I write this as a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations — twice — and as an American who has taught in over 150 countries, but especially as an American who, like millions of people here in the U.S., has spent most of my life seeking happiness and fulfillment for the American Dream. This said, I’m also old enough to remember the 1950s and ’60s, when, the better to hear the rhythmic beat of my own life, I sought medical treatment for bronchitis in London. I was 14 years old. There was going to be another pandemic in the world, as the doctors predicted. I believe it happened. You see, I learned more about the workings of global change and change management, and especially about social change, in those five glorious weeks of great research in a historic medical hospital than in most of my 80 years of life. And while we should always encourage young men and women to go to universities and pursue scientific research, we also need to make sure that those with that knowledge can act on it, that they can engage in the political process and lead, that we provide them with a government so that they can actually make a change in the world.
On the surface, the Paris Agreement and its sweeping ambition to reduce global temperature rise to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius have no practical effect on a process that has nothing to do with them. I mean nothing can even start to happen in the real world while America continues to place its leverage on the table to try to negotiate a better deal — which to me seems like the essence of the intransigence of Trump and the voters who supported him. Moreover, for the faint-hearted, there is the absurdity of those who worry that withdrawing from the Paris accord will lead to an economic depression that will in turn lead to more and more countries abandoning their commitments.
This is a time of high anxiety in the global economy and climate, and there is real uncertainty in the U.S. government and its people — in American society writ large. As I see it, we have two choices.
The easy, safety-first, “get more money” easy option is to continue doing the same things we have been doing and just get less money. I’m looking forward to my next Nobel prize, and maybe I’ll be advising one of the billionaires who bankroll Trump, and those who do his bidding. And yes, I can think of 10 to 20 years when big-business, big-government, big-nationalists and big-ideological/nationalist populism will finally settle their differences, produce a return to more national security and to an increasingly global economy. It is in this environment that Trump will continue to steer our global economy — and therefore our climate. A coherent approach to climate change can’t do anything but exacerbate the “America First” nationalist globalist split.
The more difficult option is to avoid the “America Alone” road to disaster — to make the world a better place — not by doubling down on “America First” isolationism and “America Alone” nationalism, but by strengthening what’s left of our global connections and having more of our own leaders believe that it’s in our global interest to believe that it’s in our global interest to have an effective global coalition on issues that are high on the international agenda, to work with other countries, to put our heads together and get things done.
Now, actually, I’m thinking, we’re off on a curious right turn to the center. And we could find ourselves at an awkward crossroads in which we’re not left isolated, dead in the water and unable to build a global society, but instead in a world in which a limited number of nations shape the global outlook. It’s not necessarily a dire alternative, but it is a dramatic one. If anything, it can be one in which we are not left isolated, but are forced together because we agree on climate change and our humanity.
But first we have to find an alternative to “America Alone” — to the isolationism of Trump, the nativism of Sanders, and the partisanship of Clinton. And we have to be ready to take on each of these challenges, and I’m hoping that this is more the topic of the future than the current election campaign.