Kaela Cote-Stemmermann (SCR’ 18)
David H. Rank, the chargé d’affaires at the American Embassy in Beijing, announced his resignation on June 5, 2017. He cited his opposition to the Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the Paris agreement as reasoning for his resignation. The Paris agreement, otherwise known as the Paris Climate Accord, is an agreement between 195 countries to curb carbon emissions and mitigate the worst effects of climate change. The Trump administration’s decision to withdraw from the treaty has left a gaping geopolitical hole in climate leadership–a hole which the Chinese leadership has proven happy to fill. The U.S. withdrawal from the Paris deal reflects an ongoing trend of isolationism and has the potential to permanently undermine U.S. diplomatic power, affecting U.S. relations with leaders and heads of industry around the globe. While environmental issues were once considered a purely domestic matter, how a government handles its pollutants is becoming an increasingly international issue and a determinant factor in foreign affairs. Mr. Rank’s quiet revolt has reflected the feelings of many within the U.S. Department of State, as well as wider U.S. government, who worry that Trump’s fickle decision could put the U.S. at risk of losing the trust of its closest allies.
As a senior diplomat with over 27 years of experience working in the Foreign Service, Mr. Rank’s decision to resign has deprived Washington of one of its most experienced hands and further depletes the State Department’s ranks already spread thin due to the recent government hiring freeze. Quotes from the New York Times described how he had become deeply frustrated by the direction of American policy towards China, particularly when it came to climate change. Dan Feldman, a colleague of Mr. Rank, speculated that many diplomats are “increasingly grappling with whether they must take principled decisions as they balance their sense of duty with their conscience.” Mr. Rank has shown that for him, his conscious came first, even if it meant sacrificing his career. Government officials have always had to grapple with this personal decision under partisan administration changes, however, few decide to follow their moral values, particularly officers as highly positioned in government as Mr. Rank.
Mr. Rank is not the only one feeling the effects of Washington’s sudden decision to abandon the fight against climate change. President Trump’s withdrawal from the climate deal came up against harsh opposition before he had even officially announced it. Many realize that Washington’s withdrawal from the Paris deal– under which 188 countries committed to limiting climate change-will reverberate through our relationships with our allies. Not only will U.S. climate-centered relationships be compromised, foreign economic cooperation and U.S. diplomatic goals will also be affected. As U.S. turns away from its climate change allies, many participants of the Paris Climate Agreement are turning towards other states to lead the fight against global warming, states such as China that, if given the opportunity, could undermine U.S. power abroad.
China’s rapidly increasing energy demand and struggles with pollution put it in a position to benefit substantially from green energy development. Indeed, China has surpassed the U.S. as the world’s largest producer of green energy. Now, the retreat by Washington has gifted China an opportunity to improve its economy, quality of life, and international position in one fell swoop. Paul Haenle, who served on the National Security Council under Barack Obama, went so far as to say that the decision gave China a “geopolitical win”. Though China has proved its economic prowess for over a decade, this has given China the opportunity to lead on an important issue and emerge as a moral authority on the global stage. China’s rising position could potentially harm U.S. soft power and diplomatic relations in key political regions. This also represents a lost opportunity in green energy investment for the U.S. and could affect the U.S. economy in the long run. Not only through green investment but also by a loss of faith in the U.S. by foreign investors and other economic cooperations.
This abrupt change in direction from the White House should act as a warning to the Chinese. President Trump could change his views on any range of issues when it comes to China just as quickly as he has with climate change, as long as he feels it will serve his base. As pollution has spread, climate change policy has shifted from a domestic problem to one for the international community. Ultimately, the loss of American leadership in the green energy sector hurts more than America’s personal climate goals. It also hurts the international community’s ability to reach our scientifically backed, global, long-term goals for cutting carbon emissions and ensuring a livable environment for future generations. In the long term, withdrawing from Paris has the potential to severely hurt U.S. reputation abroad, relations with our allies and, eventually, the U.S. economy.