The preservation of the international environment has been a major concern of the United Nations (UN) for over a decade now. Changing ideas and thinking about the world’s environment is where the UN has probably had its greatest influence. The United States; a member of the UN has contributed a great deal to the preservation of the international environment including its own environment here in the U.S. the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in conjunction with other agencies with the UN, has contributed by way of finances and legislations to help improve the international environment. This has been a major step for the US after nearly a decade of defiance by Washington towards international efforts to protect the environment, notably, the disengagement from the Kyoto Treaty to limit greenhouse gas emissions. It is a general policy perception that the U.S. is an ardent laggard when it comes to global environmental governance, but is this really the case? As the world’s one remaining superpower, the United States stands forth as a hegemony in international politics. Within the traditional realist perspective, this means that the U.S. is decisive for the ambition and scope of international cooperation. However, research has shown that there is limited empirical support for this assumption when it comes to environmental cooperation.
Essentially, the U.S. tends to champion a policy of picking and choosing from the menu offered by international organizations only those items that enhance America’s power and of rejecting those items that might constrain it. To use Hoffman’s description, “those who follow a more “realist” tradition explain that world order is based on might, that the network of international law and organizations is “frail scaffolding” that holds only as long as there is a structure of power behind it. They believe that the only thing that matters is what is good for the United States. The rest of the world is not important. They also argue that “under our Constitution, any Congress may, by law, amend an earlier act of Congress, including treaties, thus freeing the U.S. unilaterally of any obligation.” The U.S. Constitution is superior to international law and that international bodies are politically unaccountable and therefore dangerous (Hoffman 2002, p.351). The U.S. plays a “prophetic and reformist role,” because its “sense of mission has led it to conceive and support the establishment of international institutions” and to be the “guardian of world order.
The U.S. in the UN Environmental Arena Unlike in peace and security-related issues, there is no simple and straightforward correlation between America’s hegemonic position and the type of environmental diplomacy it is likely to pursue. This status implies in many cases a convenient option to press for policy changes abroad that the United States has already undertaken at home. “At times, the U.S. government has used its economic strength and political influence to promote global environmental objectives. When the United States takes the lead in a positive manner, the possibility becomes greater that environmental policies and institutions will be stronger. However, if the United States fails to take the lead, progress can be blocked”.(Paarlberg 2002, p.324). Given the absence of a global strategic imperative in U.S. environmental foreign policy, it is possible to suggest that the U.S. pursues global environmental issues largely in response to domestic or ideological imperatives. In fact, domestic factors play a stronger role in determining environmental diplomacy than in many other foreign policy arenas.
As recent as November of last year, a Whitehouse press release stated that, “Obama is prepared to set a goal of reducing emissions to 17 percent below 2005 levels over the next decade. The White House also reiterated Obama’s goal of reducing U.S. emissions by 83 percent by 2050.The targets come from a climate change bill passed by the House of Representatives. The Senate has yet to pass the bill, so the United States has not committed itself to any binding goals”. As the experience with U.S. policy on biodiversity and climate change suggests, U.S. presidential leadership abroad can easily be trumped by Congressional opposition at home. “And although the President has greater room for initiative in environmental foreign policy, the need for Congressional approval of multilateral environmental treaties and domestic programs hinders international leadership efforts that are not backed by a broader coalition of interests at home (Falkner 2005, p.593).
The U.S. environmental movement is among the largest and best organized in the world but it has been unable to sway U.S. policy regarding the Kyoto Protocol or ratification of the Biodiversity, Basel, Rotterdam or Stockholm Conventions. This is due in part to powerful interests that oppose U.S. participation in these treaties and because the environmental movement has not been able to influence the outcomes of congressional or presidential elections. For example, property rights advocates were concerned that the Convention on Biological Diversity would impose too many restrictions on the way private and public land is used and lobbied Congress and the White House heavily against its ratification. “The relative influence of different interest groups varies across time and between issue areas, which is one of the important reasons for the fluctuations in the pursuit of U.S. environmental diplomacy.” (Falkner 2005, p.594).
The U.S. has also been supportive of the Regional Seas Programs, the Global Program of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-based Activities (GPA) and the work in chemicals. In 2003, the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) Governing Council adopted a U.S. proposal to establish the UNEP Mercury Program which assists developing countries in taking action to deal with mercury. The U.S. has provided over 80 percent of the budget of that program, nearly $2 million since its inception. There is no doubt that the US, regardless of its passed reluctance in environmental issues, has played a major role in the preservation of the international environment. And in many cases, including on methyl bromide, climate change, bio-safety, the hazardous waste trade and some chemicals-related issues, the U.S. can be characterized as a powerful laggard and even a threat to regime effectiveness. The bottom line is that the U.S. doesn’t like foreigners telling Americans what they can or cannot do. This is part of the American psyche and has been since 1776. So, since UNEP does not put legally- binding restraints on the U.S., the U.S, in turn, has no problem being a constructive leader in the effort to preserve the international environment.
Falkner, Robert. 2005. “American Hegemony and the Global Environment,” International Studies Review4:7 (December), pp. 585-599.
Hoffman, Stanley. 2002. “The United States and International Organizations,” in Robert J. Lieber, ed. Eagle Rules: Foreign Policy and American Primacy in the Twenty-First Century. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp. 342-352.
Paarlberg, Robert. 2002. “The Eagle and the Global Environment: The Burden of Being Essential,” in Robert J. Lieber, ed. Eagle Rules: Foreign Policy and American Primacy in the Twenty-First Century. Upper Saddle River, NJ: Prentice Hall, pp.324-341
CNN. “Obama to attend Climate Change Summit”. Whitehouse. November 25, 2009.