the new reality we face if we do not leave the agreement or if we do not negotiate a far better deal."
In saying these words, President Trump announced to the world that we are departing from the trajectory of the U.S. toward globalization. "America First" in the good sense, not in a hyper-nationalist or chauvinist sense, is being affirmed and embraced. The key to a sincere nationalism, one that represents the highest ideals that were the original impulse of our republic, is holding fast to our national sovereignty. The sovereignty of the nation-state is its borders, its operating on the basis of national interest – what the late senator Daniel Moynihan (D-N.Y.) liked to call enlightened self-interest – and its control of its own economics, legal system, and political values and structure. Sovereignty defines every nation-state as a self-governing entity answerable to its citizens and its national values and government system.
Sovereignty has not been discussed in the public square for a long time. Air travel, Skype, and extensive trade with international labels in our clothing, cars, appliances, and other merchandise sometimes give the impression that the idea of "national interest" is out of date, even pre-technological and backward. If I can not only know my roots and keep some of my customs, but also literally, in a matter of hours, return to my roots or communicate "live" with friends, family, business associates, and "pen pals" in other countries, a sense of the unique nation-state experience, of the "special something" of living in the USA, may seem diluted.
The first major attempt to turn away from the nation-state concept toward a globalist vision was Woodrow Wilson's brainchild, the League of Nations. The League of Nations was rejected by the U.S. Senate based on objections raised by Republican senators Henry Cabot Lodge and William Borah. Both repudiated the treaty because of its inclusion of a League of Nations, which would jeopardize – you guessed it – U.S. sovereignty. Borah, in a passionate two-hour speech, stated, "We have forfeited and surrendered, once and for all, the great policy of 'no entangling alliances' upon which the strength of this Republic has been founded for one hundred fifty years." George Washington had warned the republic against those entangling alliances because he understood that the U.S. is a unique country, founded on unique republican principles, rejection of all titles of nobility, and rights for all guaranteed by a constitution. Further, our rich soil and active commercial life provided great opportunities for all, unlike the rigid feudalism that still characterized much of Europe. He did not want us to become compromised by other peoples who were less free and less prosperous than ourselves. Lodge and Borah understood the need to carry on that vision of sovereignty.
Sadly, the Washington-Lodge-Borah vision of a the U.S. as a unique land of opportunity and as a sovereign nation unique in many, many positive ways has been fading from view since the end of WWII. Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill returned to a Wilsonian vision during the war as they drafted plans for a United Nations. After the war, the U.N. (1945) was created. Then the International Monetary Fund and World Bank were created as international lending institutions (to which the U.S. was and is the main contributor) to support the economic advancement of developing nations in the Third World.
Then NATO (1947) came into existence to defend Europe against Soviet expansion. After NATO, the U.S. joined SEATO (1954) to protect southeast Asia. Step by step, the network of multilateral memberships grew. Economic global agreements and networks also became the norm. We became signers of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), begun in 1947, which by 1994 had 128 signatories and which is now managed through a framework known as the World Trade Organization (WTO). Under GATT, procedures are in place for nation-states to negotiate disputes if they believe that the rules of GATT are not being followed or to challenge other perceived unfair trade practices. Also, during the years of Pres. Bill Clinton, we became one of the three members of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which Trump now wishes to renegotiate in order to get more favorable terms for the U.S.
This incredibly extensive military and economic network of treaties and agreements is the background against which we can see and understand the radical nature of Trump's repudiation of the Paris Agreement. The fear of entangling alliances we see as fundamental in an earlier era of American history has essentially been abandoned since 1945. Not only are we involved with the "Old World" countries of Europe from which America's ancestors largely emigrated or fled, but we are now embroiled with countries having even more radically different values, mores, and customs than the countries Washington, Lodge, and Borah warned us about.
Trump is thus speaking against not merely membership in the Paris Agreement. By speaking of our sovereignty, he is throwing down the gauntlet to our entire strategy of world relations during the post-WWII period. His reference to sovereignty suggests to this writer that he is forthrightly bucking an 82-year trend toward multilateralism, an 82-year trend of diluting American sovereignty. He is saying no to a furtherance of the many financial and legal compromises made when entering into to such extensive networks. With great clarity, he closed his announcement by saying, "In other words, the Paris framework is just a starting point. As bad as it is. Not an end point."
Seeing that our continued membership would be the beginning of a further phase towards global governance, the president decided boldly to say "no." We can conclude that his "no" is likewise to be seen as a first step – a game-changing, powerful, proactive step – toward regaining our precious sovereignty.