Thursday, June 8, 2017

Negotiating Climate Change: The Perils of “America First”

by Robert C. Bordone

Prof Robert C. Bordone

Much ink has been spent lamenting President Trump’s decision to withdraw from The Paris Agreement. Political leaders, scientists, environmental policy experts, and even U.S. companies have condemned Trump’s move. More than just promoting ecological and humanitarian disaster, President Trump’s decision hurts the United States from a diplomatic and negotiation perspective.                                               

Though certainly oversimplifying, in broad strokes we might argue that there are two divergent approaches to how to think about negotiation on the international stage. The first approach assumes that building trust, promoting positive relationships and partnering with allies consistently over the long term is worthwhile and even essential to achieving one’s foreign policy goals. This approach means that you stand with your allies, trade across issues, and honor commitments made by your predecessors on behalf of your country. This approach characterized (in large part) the foreign policy approach of former President Obama’s administration.

The second approach assumes that the first is naïve. According to this approach, success on the international stage depends on accruing power and deploying power, using your leverage whenever you can to force the other side’s hand. It makes the case for acting strategically and opportunistically in the long term, using hard-won leverage to achieve gains and maintain power.  Not surprisingly, this is President Trumps’ approach to negotiation.

Even if you subscribe to the second approach to international negotiation, it seems that President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris climate accords may well be a terrible miscalculation.

First, the President may well have overestimated the United States’ power and prestige in the world. Yes, U.S. military and economic might is greater than any other power on earth. But U.S. power and prestige has been on the decline and it’s unlikely that the rest of the world will be particularly inclined to re-negotiate a hard-won treaty with 196 signatories, especially when major U.S. companies have reaffirmed their own commitment to the accord. Trump, it seems, has fallen victim to overconfidence and self-serving biases from which all negotiators suffer. Americans seem particularly prone to this overconfidence bias, whether with respect to Vietnam, the Iraq War or the conflict in Afghanistan. It is not atypical for great powers to overestimate their ability to deploy the power to bring other people to their knees. If Trump’s purpose is to use American leverage to re-negotiate the terms of the Paris agreement, the withdrawal from the treaty may actually have weakened America’s hand.

Second, President Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris climate accord may have the unintended consequence of reducing American leverage and power on the international stage. Why? Because economic and military clout are only two sources of power. Moral legitimacy and a willingness to follow-through on agreements are two other important sources of power. Even the most hard ball policymakers and international relations experts acknowledge that without these kinds of soft power – without a sense that the United States represents aspirational values in the world – the U.S. may have a lower capacity to influence.

With his decision, the President has signaled to the world that the U.S. is not prepared to lead on an issue of consequence to the planet and to our very survival as a species and that the U.S. cannot be trusted to stand by its prior commitments. It is not as if U.S. moral legitimacy has ever been pure or absolute. Far from it. But the U.S.’s reputation as a country willing to make commitments and uphold a set of ethical principles that extend beyond a particular administration has been a major source of its power and influence. The next time a country or set of countries engages in negotiations with the U.S., they will be wary about the value of the agreement once a new administration takes office. This is almost unprecedented in U.S. history and it reduces the bargaining power of an American president.

The President’s gamble on Paris, then, is likely to backfire on the U.S. with the unfortunate externality of creating even more barriers to negotiated agreements going forward. It is bad enough that his decision will impact the health of the only planet on which we can live. In addition, even granting Trump’s transactional and power/leverage-based approach to negotiation, he has managed to reduce U.S. power, prestige, and legitimacy in the world.