It Is Not Yet A Post-American World

The climate summit shows there is still leverage left in the legacy of American leadership.

Jonathan Zawada for Noema Magazine

Nathan Gardels is the editor-in-chief of Noema Magazine.

Even before Barack Obama took office as U.S. president on a pledge to correct the disastrous mistake of the Iraq war, he was photographed carrying a copy of Fareed Zakaria’s 2008 book, “The Post-American World.” For Zakaria, that misguided invasion and occupation severely diminished America’s standing in the world as others, notably China, were rising in global stature.

Catapulted into office by the anti-globalization backlash, Donald Trump’s four years in the White House purposefully accelerated America’s departure from the world scene. Even as he finally takes the long-overdue move of extricating U.S. forces from a 20-year battle in Afghanistan, President Joe Biden insists America is back, seeking to once again rally spurned allies and a reticent world behind its leadership.

Last week’s impressive gathering of global leaders at the Biden-convened climate summit does not mean America has recovered its previous stature, but it does show that U.S. leadership still matters in what is not yet a post-American world.

The summit also revealed the new contours of 21st century geopolitics, where cooperation is as imperative as rivalry is inexorable. After four months of coming out swinging at China and Russia on a range of issues from human rights to technology and security — and having personally called President Xi a “thug” during the campaign and President Putin a “killer” — Biden nonetheless retained enough sway to convince them to show up on the Zoom stage, alongside Pope Francis among all the others, to publicly register their pledges on climate action.

Leadership at the global level, of course, does not guarantee success when so many diverse national cultures and political systems don’t so readily align even where there is a convergence of interests. But taking the initiative to prioritize attention on climate change in a way that brings others along does set an agenda for all to follow.

To be sure, there is plenty of reason for the rest of the world to doubt not only the long-term reliability of America’s commitments, but also its capacity to turn pledges into policy. While the Trump years stalled U.S. action, the European Parliament and EU member states remained in the Paris accord and have already made cutting carbon emissions by 55% of 1990 levels by 2030 legally binding. Under China’s ever-more centralized authoritarian system, the Party at the top can reliably pledge, as it already has, that all gas-powered cars will be banned by 2035. While it has yet to sufficiently curb its continuing use of coal for energy, it could do so virtually overnight. Biden’s ambitious pledges, by contrast, still have to make their way through the meat-grinder of a U.S. Congress riven by bitter partisanship.

Further, when polarization so destroys consensus among the body politic, the democratic transfer of power can mean a complete rupture of policies endorsed by most voters only four years earlier. If Biden can overturn Trump just as thoroughly as Trump did Obama, how can there be any certainty that the next Trump-like figure won’t overturn Biden?

Even so, Biden’s cabinet-level climate envoy and former Secretary of State John Kerry has a convincing reply to skeptics. In a recent webinar in which I participated, he noted that even though Washington withdrew from the Paris accord during the Trump years, 80 cities and 25 states in America’s federal system pledged to pursue policies consistent with the Paris commitments. In fact, despite the Trump interruption, renewables will account for most new U.S. electricity generating capacity in 2021.

Moreover, according to Kerry, the market has decisively turned in a green direction. Above all, automakers have read the writing on the wall, led by the legal requirement in large domestic consumer markets like California to phase out combustion engine vehicles. Even the likes of GM are reconfiguring production and marketing to all-electric fleets by 2035. The fact that Tesla is the most high-valued auto company today speaks volumes about where the market is headed, Kerry argued.

He also noted the pronounced shift taking place among key players in the global financial community who must bet their fortunes on the future. He cited the Glasgow Financial Alliance, a consortium of firms worth more than $70 trillion, which will focus their investments in a way that accelerates the transition to net zero emissions by 2050. The alliance is so named because Glasgow, Scotland is where the next United Nations climate summit will be held in the fall.

“Not even a demagogue can turn back this momentum, especially after the next four years in which Biden has made climate action a priority,” Kerry said.

The activist disposition of the Biden administration on climate is a welcome, if attenuated, reprise of the days when America, in good faith, used its power and prestige to create and sustain global public goods. There is still leverage left in that legacy.