Donald Trump promised to put “America first,” even if it meant alienating old friends and stretching the patience of our global allies. So far, this appears to be among the rare campaign promises he has kept. With his open disdain for multilateralism, scorn for the United Nations, and basic boorishness when dealing with foreign leaders over the telephone, our president is proudly ushering in a new era of American isolationism.
The thing about isolationism, though, is that it can be, well, isolating. The recent G20 meeting in Hamburg, Germany, demonstrated this truism. By most accounts, it didn’t go well for Trump. According to one prominent Australian political journalist on the scene, the president “was an uneasy, lonely, awkward figure at this gathering, and you got the strong sense that some of the leaders [were] trying to find the best way to work around him.”
When the heads of the most powerful countries in the world see zero value in talking to the POTUS pic.twitter.com/OMOxf7eJ0j— Sarah Silverman (@SarahKSilverman) July 8, 2017
Historically, the president of the United States has been a driving force at this annual summit of the world’s 20 largest economies, the global superpower equivalent of that magnetically attractive cocktail-party guest whom everyone else wants to chat up before leaving. Things are decidedly different now. Since the last G20 meeting a year ago, the United States, as embodied by our leader, has gone from charismatic A-lister to that one weird loner hanging out by the buffet table—the one that the other guests whisper about.
“Should we go over there and talk to him? He’s just sitting all by himself, staring at his phone.”
“Did you hear what he said to Angela? It’s like he has no filter whatsoever.”
“He’s heading in this direction—quick, let’s go grab another glass of wine before he gets here.”
It didn’t have to be this way. The sharpest and most effective world leaders are well versed in how to deal with their more obstreperous counterparts. (It’s the first thing they teach you in World Leader School.) Moreover, the other G20 members understand that American presidents come and go, and that the long-term relationship with the country matters far more than the short-term relationship with any current commander-in-chief. This is why they’re able to smile at, speak graciously to, and shake hands (for uncomfortable amounts of time!) with heads of state whom they may find personally unlikeable.
But when Trump announced our nation’s withdrawal from the Paris climate agreement in June, he went beyond mere obstreperousness. He crossed the line into hostility. The United States is the second-largest producer of greenhouse gas emissions (and the largest historically)—emissions that are warming the globe and wreaking worldwide havoc. We should call our pulling out of the agreement what it really is: not a symbolic gesture of minor consequence, but an act of aggression.
And President Trump should consider himself lucky if the worst retaliation he faces is a collective cold shoulder from fellow world leaders. Perhaps he does consider himself lucky: According to one journalistic dispatch from the G20 summit, the president “seemed to relish his isolation” from other heads of state, presumably because it reinforced his self-styled identity as an America Firster and scratched the anti-internationalist itch of his restive, frothing base.
Or maybe he’s having second thoughts? A week after leaving the G20 summit, Trump returned to Europe to meet with newly elected French president Emmanuel Macron, one of three world leaders who spoke out the most vociferously against his Paris withdrawal. In the aftermath of that meeting, Macron intimated that Trump might indeed be softening his stance on the climate agreement and suggested that private conversations between the two men may have gone some way toward convincing Trump that participation is in America’s best interests after all.
Could it be that the fresh-faced Macron has yet to grasp what most others who have interacted with Trump know already? The truth of the matter is that this president tells people what he thinks they want to hear but has no compunction about reversing himself five minutes later. Even so, some hold out hope that Trump may reconsider the U.S. pullout, citing his statement at a joint press conference with Macron that "something could happen with respect to the Paris accord. We'll see what happens.”
Coyly worded obfuscation? Probably. But you never know with this president. The timing of his wobbliness, just a week after the G20 summit, is suggestive. As much as he may have appeared to “relish” his outsider status in Hamburg, Trump couldn’t really have enjoyed feeling left out of the Most Powerful People on the Planet Club. Withdrawing from the Paris Agreement, he thought, would make him look strong and independent. And it did—to a tiny sliver of Americans who harbor an irrational mistrust of multilateral agreements, science, or both.
But to the rest of the world, including the overwhelming majority of the American people he purports to lead, leaving the climate treaty made Trump look gullible, fearful, and irresponsible. It’s not a good look. Maybe, for Trump, that reality has begun to seep in.
onEarth provides reporting and analysis about environmental science, policy, and culture. All opinions expressed are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more or follow us on Facebook and Twitter.