President Donald Trump’s stunning words and actions to our European allies this week — culminating in reports that he will exit the historic Paris climate agreement — signal the end of the American Century.
Rather than strive to maintain the United States’ position as the leader of the free world, a role we have assigned to ourselves for decades, Trump is content with America the villain — the greedy and myopic country that killed humanity’s last, best hope of avoiding catastrophic climate change. Also, by abandoning clean energy, which is the one new sector capable of actually creating millions of high wage American jobs, Trump is officially handing the economic reins over to Europe and China.
Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations in the Obama administration, echoed that sentiment on Twitter Wednesday morning.
“America is responsible, to herself as well as to history, for the world environment in which she lives,” wrote publisher Henry Luce in a famous February 17, 1941 Life magazine editorial, “The American Century.”
Luce was writing about America’s obligation to end its isolationism and enter World War II. But he had a broader purpose, to discuss a “fundamental issue which faces America as it faces no other nation,” an issue “deeper even than the immediate issue of war.”
That issue was whether America would assume the mantle of global leader. Luce explained that throughout our history, “this continent teemed with manifold projects and magnificent purposes. Above them all… was the triumphal purpose of freedom. It is in this spirit that all of us are called, each to his own measure of capacity, and each in the widest horizon of his vision, to create the first great American Century.”
In words that still ring true today, Luce described what would happen if America met the challenge and took a global leadership role — and what would happen if we retreated into isolationism:
If America meets it correctly, then, despite hosts of dangers and difficulties, we can look forward and move forward to a future worthy of men, with peace in our hearts. If we dodge the issue, we shall flounder for ten or 20 or 30 bitter years in a chartless and meaningless series of disasters.
And so the U.S. finds itself at the same crossroads today. After a disastrous European trip in which Trump offended many world leaders, refused to endorse our commitment to defend our NATO allies, and persuaded Germany that we aren’t a reliable partner, a decision to exit the Paris climate deal would be the last straw, a blunder of historical import.
By torpedoing the unanimous agreement among more than 190 nations aimed at sparing humanity decades, if not centuries, of misery, Trump will destroy America’s “soft power,” our ability to achieve outcomes we desire in other global negotiations.
Trump will be destroying the global influence that was at the core of Luce’s definition of the American Century: “to accept wholeheartedly our duty and our opportunity as the most powerful and vital nation in the world and in consequence to exert upon the world the full impact of our influence, for such purposes as we see fit and by such means as we see fit.”
Ironically, by gutting domestic climate action and clean energy investment, Trump will also weaken the U.S. economically; other countries, particularly China, have indicated they intend to seize on the vast wealth and high paying jobs that come with leadership in clean energy and climate solutions, which will be a $50 trillion-plus market in the coming decades.
China has already announced its intention to be the economic leader and global hero on climate change. Indeed, one leading Australian financial columnist called Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos in January “the moment China’s president claimed global leadership on trade and climate in the vacuum of America’s advertised withdrawal.”
The official China Daily wrote in a commentary at the time, “ready or not, China has become the de facto world leader seeking to maintain an open global economy and battle climate change.” It called China “the one major power with a global outlook.”
Unless Trump is replaced in 2020 by a president committed to domestic and global climate action, he will have free reign to fully thwart the world’s last plausible realistic chance to avoid disaster. America, the richest country and biggest cumulative carbon polluter, will inevitably be blamed for the ever worsening weather extremes, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and climate conflicts here and abroad.
Luce truly described the future Trump is creating for us with remarkable prescience: “We shall flounder for 10 or 20 or 30 bitter years in a chartless and meaningless series of disasters.”