Moisés Naím/ El País
In last week’s column I analyzed one of the biggest surprises in modern international politics: the United States’ decision to unilaterally surrender its power and influence in areas in which it had – until now – enjoyed clear leadership. I concluded that column by asking: who will fill these power gaps? I anticipated that it would not be China. I do not think it’s Russia either. Then who will it be?
When I wrote that column I did not know that a few days later President Donald Trump would announce his decision to withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord, joining Nicaragua and Syria, the only two countries that did not sign it.
Trump’s decision is an excellent example of the rare phenomenon of a superpower giving up power without having it taken away by a rival. Former Secretary of State John Kerry called it "an unprecedented forfeiture of American leadership." Fareed Zakaria, a respected analyst, said that the United States had "resigned as the leader of the free world."
Reactions to the exit of the United States from the Paris Agreement also reveal incipient but interesting trends. Miguel Arias Cañete, European Commissioner for Climate Action and Energy, said that Trump's decision “galvanized” Europeans, and he promised that the vacuum created by the US would be filled by “new broad committed leadership.”
In the United States, three governors, 30 mayors, 80 university presidents, and managers of more than 100 large companies announced that they would present the United Nations with a joint plan for the US to meet the emission reduction targets indicated in the Paris Agreement, even if the White House doesn’t support it. Jeff Immelt, CEO of General Electric, wrote on Twitter: “Disappointed with today’s decision on the Paris Agreement. Climate change is real. Industry must now lead and not depend on government.” And in China, Shi Zhiqin, a researcher at the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center, predicted that “while Beijing can only express regret at Trump’s action, China will forge ahead with its commitments and cooperate with Europe.”
Thus, leadership in this field is shifting from the White House to regional and local authorities, businesses, and civil society. And from the US to Europe and China.
But the fight against global warming is not the only area where the United States is retreating. Another – and very important – area is Europe. This was made very explicit by Angela Merkel after her recent meeting with Trump: “The times when we could fully rely on others have passed us by a little bit, that’s what I’ve experienced in recent days. And that is why I can only say that we Europeans must really take our fate into our own hands – of course in friendship with the United States of America, in friendship with Great Britain and as good neighbors wherever that is possible also with other countries, even with Russia. But we have to know that we must fight for our future.”
It is an interesting irony that, unintentionally, Trump may be contributing to the geopolitical resurgence of a Europe that he despises and which has been burdened by its economic and institutional problems, the immigration crisis, as well as by Islamist terrorism and Russian expansionism. But even more important is the space these developments open for China to take advantage of the vacuum left by the withdrawal of the United States.
This decline in US international influence precedes the arrival of Trump, although his initial decisions, such as getting the country out of the Paris Agreement or the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) will accelerate the process.
Is China then the new leader that will dominate the world?
This prediction, however, ignores important realities that limit the hegemonic capacity of the Asian giant. While China is an economic and military power, it is also a very poor country facing severe social, financial, and environmental problems. Nor does its political model seem very attractive to citizens of other countries. This is not to say that China will not have clear leadership in some global issues – such as climate change, for example – or a huge ascendancy in parts of Asia. Or that it will not be part of the decisions that affect the whole world.
But it is one thing to take part in decisions and another, very different thing, to be the one who makes them. Everything indicates that we have entered a post–hegemonic era in which no nation will dominate the world, as it used to happen before. From this perspective, the withdrawal of the United States does not imply its irrelevance. It will not be the superpower it used to be, but it will not cease to have power either. The Pentagon, Wall Street, Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and America’s universities will continue to be immense sources of international influence.
And the White House? Much less than before.