When Vladimir Putin interfered in last year’s U.S. presidential election, one of his goals was to hurt Hillary Clinton. Another goal, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, was to help Donald Trump. A third goal was to undermine Americans’ confidence in our political system. But Trump’s election produced a fourth payoff beyond Putin’s wildest dreams: a U.S. government that goes out of its way to insult countries around the world, particularly European allies. This antagonism has never been more gratuitous than in Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.
The reason why nearly every country signed the Paris Agreement is that it’s voluntary. Any country can revise its commitments to carbon reduction at any time. This weekend, White House press secretary Sean Spicer and U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley were asked why Trump chose not to go this route. Neither could answer the question. Haley said that other governments had encouraged the U.S. to take advantage of the option to revise but that the administration had refused because “We’re truth tellers.” The only truth she could offer, by way of explaining Trump’s refusal, was that “the rest of the world wanted to tell us how” to manage climate policy, and Trump didn’t like that.
Pulling out of Paris makes sense as a gesture to Trump’s political base. In his Rose Garden speech on Thursday announcing the withdrawal, Trump likened the agreement to other international deals—trade, arms sales, NATO, foreign aid—on which he claimed to have fought for more favorable terms. “The Paris climate accord is simply the latest example of Washington entering into an agreement that disadvantages the United States,” said Trump. His point man against the agreement, Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt, repeated this message in several appearances after the speech. Trump, Pruitt, and Haley crowed about “American sovereignty” and offered “no apologies to other nations.”
Trump went beyond nationalist posturing. He’s been vilifying other countries by name. In his speech, Trump called the agreement soft on China and India, and Pruitt later falsely claimed that “China and India didn’t take any steps” toward carbon reduction. But Trump has aimed much of his fire at Europe. This is significant in part because, as U.S. intelligence agencies have noted, one of Putin’s central objectives is to divide Europe from the United States. Gen. James Mattis, in his confirmation hearing to become Trump’s defense secretary, described Putin’s goal succinctly: “He is trying to break the North Atlantic alliance.”
In his speech withdrawing from Paris, Trump encouraged this division. “Europe is allowed to continue construction of coal plants,” Trump complained. Twice, he said his job was to serve Americans, not “Paris, France.” He fumed that “the same nations asking us to stay in the agreement are the countries that have collectively cost America trillions of dollars,” in part through “lax contributions” to NATO. At Friday’s White House briefing, Spicer repeated that Trump “was elected to represent Pittsburgh, not Paris.”
Haley, whose job is diplomacy, joined the assault. In an interview on Face the Nation, she went after France and Germany. “Our first concern does not need to be what the international community thinks of us,” she said. “The rest of the world would like to tell us how to manage our own environment. … We don’t need India and France and China telling us what they think we should do.” As to German warnings about the effects of climate change in Africa, Haley scoffed: “We can’t sit there and have Angela Merkel telling us to worry about Africa. … American sovereignty matters.”
Trump didn’t just brush off European leaders. He accused them of dishonesty, malice, and sabotage. “This agreement is less about the climate and more about other countries gaining a financial advantage over the United States,” he charged. “The real reason why foreign lobbyists wish to keep our magnificent country tied up and bound down by this agreement,” he alleged, was “to give their country an economic edge over the United States.”
In the speech, Trump signaled that he was talking about Europe. At Friday’s White House briefing, Pruitt made the accusation explicit: “The reason European leaders … want us to stay in is because they know it will continue to shackle our economy.” When Pruitt was asked on Meet the Press about this charge—“Do you think that the globe, these countries, got together to slow down the United States economically?”—he repeated it. On Fox News Sunday, he accused France of caring more about hurting the United States than about saving the planet. “When we joined Paris, the rest of the world applauded, not because of climate reductions, but because it put this country at an economic disadvantage,” said Pruitt. “Why wouldn’t France and these other countries want us to stay in that kind of deal? [Because] it’s a bad deal for this country.”
Trump says France and other rivals aren’t just using the climate agreement to hurt us economically. He claims that they’re trying to humiliate us. In his speech, he followed his complaint about NATO with a torrent of rage: “At what point does America get demeaned? At what point do they start laughing at us as a country? … We don’t want other leaders and other countries laughing at us anymore. And they won’t be.” Trump’s reference was veiled. But according to a Washington Post account based on administration sources, he was irritated by comments from French President Emmanuel Macron about giving Trump a firm handshake as a show of force.
Having accused our allies of contempt and treachery, the administration concluded with a final insult: It boasted that we can do as we like, because we’re Americans. On Friday, when reporters noted that European leaders had ruled out renegotiating the whole climate agreement just to satisfy one country, Pruitt shrugged: “The United States has a seat at the table. After all, we’re the United States.” Two days later, on Fox News Sunday, he gave the same answer: “We are the United States, Chris. We don’t lose our seat at the table.”
None of this was necessary. Trump could have modified our carbon reduction pledge. He could have exited the agreement gracefully. He could have avoided insulting other countries by name. At a minimum, he could have refrained from impugning the motives of our allies. Instead, he inflicted maximum damage on the United States and its partnership with Europe. He’s not doing what’s good for Pittsburgh. Knowingly or not, he’s doing what’s good for Moscow.