world leaders gather for the second Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, George W.
Bush is sticking close to home, seemingly focused on not repeating what conservatives view
as one of his fathers political mistakes: attending rather than shunning
the first Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, 10 years ago.
At that summit in 1992, George H.W. Bush, known inside the Bush family as
"41" for being the 41st U.S. president, came under criticism from
pro-environmentalists for deciding to attend at the last minute and then showing no clear
leadership or vision while there. His behavior often came across as more petulant than
The newspaper headlines reflected the negative reviews: "Bush Aide Assails U.S.
Preparation for Earth Summit," "Bush Was Aloof in Warming Debate,"
"Bush Turned His Back on the Environment," "Democrats Say Bush Failed
Leadership Tests Abroad."
But Bush-41s diplomatic embarrassment had another consequence that Bush-43 is
determined to avoid. Though halfhearted, Bush-41's acknowledgment of worldwide
environmental concerns alienated many in the Republican Partys conservative base.
Their attitude toward international obligations and agreements, especially environmental
ones, ranges from skeptical to hostile.
Bush-41s stumbles on the world stage also created an opening for
then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton and other Democrats who hit Bush for his lack of
poise and leadership.
Though environmental progress was made at Rio, including the formative strategy that
would lead to the Kyoto Protocol on global warming, environmental leaders blamed Bush-41
and his administration for many of the summits shortcomings and the lack of progress
on a range of environmental concerns. [For an analysis of the 1992 Earth Summit, see The
Earth Summit at Rio: Politics, Economics and The Environment by Rance K.L. Panjabi and
Arthur H. Campeau, 1997]
So, by exposing himself in a diplomatically unfriendly setting and by having nothing
much to say, Bush-41 got whacked at both ends of the political spectrum. He came across as
weak to his conservative political base and as ineffectual to environmental advocates.
Bush-43 has noted many of these lessons from his fathers presidency, though less
how to be president than how to win a second term. For Bush-43, the maxim that dominated
his early administration known as ABC for Anything But Clinton is changing
into a new political dictum which might be called ABD for Anything But Dad.
From the drive to finish off Iraq's Saddam Hussein to the insistence on tax cuts
regardless of the widening budget deficits to a showy conference on domestic economic
problems, Bush-43 has, in the words of New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, "tried
to use his father's failures in the eyes of conservatives as a reverse playbook."
[NYT, Aug. 18, 2002]
Dissing the environment is one of those lessons. On one environmental issue after
another, Bush-43 has heeded the position papers of conservative think tanks and big
business to weaken standards and undermine enforcement mechanisms, including breaking a
campaign pledge to regulate carbon-dioxide, a leading cause of global warming. [For other
examples, go to http://www.sierraclub.org/politics/bush/w_watch.asp]
Yet while Bush may score some political points with his conservative base by stiffing
the second Earth Summit, his absence may come at a further cost to Americas
international standing. Bushs decision to skip the summit, while many heads of state
from Europe and elsewhere attend, will reinforce a growing worldwide consensus that Bush
is hell-bent on a unilateralist foreign policy.
There also is a developing bipartisan recognition among senior U.S. foreign policy
experts that international support is needed for the war on terrorism as well as
Bushs goal of "regime change" in Iraq. Nevertheless, Bush continues to
pick fights that seem designed to offend nations, from allies to adversaries.
"The United States is at present deconstructing its alliances," observes Leon
Fuerth, who was national security adviser to Vice President Al Gore. "Unilateralism,
triumphalism, exceptionalism and often simple arrogance now mark our
approach. We demonstrate by word and by deed that allies and alliances do not matter
enough to constrain us. And each time we do this, we advance toward the culmination of a
self-fulfilling prophecy. We will end up operating alone in the world." [Washington
Post, Aug. 23, 2002]
While less direct in his criticism, Bush-41s Secretary of State James A. Baker
III makes a similar point about Bush-43s advisers who brush aside international
concerns about a U.S. invasion of Iraq.
"Although the United States could certainly succeed, we should try our best not to
have to go it alone, and the president should reject the advice of those who counsel doing
so," Baker wrote. "The costs in all areas will be much greater, as will the
political risks, both domestic and international, if we end up going it alone or with only
one or two other countries." [NYT, Aug. 25, 2002]
Taking power in January 2001, Bush promised a "humble" and
"present" foreign policy, though he offered little clarification about what he
meant by those words. During his first several months in office, Bush did make clear his
intent to disengage from many of the peacekeeping and peacemaking efforts that Clinton had
Bushs approach, especially his withdrawal from the Kyoto global-warming agreement
and his denigration of the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, worried traditional U.S. allies
in Europe. Bush, it seemed, resented multilateral approaches to complex problems.
