After President Trump had announced the US would be pulling out of the Paris Climate Agreement, the reaction on the internet and among the chattering classes was about as hysterical and over the top as you may expect. Joyce E. Chaplin of Harvard declared that U.S. had “abandoned the international community,” others declared the “end of American leadership,” “the end of Pax Americana,” the “end of America as the indispensable nation.”
Without getting into the specifics of the Paris agreement, it’s somewhat of a stretch to claim this is a watershed moment in American foreign policy. The United States, in fact, has a long and proud history of leaving the International Community out to dry. Due to quirks of geography and our national culture (and being the biggest kid on the block), we get to.
The League of Nations, founded in 1919, was a precursor to the United Nations, and the brainchild of the American President Woodrow Wilson. In a reaction to the unprecedented bloodshed of World War I- the great powers sought an institution to provide for perpetual peace. The insinuation they came up with was the League of Nations. However when the treaty was signed, one great power was notably missing from the membership rolls: America. The American Senate voted down the treaty, fearing it would commit America to “foreign entanglements”. America would never be a member of the League.
Since the 1990’s, the United States has refused to join 124 other states and participate in or recognize the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court (ICC). The American government has gone to great lengths to ensure that no American ever be held or prosecuted by the ICC. Congress went so far as to pass a bill authorizing the President to use military force if necessary to free any member of the American Armed Forces held by the ICC (affectionately dubbed the “Hauge Invasion Act” by detractors).
In the past two decades, the United States has repeatedly withdrawn from and openly criticized the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC) over their near-obsessive focus on Israel. Rumblings are coming out of the current administration that we may be withdrawing once again.
In a similar vein to the Paris Agreement- the United States was one of four countries to decline to ratify the Kyoto Protocol during the first George W. Bush administration. Much maligned at the time, American’s global reputation seems to have weathered that storm.
The point here is not that the United States was right or wrong with withdrawing from the Paris accords- the point is that America standing apart from the international community is not anything new or particularly groundbreaking, and a nonbinding climate agreement is hardly what will mark the twilight of American power. According to international law, all countries have equal stature on the world stage. While this may be true on paper, pragmatically, it’s somewhat laughable.
I’ve always been a pragmatist in international relations, and the pragmatic fact is this: America is the first among equals on the world stage. Until Europe stops relying on the American military for its defense, until the world stops using the American dollar as its reserve currency, until the UN can figure out a way to fund itself and enforce its edicts without America; America will always be the indispensable nation.