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In an article for World Politics Review, CFR James H. Binger Senior Fellow in Global Governance and Director of the International Institutions and Global Governance Program Stewart M. Patrick compares the Donald J. Trump administration's decision to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement to the early twentieth century U.S. rejection of the Covenant of the League of Nations.
Almost a century after the U.S. Senate rejected the Covenant of the League of Nations, President Donald Trump last week formally announced that the United States would begin quitting the Paris climate agreement, the most important multilateral convention of the 21st century. Future historians may well look back on these twin abdications as bookends to the “American century,” underscoring enduring U.S. ambivalence toward globalism and defensiveness regarding national sovereignty. The tale of these two Paris treaties reveals both how much the global agenda has changed and how little the U.S. has learned since 1919.
From its founding until World War I, the U.S. generally hewed to the advice of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson to eschew permanent international commitments. Having established a constitutional republic based on popular sovereignty, Americans were wary of any attachments that might permit foreign powers to subvert their self-government and liberties at home or to restrict their freedom of action abroad. The nation’s sense of exceptionalism reinforced the notion that it should be free to pursue its own providential course in world affairs. Finally, the separation of powers, as well as the powers reserved to individual U.S. states within the nation’s federal system, complicated the assumption of international obligations, particularly treaties.
In taking the U.S. into World War I and committing it to help organize a new postwar structure for maintaining peace, President Woodrow Wilson challenged this tradition of unilateral detachment. Wilson’s envisioned instrument was the Covenant of the League of Nations, negotiated at the Paris Peace Conference. Article 10 of that treaty would have committed the U.S., at least in principle, to defend the territorial integrity and political independence of every country in the world.
The question of whether—and under what terms—America should accept these obligations ignited what remains the most ferocious foreign policy debate in U.S. history. Its leading protagonists were Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Both advocated U.S. global engagement, but whereas Wilson promoted a sweeping liberal internationalism, Lodge preferred a more selective, great-power internationalism to preserve U.S. prerogatives and maneuvering room. Despite a cross-country barnstorming effort, Wilson ultimately fell short in this debate, thanks to his obdurate refusal to compromise on Article 10.
The story had an ironic denouement, with fateful consequences for U.S. foreign policy. Wilson and Lodge’s competing internationalisms canceled each other out, ceding the field to a third view: isolationism. President Warren Harding set the tone in his first address to a joint session of Congress, in April 1921: “In the existing League of Nations, world-governing with its super-powers, this nation will have no part.” A decade later, Sen. William Borah encapsulated this hyper-sovereigntist position in an address to the Council on Foreign Relations on New York. “In all matters political, in all commitments of any nature or in kind that encroach in the slightest on the free and unembarrassed action of our people, or which circumscribe their discretion and judgment,” he said, “we have been free, we have been independent, we have been isolationist.”
Despite the efforts of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, these isolationist sentiments persisted throughout the 1930s, even as fascism and militarism ran rampant in Europe and Asia. It was only the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor that silenced advocates of placing ”America First” and, in the words of Sen. Arthur Vandenberg, “ended isolationism for any realist.” Under Roosevelt and then President Harry S. Truman, the U.S. led a world order-building project unlike any before or since, producing among other bodies the United Nations, the Bretton Woods institutions of the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the precursor to the World Trade Organization.
A century after Wilson’s failure, isolationism is back in vogue in Washington, where Trump has resurrected the America First rhetoric of interwar sovereigntists. His backward-looking call to “Make America Great Again” betrays nostalgia for an allegedly halcyon era when the United States could insulate itself from the world’s troubles, without the pesky nuisance of international cooperation.
And he sees the Paris Agreement in much the same way. In repudiating the accord in June 2017, he contended, speciously, that the nonbinding treaty discriminated unfairly against the United States. The red meat of his complaint, however, was that the deal—which is based on countries’ voluntary commitments to cut their carbon emissions—violated American sovereignty. “Foreign leaders… should not have more say with respect to the U.S. economy than our own citizens and their elected representatives,” the president declared. “Thus, our withdrawal from the agreement represents a reassertion of America’s sovereignty.”
Trump’s argument was and remains absurd. The Paris Agreement is a flexible arrangement consistent with the U.S. Constitution. It commits its parties to one major goal: supporting a collective effort to keep the rise in average global temperatures under 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally under 1.5 degrees, from preindustrial levels. But it does not mandate how the U.S. or any other party should go about fulfilling this obligation. Rather, each government submits its own individual, nationally determined contribution to that joint effort. The Obama administration insisted on such a flexible scheme precisely to avoid stimulating sovereigntist antibodies within the U.S. Senate.
If the Paris Agreement and the League Covenant testify to the persistent pull of American sovereigntism, they also show how the global agenda has evolved since 1919. The Paris Peace Conference aimed not only to punish the Central Powers for the war but also to prevent the world’s descent into another global slaughter. The League of Nations, it was hoped, would allow peace-loving states to deter, and if necessary overwhelm, any aggressor.
Preserving interstate peace remains a core function of today’s United Nations. But another, equally compelling imperative has joined it: preserving the viability of the planet, so that Earth can continue to support life itself.
The global ecological crisis poses a threat to humanity every bit as serious as the specter of world war. Scientists warn that the world is on track to blow by even the Paris Agreement’s fallback target of a 2-degrees Celsius rise in global temperature. The catastrophic consequences will include severe heat, extreme weather, rising seas, raging wildfires, melting icecaps, dying oceans, collapsing biodiversity and mass migration.
To have any hope of addressing the global climate crisis, the world’s governments must renew their commitment to collective security, albeit focused on the survival of the planet as well as the deterrence of aggressors. As always in a system of sovereign states, the temptation to free ride or defect is the major challenge to joint action. By refusing to shoulder its fair share of the global burden, the United States, led by the Trump administration, is placing the fate of the nation and humanity at risk—and showing just how little it has learned from history.