But the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks led to a wave of solidarity toward the United
States. People around the world expressed poignant sympathy, spontaneously holding
candle-light vigils in front of U.S. embassies, leaving flowers, baseball caps, American
flags, and other items in front embassy gates. Opinion pieces appeared in newspapers
around the world praising America for its contributions to world progress.
Even leaders of hostile countries, such as Libya, Iran and North Korea, lined up to
express condolences to the U.S.
Nations of the world also took concrete action to support the U.S. Less than 24 hours
after the terrorist strikes, the United Nations Security Council unanimously approved a
resolution condemning the attacks "in [the] strongest terms." That same day, the
U.N. General Assembly passed a resolution calling for "international cooperation to
bring to justice the perpetrators, organizers and sponsors of the outrages of 11 September
Also on Sept. 12, NATO nations for the first time invoked Article 5 of the Washington
Treaty, which states that "an armed attack against one or more of them in Europe or
North America shall be considered an attack against them all." A global coalition of
nations joined America in efforts to root out terrorist cells.
The palpable international goodwill reflected, too, the hope that the Bush
administration would come to appreciate the value of global interdependence and
cooperation. That hope was dashed, however, as the Bush administration soon reasserted its
unilateralist approach to any number of issues, from formally renouncing the
Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty to opposing a war-crimes court to blocking funding for
international family planning to ignoring the Geneva Conventions on the treatment of
Afghan prisoners of war.
Over the past 11 months, much of the international sympathy toward the United States
has dissipated. USA Today ran a front-page article on Aug. 14 under a picture of
protesters in London holding a sign calling the U.S. a "Rogue Nation." The
article reported that "the anti-American sentiment has turned into a contagion that
is spreading across the globe and infecting even the United States most important
"A lot of people who would never ever have considered themselves anti-American are
now very distressed with the United States," said Meghnad Desai, the
"pro-American" director of the Institute for Global Governance at the London
School of Economics and Political Science. Desai, a member of Great Britains House
of Lords, said America has behaved arrogantly and incompetently under President Bush.
USA Today described two leading concerns among foreign leaders: a distrust of the power
of the United States as the worlds only superpower and a perceived abuse of that
power with the U.S. blocking initiatives aimed at developing international cooperation and
agreement. [USA Today, Aug. 14, 2002]
This sentiment is confirmed by a variety of recent polls. In Great Britain,
historically the closest American ally, a poll commissioned by Prime Minister Tony Blair
found widespread opposition to U.S. policies. While the details were not made public,
anecdotal reports indicate that Bush is more unpopular than the Tory party, which holds
less than 25 percent of the seats in the House of Commons. [The Daily Telegraph, Aug. 9,
Even the conservative Washington Times took note of rising anti-Americanism in South
Korea, a staunch U.S. ally. According to the newspaper, resentment is building toward a
continued U.S. military presence in South Korea and toward Bush's hard-line stance on
North Korea, which Bush counted as part of his "axis of evil."
"Opinion polls support anecdotal evidence of unprecedented hostility reported by
many Americans, and the U.S. Embassy in Seoul is sufficiently concerned to be planning a
public outreach campaign to counter the trend," reported The Washington Times,
founded and financed by South Korean theocrat Sun Myung Moon. [Washington Times, Aug. 23,
Since the 1980s, Moon has been an important ally of Bush presidential candidacies, with
his newspaper providing editorial support and lambasting the family's Democratic
opponents. Moon's organizations also have paid money to Bush-41 for speeches and lobbying
since he left the White House.
By snubbing the world environmental summit, Bush can't expect to improve his global
standing. At Johannesburg, heads of state from Europe, Asia and the developing world will
debate how to better balance global economic growth with environmental conservation. Among
the more than 100 world leaders who will attend the conference include British Prime
Minister Tony Blair, French President Jacques Chirac, Mexican President Vicente Fox,
Canada's Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Japan's Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, and
German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
Less than one week before the start of the conference, the White House confirmed that
neither Bush nor Vice President Dick Cheney will attend. Instead, the U.S. will be
represented at the ministerial level by Secretary of State Colin Powell and Environmental
Protection Agency administrator Christie Todd Whitman. Powell and Whitman are notable
choices considering they are the two agency heads often at odds with Bush's policies. Both
have been rumored to be considering resignations.
Jan Pronk, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan's special adviser on the summit, told the
environmental news agency, Greenwire, that Bush's absence will be seen as a blow-off to
the rest of the world. "President Bush cannot afford not to be there. If he is
mistakenly thinking he can afford not to be there, the rest of the world does not see it
that way," Pronk said. [Greenwire, July 26, 2002]
Pleasing the Right
Bush's conservative base, however, is delighted. Thirty-two conservative leaders,
including right-wing icons Paul Weyrich and Grover Norquist, signed a letter praising the
Bush administrations position on the summit. "The least important global
environmental issue is potential global warming, and we hope that your negotiators at
Johannesburg can keep it off the table and out of the spotlight," the letter said.
