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Breathing Life Into Kyoto

By Sam Parry
July 27, 2001

The world is experiencing a Jim Jeffords moment.

In defiance of George W. Bush’s administration, 178 countries reached an agreement this week for mandating reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. With the agreement, the world breathed new life into the Kyoto Protocol, which Bush wanted dead.

Kyoto’s survival, after marathon negotiations in Bonn, Germany, was viewed as a rebuke to what many diplomats consider Bush’s arrogant unilateralist approach to world problems. The agreement was the international equivalent of Sen. Jim Jeffords’ decision in May to bolt the Republican Party and tip control of the U.S. Senate to the Democrats.

Jeffords, a lifelong Republican from Vermont, became an Independent out of concern over Bush’s doctrinaire conservative approach to domestic policies, particularly what Jeffords regarded as Bush’s anti-environmental positions, such as drilling for oil in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.

During his first months in office, Bush had insisted he was acting in a bipartisan way because he was talking to – even joshing with – Democrats and moderates within his own party. Similarly, Bush has bristled at descriptions of himself as a foreign-policy unilateralist, by citing the fact that he has met with world leaders.

"Unilateralists don’t come around the table to listen to others," Bush said at a press conference during his first European trip last month. "Unilateralists don’t ask opinions of world leaders."

As with Congress, however, Bush drew no distinction between consultation and compromise. While Bush might listen to other leaders, he still does what he wants, what he had planned to do when he sat down at the table. Bush and his allies call this determined pursuit of his "agenda" principled. His critics suggest that Bush is simply cajoling them with the pretense of a dialogue.

As with the Jeffords defection, the world’s rebuff to Bush reached a head over the environment, though other differences contributed to the split. The world community is upset with Bush for opposing international agreements on controls of small arms, nuclear weapons, biological weapons and human rights violations – as well as greenhouse gases.

By salvaging the Kyoto framework after Bush repudiated it as "fatally flawed," the nations of the world were drawing a line, just as Jeffords did. They were declaring that there are limits to U.S. power, especially with an administration that other countries are keenly aware lost the popular vote in the United States and achieved power through dubious means.

The U.S. Alone

The headlines from Tuesday told the story of Bush's Kyoto crisis: "Climate Agreement Leaves U.S. Out in the Cold," said The Washington Post. "178 Nations Reach Climate Accord: U.S. Only Looks On," said The New York Times.

Evidenced by the headlines coming out of Bonn, and earlier in the embarrassing dismissal of the U.S. from the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, Bush’s approach to international issues is isolating the U.S. These setbacks in American international prestige could have damaging consequences for years.

An article in the Wall Street Journal saw a blow to the already shaky U.S. economy. "What is the fallout for U.S. businesses if the rest of the world is mad at America for going it alone on issues from global warming to gun control to missile defense?" asked the Journal article.

Executives "worry that U.S. businesses could see their profit margins hit because of anti-American sentiment, or perceptions that they don't care about the global environment," the Journal wrote. [WSJ, July 25, 2001]

Bush’s decisions on Kyoto negotiations also could portend a Jeffordsesque declaration of independence by many of America’s closest allies. The perceived U.S. role in trying to kill Kyoto angered many U.S. allies, much as Bush's refusal to moderate his conservative domestic policies offended Jeffords and other GOP centrists.

The Europeans believed that Bush had violated a pledge not to interfere with the continued Kyoto negotiations outright, beyond his decision to withdraw from them. The Europeans suspected that Bush had lobbied Japan to pull out, a move that effectively would have killed Kyoto.

After intense weekend negotiations in Bonn, the Japanese decided on Monday to join the Europeans, thus saving the Kyoto framework. The success of the European negotiators in reaching an international agreement on global warming over the objections of the U.S. could also provide a framework for the world to counter Bush's policies in other areas, such as Bush's pursuit of a national missile defense and his plans to scuttle the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty.

With the Bonn agreement in the background, Europe – along with Russia and China – might feel greater confidence in challenging Bush's nuclear war strategies as well. Already, the reverberations are being felt.

Again, the headlines tell the story. The online edition of The New York Times ran a story on Secretary of State Colin Powell’s trip to Asia under the headline, "Powell Seeks to Put Japan First, but U.S. May Find Itself Left Out." [July 24, 2001,]

Democrats also have warned about the cost to America’s status around the world. Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., said Bush's actions have made the United States look like "a renegade, kind of outside nation." [Agence France Presse, July 20, 2001]

"I feel badly for us as a country that we have been put into this position," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass. "It will cost us in the long run, and it's already costing us in terms of credibility." [Washington Post, July 24, 2001]

An International Shock Wave

Though he made it a campaign promise, Bush’s announcement in March that the U.S. would pull out of the Kyoto Protocol was a declaration heard around the world. If the world’s most powerful, wealthiest, and biggest-polluting country would not participate in an international framework to address the problem of global climate change, how could such a deal move forward? If not Kyoto, then what?

