The decision of President Donald Trump to pull his country out of the Paris climate agreement is a great gesture in domestic politics where the man has a loyal constituency of nationalists to cater to, but in the international arena, it reduces the image of the United States, the world's only superpower, to ashes. Though for Trump, neither his critics and opponents in the domestic politics nor the adversaries in the global community matters.
But just as every effect has a cause, this perhaps was written on the wall as the only eventuality the US was to embrace some day or the other.
US has been playing role of international guardian for a long time
Ever since the end of the Second World War, the US has been playing the role of an international policeman relentlessly. Even in the inter-war period, the US was one of the architects to set up a liberal world. The US itself was largely unhurt in the war because of its geographic isolation and that enabled it to emerge as the global leader because Europe was devastated in the war and looked up to Washington for spearheading the ensuing ideological war with the socialists.
The US also won that war as well as the Soviet Union had collapsed in the early 1990s, ending the road of socialism as a potential challenger to the capitalist club.
As the world became multi-polar, the US found it difficult to maintain the lead
The US was the leader of a world which saw a one-way traffic in the decade between the fall of the Soviets and the attacks on the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. But the reality had changed drastically thereafter and though the US did not retreat in the face of a multitude of challenges like terrorism, global warming, nuclear proliferation, regional conflicts especially in West Asia, economic competition from countries like China and India, strategic conflict with Russia, etc. etc., it was increasingly losing its lead over the rest of the world.
Take for example, the wars the US have found itself involved in Asia, directly or indirectly. Be it in Afghanistan, Iraq or Syria, the US has not been able to settle the conflicts as decisively as it had in almost all corners of the world during the Cold War days.
The reason for this inability is that the nature of the conflicts has changed completely today and is much more complex than the black-and-white ideological fights during the years of West versus Socialism. The end result has only been massive losses for the Americans – both in terms of man power and economy. It is crazy to see the US allowing itself to bleed so much in a non-war time but that is how its foreign policy has been: meddling in others' affairs for selfish gains.
This US isolationism is not an overnight development
The isolation which culminated in Trump's time is not an overnight development. Even his predecessor Barrack Obama was found to be more defensive in foreign affairs, compared to the two Bushes and Bill Clinton before him.
Especially after the mess the junior Bush had created in Iraq, causing the US mammoth losses, it was quite logical that Obama had not gone outright after yet another dictator in Syria. It would have been suicidal had he done so. Obama instead shifted the focus to the Asia Pacific to take on the Chinese but there was never a question of the Americans involving in a war with the Chinese.
Obama played around with anti-Chinese sentiments in countries like India, Vietnam, the Philippines (though that did not deliver as per the expectations) besides its traditional allies like Japan and South Korea, aiming to gang up against Beijing but not really going for a full-fledged jingoist stance. For Obama, it was a strategy war rather than the real one.
The same happened in Ukraine as well where despite the Russians breaching all norms of international law, Obama never really flexed his muscle though he never fell short of words to condemn Moscow.
In Iran, too, Obama went for reconciliation despite it being an old adversary. He also had a difference with Israel over the latter's warnings to Palestinians. Obama also shed historical baggage to get closer to Cuba, a country the US had blockaded for several decades because of ideological enmity.
The Americans were far from their known style of war-mongering and perhaps a fatigue accrued from decades of military adventures and the consequent losses pushed them towards this reformist stance.
Trump gave Obama's non-activism the shape of isolationism
Trump was in favour of this inward-looking policy from the very beginning, even if he blasted Obama during his campaign period which he had to do as a political compulsion. Trump was mirroring the general frustration of the Americans who were suffering even as the power-holders were looking elsewhere.
It was no surprise that the last American elections saw candidates like Trump and Bernie Sanders joining the fray and Hillary Clinton losing it ultimately. The quest for an alternative politics under a white president was the dominant thinking in that election. Obama faced flak because of his skin complexion although Trump hasn't really alienated his predecessor's functioning in spirit.
Trump is more a narcissist and hence chest-thumps each time he does something but given the prevalent mood in the US today, his decision to not join international forums [he also scrapped Obama's idea of Trans-Pacific Partnership and reprimanded the Nato for milking the US] reflects the complete anti-thesis of the traditional foreign policy orientation of the US. The circle has come full. Over seven decades after taking charge of the globe, the United States has got drained out, at least psychologically.
But Trump erred in dumping Paris climate agreement
However, Trump erred in one aspect which Obama didn't. While the latter had really worked hard towards securing a global climate deal, the former just scrapped it, citing the USA's own losses.
Trump should have known that a climate change agreement isn't about military alliance and is more constructive than invading Iraq. Instead of calling for complete isolation which one doubts can be possible in today's world, Trump should have gone to give the planet a positive leadership and reform the USA's hawkish foreign policy without abandoning anybody.
The Paris climate accord is such a key democratic project which involves the future of the entire planet that the US had a moral responsibility to lead from the front and its hasty withdrawal would only cripple its world leadership, something even the country's fierce competitor China has acknowledged.
Trump's isolationism is not strategic. It's a populist stance fed by narrow nationalist feelings that have been fuelled by decades of foreign policy blunders. It's a new experience of the world to do something minus the US in the last 100 years. Can it manage without the last remaining superpower?