When was the last time America was irrelevant?
Perhaps right before the Declaration of Independence. Since then, America has been at the forefront of human rights — not always living up to the Declaration, but setting forth a standard everyone should strive for.
Or perhaps after World War I, when we became an isolationist country after a devastating war. Terrible consequences resulted from isolation. While we cannot be blamed for causing World War II, the 1930s and 1940s might have been different, or at least less disastrous, if America had been an active force on the world stage.
Now President Donald Trump is making us irrelevant again. He is withdrawing the country from the Paris climate change agreement, under which almost every nation committed to actions to reduce the carbon emissions that help warm the climate. He says the Paris deal is bad for the country.
For someone who preached American exceptionalism during the campaign, he is forcing America to take a back seat and refuse to be a leader on a major worldwide problem. Only with American leadership can we hope to have an impact on the world, which is part of what exceptionalism means.
When America is involved in the world, it is generally for the good and for the values Americans support.
When we withdraw from a major agreement, especially one we played a major role in achieving, we diminish ourselves. We show ourselves to be selfish and self-centered. We show ourselves to be small.
That is the problem with this president. He is showing himself to be a small man with small ideas, small values and the tendency to make others around him small.
In the Book of Numbers, when Moses sends the spies into Canaan to see the lay of the promised land, 10 of the 12 came back with negative reports that the obstacles were too great to succeed. G-d punished the people by forcing them to live in the wilderness for 38 more years.
We do not need to be in the wilderness on this issue any longer.
Supporting the Paris accord does not mean that we should allow our citizens to be disadvantaged by the environmental protection. We need to ensure that individuals and families are not left out because of the results of an agreement.
We should work toward opportunities for families to be employed in other ways, to move to where the jobs or productive activities are, to retrain for other employment or to ensure that they receive compensatory wages if jobs are not available.
In other words, we need an industrial policy, not for the government to run things, but to ensure that people have an opportunity to be employed by private industry or to be otherwise assisted.
Others have noted that Trump’s misguided decision will fuel resentment toward the United States. It may also make things more difficult for American business. Businesses want to locate where their markets are. By pulling out of the Paris climate accord, Trump sends clean energy companies a clear signal that they should look elsewhere.
We will be disadvantaged in the race for clean energy businesses and jobs, which could be the most important economic prize in this century. China and Europe are already vying for the leadership role on clean energy that the president just ceded.
In another development, California Gov. Jerry Brown is moving forward on developing solutions to climate change. He may even coordinate with China on actions for emissions improvement. With the sixth-largest economy in the world if it were a separate country, California has a lot at stake.
So do the rest of us.
Crouching on the sidelines is not something America has done since the 1930s. Why would we want to go back to a period where the results were so destructive?
Trump is wrong on the science, wrong on public policy, wrong on public opinion (the vast majority of Americans want the environment protected) and wrong on jobs.
Let’s hope his announcement June 1 is a temporary deviation from the American norm, from what is really the world’s norm. Prayerfully, the period in which America is irrelevant will be short.
Harold Kirtz serves on the executive committee of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Atlanta.