In line with those hopes, Bush has positioned the United States, the nation that
generates the most pollutants that cause global warming, as the only developed country
that has rebuffed the Kyoto Protocol. He's maintained this position despite a decade of
progress in developing the science that confirms that the planet is warming.
That science is now underscored by measurable increases in temperatures and bizarre
climatic events around the world. In the last century, global temperatures have risen
roughly one degree Fahrenheit, roughly a two percent increase, and the pace is quickening.
Forecasts for future warming over the next 100 years range from three and a half degrees
to eight degrees, anywhere from six percent to nearly 14 percent warmer than today. [Time,
Aug. 26, 2002]
At the poles, ice caps are melting. The ice sheet at the North Pole now averages half
the thickness it averaged only 25 years ago. Coastal flooding, as predicted by global
warming forecasters, has worsened. Along the coast of Louisiana, an area about the size of
Rhode Island has been lost to the sea already.
The Red Cross estimates that a major hurricane along Louisianas coast could
result in as many as 100,000 deaths due to flooding. All along the U.S. coastal areas,
scientists estimate that as much as 23,000 square miles could disappear as sea levels
rise. [AP, Aug. 11, 2002]
This summer, drought has devastated farmland in the central U.S. in a disaster that
farmers compare to the Dust Bowl days of the 1930s. Wildfires have swept through dried-out
forests in the West, even in the normally damp Pacific Northwest.
In central Europe, catastrophic flooding has forced the evacuation of nearly 100,000
people and killed more than 100. Flooding also has deluged parts of Nepal, India, China,
and Southeast Asia. German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Czech Republic Environmental
Minister Libor Ambrozek have warned that unless more is done to stop greenhouse gas
pollution, extreme weather events will become more frequent. [BBC and Deutsche
Presse-Agentur, Aug. 19, 2002]
Yet, Bush continues to question the science on global warming. His administration's
chief response is to call for still more research on the problem.
With the U.S. by far the worlds largest consumer of natural resources and the
biggest greenhouse gas polluter, Americas environmental intransigence has become one
of the top issues eroding America's reputation around the world. Bush's position baffles
European leaders whose domestic constituents resolutely support efforts to curb
Beyond the global-warming issue, governments will have their hands full at the
Johannesburg summit. Other environmental issues include sustainable economic development
in lesser-developed countries, biodiversity loss and species extinction, clean air and
water, preserving forests, and protecting oceans.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, access to
food is a growing problem for much of the lesser-developed world. In Central Africa, for
instance, 51 percent of the population is undernourished, and in all of Sub-Saharan
Africa, roughly 34 percent are undernourished. In Asias developing countries, the
undernourished account for 20 percent of the general population.
Much of the food shortage can be blamed on poor land management. In 1996 alone, 19.4
million square kilometers of once useful land was degraded. Annually, as many as 12
million hectares of land is turned into desert as a result of poor land management.
Overgrazing, deforestation, agricultural mismanagement, and fuel-wood consumption are the
main culprits. [Time, Aug. 26, 2002]
Access to fresh water is perhaps an even greater problem. Since 1970, the annual use of
fresh water around the world has increased nearly 700 percent. According to the United
Nations, more than five million people die every year from water-related diseases. More
than two billion people lack access to sanitation and more than one billion lack access to
safe drinking water.
South Central Asia, Africa, Western Asia, and even Western Europe experience varying
degrees of water scarcity, from moderate to extreme. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan
predicts that the wars of the future will be fought over access to clean water.
"Fierce national competition over water resources has prompted fears that water
issues contain the seeds of violent conflict," he said.
A recent report by World Wildlife Fund International finds that human activities are
consuming 20 percent more natural resources per year than the planet can naturally
replenish. If humans cannot reverse this trend, WWFs Living Planet Report concludes
that standards of living will plummet in the next 30 years. The longer-term consequences
for the planet are even less promising.
Despite these dire worries, Bush has decided to sit out the deliberations. Beyond his
personal lack of interest, his administration has chosen to provide little leadership in
framing global solutions to environmental problems or even admitting that some, such as
global warming, exist. This attitude may please Bush's political base, but it also
undercuts American leadership in the world.
Bush-43 seems to have taken to heart the lessons from his father's political mistakes,
especially when those actions offended conservative activists. The younger Bush wants to
make sure these conservatives stick with him in 2004, even if that requires offending
millions of people around the world who care deeply about the environment and fear greatly
for the future of the planet.
As for other political lessons, such as the value of international cooperation whether
in battling terrorism or addressing looming environmental catastrophes, Bush-43 doesn't
appear to have learned much at all.
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