- By Nina HachigianNina Hachigian served as the U.S. ambassador to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations from 2014 to 2017. During her tenure, the United States established a strategic partnership with ASEAN, held the first leaders' summit in the United States, and launched a presidential initiative for economic cooperation. Earlier, Hachigian was a senior fellow and a senior vice president at the Center for American Progress. Prior to that, she was the director of the RAND Center for Asia Pacific Policy. Hachigian served on the staff of the National Security Council in the Bill Clinton White House. She is the editor of "Debating China: The U.S. — China Relationship in Ten Conversations." She also wrote "The Next American Century: How the U.S. Can Thrive as Other Powers Rise."
“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.”
This sounded like the biggest applause line in President Donald Trump’s announcement on Thursday that the United States would withdraw from the Paris climate accord. Unfortunately, like much of the speech, it was a lie. The accord doesn’t infringe on U.S. sovereignty. And if Trump actually cared about American sovereignty, he would not be derailing investigations into Russia’s hack of the U.S. election.
While some argue that sovereignty does not really exist in today’s global world, politicians cling to the concept. And, of course, nations should have the right to determine what is in the best interests of their people and act on that knowledge without unwanted interference from outsiders.
But the Paris accord does not diminish U.S. sovereignty. It does not contain a binding legal commitment to reduce carbon emissions. Every one of the 195 countries that negotiated the agreement chose its own national targets, in order to get other countries to do the same, so they could, together, stave off future disaster for all residents of the planet. The Paris accord was a giant exercise in peer pressure. It was historic and it was successful — countries are making the changes they need to meet their pledges. It could not have happened without brave U.S. leadership.
If Trump wanted to change the commitments that the Obama administration made in Paris, he could have, unilaterally. This explains why much of the rest of the world is so angry at the United States right now. Our exit is a harsh slap in the face of a united global community trying hard to ward off the worst effects of climate change, and further, an assault on the very idea of a global community. It was also completely unnecessary.
Other international agreements, like the North Atlantic Treaty (which established NATO) and the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, do legally require the United States to take certain steps. In those cases, U.S. leaders judged that compliance was worth the benefits we got in return. For example, as members of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, the United States allows international inspectors into its weapons facilities periodically to ensure we are following the rules. In return, most of the rest of the world pledges not to develop nuclear weapons and that deal makes Americans much safer than they otherwise would be. This tradeoff is the best way to protect U.S. interests. And, at the end of the day, no country or group of countries can make us do something we don’t want to do. Nevertheless, the GOP has wielded the sovereignty argument like a club to prevent the United States from entering some treaties that would benefit us a great deal, like the Convention on the Law of the Sea.
But again, the Paris agreement is not a treaty. It did not create binding emissions targets. Pulling out of it greatly diminished or even extinguished U.S. global leadership, perhaps permanently, in exchange for nothing but scattered applause from a small minority of Americans. And, no, our exit will not create jobs.
The sovereignty argument is false, but it is also patently insincere. We have recently experienced the most profound infringement of American sovereignty in recent memory. As the unanimous January report from our intelligence agencies concluded:
We assess Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered an influence campaign in 2016 aimed at the US presidential election. Russia’s goals were to undermine public faith in the US democratic process, denigrate Secretary Clinton, and harm her electability and potential presidency. … We have high confidence in these judgments.
Russia interfered in America’s presidential election through covert intelligence, cyber, and influence operations, including stealing and distributing private emails and systematically spreading fake news stories through social media, with the clear intent of assisting candidate Trump. But when it comes to this dire and harmful infringement of American sovereignty, we have gotten nothing but obfuscation from the White House and silence from most Republican members of Congress. In fact, Trump has handed the Kremlin one foreign policy victory after another, most recently becoming the only U.S. president in the modern era not to have affirmed America’s Article 5 obligation under NATO (a real treaty) to defend others if attacked. Congress has failed to create a bipartisan, independent commission to make sure Russia’s hack, and any American collusion, could never happen again.
History will not judge today’s leaders kindly. They cried sovereignty when it wasn’t at risk and failed to defend America when it was. They have forsaken the planet and their role in protecting America.
Photo credit: CHIP SOMODEVILLA/Getty Images