Donald Trump possesses a remarkable ability to appall us by doing exactly what he said he would when he ran for president. True, he has abandoned some promises and flip-flopped here and there, but mostly on the stuff that everyone knew was bogus from the start, unless you were possessed of an epic naïveté. (Oh dear, he's not really going to "drain the swamp" and stick it to Wall Street? I'm shocked.) Nevertheless, with each new decision, initiative, and reaction, the Trump presidency turns out to be as bad as we thought—or worse. The most alarming thing is that he is exactly who he seemed to be.
This week's reality-TV-style announcement that he will pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement showed Trump at his most Trumpian, commandeering the media's attention for a lurid and self-congratulatory display of ignorance, dishonesty, and primitive tribalism. It also showed that the Trump Doctrine in foreign affairs is taking shape. A man who knows nothing about the world has a firm and unshakeable principle on which he will construct his foreign policy. It says that there is only one question that needs to be asked: What's in it for me?
That Trump would bring his transactional mindset to foreign affairs is no surprise. He has made it plain that he thinks about every interaction with friend or foe as a "deal," something to be negotiated to get the best possible terms. Alliances from which everyone benefits or actions that have a short-term cost but long-term, widely shared gains just make no sense to him.
Which is why he was bound to walk away from the Paris Agreement. After all, it involved the entire world joining together to make progress on a common problem, while Trump has been quite explicit that his goal is to gain advantage on other countries. When he says "America First," he doesn't just mean that he cares more about our own welfare than that of other countries and people, but that he wants to win, which means others have to lose. As his national security adviser H.R. McMaster and his chief economic adviser Gary Cohn wrote in a Wall Street Journal op-ed last week (clearly channeling their boss, though in more articulate terms), "the world is not a 'global community' but an arena where nations, nongovernmental actors, and businesses engage and compete for advantage." If that's what you believe, then of course you have no patience for an international agreement to reduce greenhouse emissions.
The idea of gaining advantage ran through the speech Trump gave on Thursday announcing the pullout from the agreement. Consider his assertion that this was only one phase in a negotiation to come:
Therefore, in order to fulfill my solemn duty to protect America and its citizens, the United States will withdraw from the Paris Climate Accord, but begin negotiations to reenter either the Paris Accord or a really entirely new transaction on terms that are fair to the United States, its businesses, its workers, its people, its taxpayers. So we're getting out. But we will start to negotiate, and we will see if we can make a deal that's fair. And if we can, that's great. And if we can't, that's fine.
This is ridiculous on multiple levels. First, there will be no renegotiation. The Paris Agreement was worked out with every country on earth except for Nicaragua and Syria. They aren't going to redo that entire process in the hopes that Trump might find some other hypothetical agreement more satisfying. Second, there will be no "new transaction," because it isn't a transaction at all. It's a pledge by all those countries to reduce their emissions. Third, the emission targets are voluntary. It can't be terribly unfair to the United States if there is zero consequence for the United States not meeting its targets. And those targets weren't forced on us by some cruel foreign government; each country came up with its own.
As Daniel Larison of The American Conservative pointed out, this has been a regular part of Trump's deal-making strategy throughout his career: renege on the deal, and assume that the other party will come crawling back with terms that are more favorable to you. That's the point of not paying his bills, something for which Trump was so often sued. He figured that at best he could get something for nothing, and at worst he could get it for a fraction of what he agreed to pay, because the stiffed vendor would rather accept pennies on the dollar than get nothing at all. Sometimes it even worked.
For Trump, every bit of foreign relations is a transaction and every transaction is a hostile one, so the very idea of countries coming together to achieve a common goal simply makes no sense. A "deal" is where you negotiate terms that you hope enable you to take advantage of the person across the table. A "bad deal" is one where they screwed you over, and a "good deal" is one where you screwed them over. That's all Trump understands. So if we didn't screw everyone else over, we must have been the victims. "This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States," he said.
This is the heart of the Trump Doctrine, a belief that the only way to approach the world is by trying to do it to them before they do it to us. If there's some short-term benefit to be gained for us, we can do a deal. If not, forget it.
So what happens to American leadership when that is the guiding philosophy of the American administration? What happens is that people and governments begin to realize that they can't rely on the United States as an ally or a partner unless the angry toddler in the White House is convinced that he's getting one over on them. International agreements become somewhere between difficult and impossible to negotiate. Allies assume they'll be left on their own. It becomes harder to persuade other countries to join with us when we need them. And eventually, the very idea of "American leadership" begins to disappear.