With the overwhelming body of scientific evidence suggesting a high probability of dramatic climate change caused by human-produced pollution, what would happen if the nations of the world failed to act?

The Bush administration’s moves in the months preceding the Bonn negotiations suggest a political calculation at the White House that pulling out of Kyoto would cause the agreement to fall apart. Such a collapse would then strengthen Washington’s negotiating hand and put the U.S. in a position to fashion other agreements more suited to what Bush considered American "national interests."

But European leaders made calculations of their own as they scrambled to save Kyoto. By the time of Bush’s first European trip in June, the European Union had decided that it would continue to push the Kyoto framework forward, even without the U.S.

To do so, the Europeans needed and sought a commitment from the Bush administration that the U.S. would not do anything further to undermine Kyoto, a condition that Bush accepted during his European trip.

That commitment was important for Europe’s Kyoto planning because of the terms of the Kyoto agreement itself. Kyoto allows for ratification only after at least 55 nations representing at least 55 percent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions sign on to a final agreement.

Since the U.S. alone accounts for 36 percent of the total greenhouse gas emissions, Bush’s decision to pull the U.S. out left very little room for other nations to leave the Kyoto framework, too. With the U.S. out, European leaders faced the daunting task of keeping virtually all other nations committed to Kyoto.

Broken Promise?

Despite Bush's non-interference pledge, many international observers came to believe that Bush tried to get Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to join the U.S. in rejecting Kyoto. Such a move would have effectively doomed the Kyoto Protocol, since Japan accounts for another 8.5 percent of greenhouse gases.

As Koizumi finished a visit to Washington earlier this month, he said of Kyoto that Japan did not "have the intention of proceeding without the cooperation of the United States."

The extent of negotiations between Bush and Koizumi over Japan pulling out of Kyoto and the question of whether Bush offered Koizumi a deal remain unclear. Still, there were enough indications of a deal for the conservative Washington Times to run an editorial on July 6 praising Koizumi’s "gutsy call" to join the U.S. by pulling out of Kyoto.

Prime Minister Koizumi's comments made during a weekend retreat with President Bush struck many as more than coincidental. Across the Atlantic, Koizumi’s statements prompted European leaders to wage an all-out battle to bring Japan back into the fold.

As the Bonn negotiations began, and with Japan’s intentions in doubt, the U.S. appeared to have made at least one other effort to splinter the fragile international framework. The Bush administration entered into an agreement with Italy's new conservative government to cooperate on scientific research about climate change.

Agence France Presse reported that Europeans suspected that this deal was an indirect effort by the U.S. to split the 15-member European Union by enticing the Italians and perhaps others to opt for scientific study rather than a binding treaty on emissions reductions. [AFP, July 20, 2001]

With Monday’s deal to move forward through the Kyoto framework, however, the Bush administration appears to have badly miscalculated the international consensus on curbing the pollution that causes global warming.

Bonn wasn't the only place where the world broke from the Bush administration on global warming. Bush’s position on climate change also came under sharp criticism at the G-8 summit in Genoa, Italy. As the summit ended, the leaders of the seven richest countries and Russia released a final communiqué on climate change that showed the U.S. standing alone in opposition to Kyoto.

While the communiqué showed that all countries agreed on the importance of reducing greenhouse gas emissions, an unnamed Italian official told CNN that there was no G-8 agreement on Kyoto. The official told CNN, "That is because of Bush." []

A Global Century?

With the world’s biggest economy and most powerful military, the U.S. remains the preeminent power on earth. After last week’s negotiations in both Bonn and Genoa, however, the world has shown a newfound strength in standing up to the Bush administration. After one weekend, the lesson may well be that the U.S. is no longer what former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright labeled "the indispensable nation."

The impact of this shift in U.S. prestige and how the Bush team adjusts to the new reality of international diplomacy is unclear. If the 20th Century was "America’s Century," could this shift foreshadow the 21st as a "Global Century" with the U.S. no longer viewed as "indispensable" to global issues? Time will tell, but it is now apparent that the world is growing impatient with the U.S. and is ready to act in defiance of the Bush administration on important issues.

Bush may have to learn a new role, one not played by an American president since before World War II – that of a world follower rather than leader.

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