Senate, US public hold card

Business Times - 25 Dec 2009

Senate, US public hold card

That the US and China reached an agreement not to agree and to impose it on all others at the climate summit is probably the only good news that came out of Copenhagen


CRITICS of former US president George W Bush's unilateralist approach to foreign policy had assumed that President Barack Obama's commitment to pursuing a more multilateralist global agenda would finally help produce international agreements on a variety of issues, including climate change.

Hence, if the unilateralist Mr Bush opposed the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and refused to submit the treaty for Senate ratification, then the multilateralist Mr Obama would play a leading role in getting a new climate-change accord approved in Copenhagen this year and would be able to mobilise American public and Congressional support for a new UN framework aimed at combating global warming.

Or those at least were the expectations among officials and pundits around the world and, in particular, in Europe, where Mr Obama remains very popular.

These high expectations have resulted in huge disappointment among America's allies, and especially in Europe, over the outcome in Copenhagen - the agreement that the United States struck with China, Brazil, India and South Africa in the UN climate change summit, which Mr Obama described as 'important breakthrough' but which many critics saw as an empty deal.

Indeed, even Mr Obama admitted that the agreement was 'not sufficient to combat the threat of climate change', while UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called it 'not everything we hoped for'. In any case, the 193 countries that participated in the summit in Copenhagen agreed to 'take note of the Copenhagen Accord' without accepting it.

Here is the fallacy under which many environmentalists seemed to have operated in advance of Copenhagen: They assumed that notwithstanding the enormous gap between the positions of the two leading global players in the climate debate, the industrialised nations, headed by the US, the European Union (EU) and the developing economies, led by China and India - not to mention the disagreements between the US and the EU, or between Democrats and Republicans in Washington - the multilateral setting in Copenhagen, where 'all the world was watching', would somehow force all these governments to overcome their disagreements, make a deal and give high fives to each other.

But the environmentalists, idealists and all the other cockeyed optimists among the more than 45,000 who travelled to the climate summit in Copenhagen failed to recognise that when governments have to make critical choices that affect their core national interests - ranging from decisions to go to war or to set restrictions on national economic growth - they are not going to follow the consensus of the 'international community' or 'world opinion' embodied in that or this international organisation - if that consensus is perceived to be running contrary to their respective national interest.

Ironically, it was the founding father of multilateralism, former US president Woodrow Wilson, who ended up discovering that there were limits to the ability of even the most successful statesman to convince his country's elites and public to agree to allow an international body to determine their national security preferences.

Hence, Mr Wilson who had helped establish the League of Nations in the aftermath of the Great War, could not win the support of the Senate for the US membership in that international organisation which was committed to the principle of collective security.

The opposition in the Senate was based on the notion that the decision on whether to commit US economic or military force to maintain the security of other nations should be made by the American people and their representatives and not by an outside international body in Geneva.

That the US seemed to be committed to pursuing multilateralist policies since the end of World War II had less to do with the supposedly internationalist disposition of its leaders and public. If anything, it reflected the fact that thanks to its pre-eminent military and economic power, Washington and its main allies were able to determine the set of principles and rules that governed the multilateral organisations that were established after 1945.

Or to put it differently, for several decades it looked as though core US national security and economic interests corresponded to the policies embraced by multilateral institutions, such as the United Nations Security Council or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and vice versa. And in the aftermath of the collapse of the Soviet Union, these institutions were seen more and more as extensions of US interests and policies.

It would be too simplistic to blame Bush the Second for America's growing alienation from the evolving multilateral consensus. Clearly, his decision to invade Iraq and oust Saddam Hussein without Security Council authorisation contrasted with the way Bush the First had led the attack against Iraq in the First Gulf War after winning UN approval.

But Bush II, unlike Bush I, concluded that doing regime change in Baghdad was in line with core US security interests, which was a questionable assumption. His mistake was to also expect the rest of the members of international community - or its leading players - to eventually align themselves with the US decision.

In fact, the outcome of the Iraq war only demonstrated the erosion in US global power, which together with other changes in the global balance of power, including the economic rise of China have weakened the ability of the US and its allies to continue setting the agenda of the major multilateral bodies.

This forced the US - and the rest of the Western powers - to expand the G-7/8 into the G-20 and to consider similar changes in the governing structures of the IMF and the Security Council.

Moreover, it is becoming clear that in this new international system, the consensus established by these and other multilateral organisations will not necessarily reflect the interests and the values of the United States. In that context, when many American pundits were describing the atmosphere in the two-week Copenhagen Summit as chaotic, what they were really referring to was the failure on the part of Washington to dominate the process of decision-making there.

It is true that Mr Obama and the Democrats in Congress were willing to move towards the consensus on climate change that is shared by most of the EU members. But that does not change the fact is that despite their best efforts, the Senate is not expected to approve the far-reaching climate change legislation to create new investments in alternative energy and set nationwide limits on carbon emissions that has been proposed by the White House and the Democrats.

In particular, there is strong opposition in Congress and the public to an industry-wide cap-and-trade programme to regulate carbon emissions that could lead to rise in the energy costs.

There is no political consensus in Washington in support for the creation of an international regime whose decisions could put a strain on the American economy in the name of combating climate change.

And there is no way that the US Senate will ratify a climate accord that does not provide for a system to monitor emission reductions in undertaken by China, the world's largest emitter of carbon dioxide. Interestingly enough, China resists the idea of international monitoring of its adherence to agreed targets of emission that could be perceived as infringing on its national sovereignty.

So in a way, the two leading global players in Copenhagen - China and the US - seemed to come to exactly the same conclusion: They will not be able to reach an agreement that would set clear targets for emissions and imposes specific obligations on them.

Instead, a general and vague agreement to support long-term cooperative action against climate change seemed to be consistent with their economic and political interests. That Washington and Beijing succeeded in reaching an agreement not to agree - reflecting their ability to adjust to the changing global balance of power - and to impose it on the rest of the delegates to the climate summit is probably the only good news that came out of Copenhagen.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.


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