President Obama took office in 2009 promising that his brand of engagement would yield global respect for the United States. We've since had more than seven years of leading from behind, standing "shoulder to shoulder" with the "international community," snubbing of allies, appeasing of enemies and cutting America down to size. As Obama makes what will likely be his final official visit to China, how's it going?
Well, China, as host of the current G-20 summit, rolled out the red carpet — or at least the red-carpeted airplane stairs — for the arriving leaders of such countries as Britain, Australia, Germany and Russia.
For President Obama, arriving yesterday on Air Force One, there was no such dignified reception. Instead, there was a shoving match with the press and a confrontation with National Security Adviser Susan Rice, in which a Chinese official shouted "This is our country. This is our airport." For lack of any portable stairs rolled to the front door of the presidential plane, Obama was left to jog down the aircraft's own stairs at the back.
Obama downplayed the insult, telling reporters "not to over-crank the significance."
Maybe that makes sense in the bubble-world of the Ben-Rhodes-foreign-policy narrative, where the tide of war is forever receding, the arc of history bends toward justice, the oceans rise and fall at the command of Obama's pen and phone, and the echo chamber, on cue, applauds.
But China's reception was an insult, pure and simple. No one need study the tea leaves to understand that this was a gesture of gross disrespect, seen around the world, putting the American president in his place — especially as compared with the warm reception for Russia's President Vladimir Putin.
While the missing red-carpeted staircase is mainly symbolic, the realities behind it are increasingly dangerous. Among them are China's territorial grabs at sea, provocations toward the U.S. Navy, cyber attacks, military exercises with Russia and evident tolerance — despite United Nations sanctions — of illicit traffic that enables North Korea's continuing nuclear missile program.
For Obama, however, the evident priority in China was to sign on to the Paris climate accord, shoulder-to-shoulder with China's President Xi Jinping. Bundling together the rising threats to the U.S. under the oddly collegial phrase "for all the challenges we face," Obama in remarks from China went on to celebrate his submission to United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, jointly with Xi, of the documents required to formally enter into the Paris Agreement.
According to Obama, this climate deal could be a "turning point for our planet," a grand legacy of a presidency in which he made it his mission "to make sure that America does its part to protect this planet for future generations."
Really? The ironies here are off the charts. As PJ Media's Rick Moran points out, China dealt with the Paris Agreement as a treaty — which it clearly is — and at least went through the motions of getting approval from a rubber-stamp legislature. Obama, faced with a genuinely elected legislature in which the Senate would almost certainly have rejected the Paris Agreement, decided to handle this erstwhile planetary "turning point" as a mere embellishment on a previous treaty, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, which entered into force in 1994.
So the "ratification" document Obama brought with him to China was the product of one of his pen-and-phone executive actions, offering to the UN secretary-general a commitment Obama was not entitled to make, and which American voters had never agreed to.
Following such stunts as the Iran nuclear deal (which Obama hustled to the UN for approval, but never submitted to the Senate as a treaty), this is becoming a new norm that is, in itself, profoundly dangerous to the foundations of the American republic. Obama's job, summed up in the oath he swore when taking office (twice), is to "preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." The Constitution requires that a president make treaties only with the "Advice and Consent of the Senate," where a two-thirds majority is required for ratification.
China's Xi and his advisers are surely aware of this strange inversion, in which the American president is willing to roll right over the U.S. Constitution in order to grandstand from China about saving the planet. It's a good bet that to the rulers of China — and Russia, and a great many others — Obama's "ratification" of the Paris climate deal looks not like leadership, but like a kowtow.
All the more so because in practice, this deal amounts to Americans paying tribute. Let's set aside for the moment the valid question — in a debate not remotely "settled" — of whether the climate of the planet can actually be fine-tuned, as the Paris accord proposes, to within two degrees celsius over coming decades by central planning to control carbon emissions. Whatever the science, the economic aspect of this deal amounts to an expanding web of regulations and wealth transfers, coordinated by a mix of international and federal bureaucrats.
For Americans, as Obama races during his final months in office to entrench this Paris deal (with pen-and-phone) in the domestic system, the result will be to increase the regulatory strictures already strangling an economy now growing at a dismal 1%. You, the American consumer, taxpayer, shunted-aside voter, will pay.
For China, the cost is far less clear. As the state-controlled China Daily summarizes the arrangements, China has pledged to "peak" carbon emissions by 2030. Obama, by contrast, has promised that America will cut emissions by 28% by 2025, as compared to the year 2005.
In other words, small wonder China is happy to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with Obama on this deal. Basically, especially with Obama in the cockpit, America starts paying now. China has 14 years to play around before the deal starts to bite. Plus, under China's despotic system, coupled with a treaty in which governments are effectively held accountable only by their own citizens, the rulers in Beijing have plenty of room to toss their international commitments right out the window.
On the maritime front, that is what Beijing has just done in rejecting the July 12 decision by the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, which ruled against China's grab for the disputed Scarborough Shoal, near the Philippines. In China's increasingly aggressive push for control off its shores, Obama's "engagement" has, if anything, emboldened Beijing.
Which brings us back to the matter of respect, and which leaders get the red-carpet treatment in China these days, and which don't. Xi and his colleagues see an American president who treats his own country's Constitution, voters and national interests with no respect. For Beijing, that amounts to an enfeebled America. That translates into an opportunity, a wide-open invitation from the White House, to drive home to the world a message that China is on the rise — receiving at its latest summit an American president who arrives with tribute in his pocket. For such an emissary, no red carpet is needed. Of course he can exit from the back of his plane.