Environmental consequences aside, President Donald Trump's decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate accord, announced on Thursday, looks like one more act of ceding global leadership to China, in the name of making America "Great Again."
For Beijing, Mr. Trump's latest thumbing of his nose at the United States's closest friends is an opening, offering opportunities to burnish its image and extend its influence. On Friday, European Council President Donald Tusk described Mr. Trump's move to leave the Paris agreement as "the latest unfortunate decision of the new administration." He said this while standing next to Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, who by total coincidence just happened to be visiting Brussels at this moment of maximum exasperation with the United States. Mr. Tusk said China had "demonstrated solidarity with future generations and responsibility for the whole planet," by sticking with the Paris commitment.
That's a bit rich, like Beijing's thick-enough-to-chew polluted air. But just as Mr. Trump gets political mileage out of bashing the United States's European friends, so European politicians get a boost from taking shots at Mr. Trump. They are lining up to do so. This is not good for the fraying Western alliance, but it's bringing a smile to the faces of the hard men of Beijing.
Mr. Trump's climate decision, and the us-versus-them manner in which he presented it, fits a familiar pattern. Time and time again, the erstwhile leader of the free world has hit out at the United States's closest democratic allies, while directly or inadvertently bucking up non-democratic antagonists.
Consider the withdrawal from the Trans Pacific Partnership, a trade agreement designed to solidify American leadership in Asia. The end of TPP was a gift to Beijing, and a slap at Asian countries that want the United States to be a counterweight to an increasingly assertive China.
Or consider Mr. Trump's steady drumbeat against the North American free-trade agreement. That song is a hit with his voters, but the message to the United States's neighbours is: Don't rely on us. Make new friends. And take out some insurance, by diversifying your trade.
If the United States tells the world to find a new dance partner, the first country on everyone's list is the planet's rising superpower and second largest economy, China. The Trudeau government has received the message, and is scrambling to cozy up to Beijing.
Mr. Trump has become China's best salesman. He should be on their payroll. He has a remarkable talent for making people forget that China's government is a dictatorship, which does not practice free trade, does not respect intellectual property, does not recognize the rule of law and does not believe in democracy or freedom of speech. When Chinese leader Xi Jinping went to Davos in January and, using Mr. Trump threats to the global trading order to remake China's brand, announced that he would stand up against protectionism and for globalization, it sounded almost believable.
Since the Second World War, America has been the leader of the democratic world, and the chief mover behind the institutions underpinning that world: the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, NATO, the World Trade Organization, and on and on.
But before the U.S. created the American Century, it tried to withdraw from it. After the First World War, the U.S. was the globe's economic and cultural superpower, but in the early 1920s, it disengaged. Having been the driving force behind the creation of the League of Nations, precursor to the UN, the U.S. did a U-turn, refusing to even join. Washington also introduced severe restrictions on immigration, slashing it to a trickle. America stepped back into splendid isolation.
And when the Great Depression hit, the U.S. doubled down, passing the Smoot-Hawley tariff of 1930, retreating into extreme protectionism. In the great beyond, across the Atlantic and the Pacific, the field was yielded to other, less benign powers. It feels like déjà vu.