The US' mixed record in green causes

A globalising world requires multilateralism to attain shared goals -- particularly the preservation of ecological security. While this can happen without the leadership of one country, citizens of the world increasingly look to the US for leadership in addressing global environmental concerns. Because of the US' current hegemony in world affairs, its leadership can do a lot in this respect through constructive diplomacy

 
By Peter M Haas
Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015

The US' mixed record in green causes

-- A globalising world requires multilateralism to attain shared goals -- particularly the preservation of ecological security. While this can happen without the leadership of one country, citizens of the world increasingly look to the us for leadership in addressing global environmental concerns. Because of the us' current hegemony in world affairs, its leadership can do a lot in this respect through constructive diplomacy.

Multilateral efforts without the participation of the us - a country with one of the world's heaviest ecological footprints - are unlikely to succeed. And, unilateral steps by one state or a group of states may discourage action by other countries, which could attempt to 'free ride' on the efforts of more responsible states. This, in turn, is certain to jeopardise any programme, as the 'good environmental citizens' come to resent the free riders.

The us has been regularly lambasted for its unilateralism. Many have expressed concerns that the recent Bush administration is breaking with past patterns of us foreign policy by staunchly pursuing a policy that supports only those multilateral efforts which advance narrowly defined us interests. The following recent us actions are justifiably viewed with dismay: abandoning the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, abnegating the Anti-Ballistic Missile treaty, rejecting the International Criminal Court and fighting the Iraq war with a "coalition of the willing" rather than taking the support of the international community.

While these criticisms are justifiable, they overlook the fact that the us has also shown encouraging signs of commitments towards a few multilateral fora. It has agreed to rejoin the United Nations Scientific Educational and Cultural Organization and to sign the recent World Health Organization's Global Tobacco Control treaty.

Moreover, the us has a vast array of soft power resources in its arsenal. These have been often used in the past and their application evokes far less resentment. Using these resources to advance its strategic interest might be a more honourable recourse for the us in the long run. And it is quite likely that this is a strategy the country would employ once the historical moment of military assertion wanes.

Understanding us foreign policy has always been difficult because contradictory domestic interests -- each enjoying a legitimate claim to representation -- have driven it. The debate in the us over its proper role in world affairs dates back to the early years after its independence. George Washington's farewell address cautioned against getting involved in "entangling alliances". Since then us foreign policy has swayed between unilateralism and multilateralism. And neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have been consistent in this area. Support for different visions seems to vary according to demands of domestic constituencies and government agencies.

The end of the Cold War opened up potential for genuine multilateralism based on the pursuit of positive common goals of prosperity, ecological integrity, peace and justice through cooperation. But this opportunity was lost as the 1990s quickly devolved into us foreign policy opting for a more traditional pastiche of ad hoc selective interventionism, isolationism, and episodic cooperation. However, if historical patterns persist, then the us may not launch itself into a position of being the much maligned and resented global bully, against which resentments accumulate as others save up their grievances in anticipation of eventual retribution. The us has indeed supported multilateral efforts at the same time as pursuing unilateralism.

The same ambivalence has been the hallmark of the us stance in the area of environment. And even the Bush administration has shown no systematic pattern of leadership or evasion in the environmental realm. On the one hand, the us is widely admired for introducing some of the world's strongest domestic environmental standards, which are emulated abroad -- such as path-breaking environmental reporting standards and environmental impact assessment requirements for public projects. On the other hand us record in international environmental matters since 1972 is erratic. This is again a fact unrelated to party positions in the country.

The us led the world towards evolving meaningful environmental standards for protecting stratospheric ozone, promoting conservation of whales, regulating ocean dumping, encouraging new tanker standards to minimise oil spills in cases of collisions, supporting global standards for landbased sources of marine pollution and prohibiting the use of persistent organic pollutants (the us has signed but not yet ratified the 2001 Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants). In areas in which its vital interests are not at stake, the us has tended to be a bystander, such as on European acid rain and in its general oversight of the United Nations Environment Programme (unep). In other areas the us has been singularly retrograde, using its hegemonic position to undermine treaties that it does not regard as its national interest, such as biodiversity and climate change.

The us refusal to ratify the Kyoto protocol is less an abnegation of international commitments than an incomplete adherence to a prior stance . Given the unequivocal refusal of the us Senate to ratify the Kyoto Protocol, it is puzzling why Vice-President Al Gore led a last minute effort at Kyoto to sign the treaty. And if President Bush is serious about the flawed nature of the protocol, the us should launch an ambitious and sustained programme to stimulate energy efficiency and innovative green technology -- as has already been recognised by such major energy companies as British Petroleum, Shell and Texaco.

Recently, it does appear that us commitment to environmental multilateralism is eroding. The country withdrew from negotiations on a 2002 United Nations Economic Commission for Europe's Aarhus Treaty. It refused to adopt mercury emission standards at the unep Governing Council session in February 2003.

Yet, in a curious adherence to environmental protection at the expense of multilateralism, the us has continued to adhere to domestic regulations intended to preserve dolphins and turtles, even in the face of World Trade Organization decisions finding such policies to be contrary to international trade law.

What accounts for this inconsistency in us foreign environmental policy ? us foreign environmental policy is not driven by a singular universal dominating vision. It is shaped by the pluralistic nature of the American State. Positions on individual policies are shaped by a constellation of factors: bureaucratic discretion and inertia, scientific consensus, economic concerns, domestic industries' opposition to expensive pollution control regulation and organised public concern amplified by non governmental organisations. In areas when consensus exists between all these diverse groups and when executive branch bodies enjoy some discretion, then the us is likely to be a leader. When consensus is absent, economic costs are heavy, and industry opposition is powerful the us will be laggard in enforcing environment protection norms.

Interestingly, scientific consensus combined with executive pressure can overwhelm initial industry opposition. This occurred in the preliminary formulations of the us policy on stratospheric ozone protection, where organised industry opposition to chlorofluorocarbons controls did not prevail. Once ratified and converted to domestic law us policies are most likely to be complied for domestic producers in the us have an abiding fear of lawsuits.

Mass political consensus plays little role in us foreign environmental policy. Public opinion surveys routinely reveal that the majority of the American public considers international environmental protection to be very important and that they value the un. Such surveys also routinely reveal that elected officials tend to hold such views less strongly than the mass public. Yet the telling fact is that only about 10 per cent of the population rest their elective decisions on foreign policy issues.

Still, us policy makers historically have known that national interests can be advanced through international leadership, and that other countries also benefit from multilateralism: both in the form of benign leadership and consultative leadership with other principal parties. Multilateral arrangements ensure that the us is able to attain its interests legitimately. It also implies that other countries are likely to continue to adhere to these treaties without the threat of constant oversight and enforcement.

On the other hand, if the us applies its hyper-unilateralist approach much goodwill and long term support for environmental governance will be jeopardised. Environmental multilateralism without the us is unlikely to generate sufficiently strong and effective regimes to protect the environment. But us citizens will also suffer from global and trans-boundary environmental threats in such a scenario.

Some glimmerings of hope remain for multilateral environmentalism. Beyond its broader recent doctrinal antipathy to multilateralism, the us continues to cling to some vestiges of international responsibility in the environmental realm, because of domestic environmental constituencies and lingering institutional support within the professional ranks of the civil service.

us environmental diplomacy could be greatly enhanced through institutional reform. The Office of Global Affairs needs more resources and us embassies across the world require better environmental and scientific staff. Moreover a council of ecological advisors could assure better cross-cutting attention to environmental issues in the executive policy making process without having to wait for crises to trigger a response.

Peter M Haas is Professor of Political Science, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, USA

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