Internationalism, Multilateralism and Kyoto

Internationalism, Multilateralism and Kyoto

Julian admits that he may be inferring too much when he criticizes the LA Times op-ed written by the NRDC in opposition to the Bush administration’s decision to remain outside the Kyoto Protocol as a wrong-headed rejection of US national interest in favor of internationalism. I agree that Julian inferred too much. I am no expert on global warming, but it seems to me quite reasonable for the NRDC (which has some expertise on the subject) to take on Bush, Crichton and all the others questioning the science upon which the Koyoto Protocol is based. (The full text of the Kyoto treaty can be found here.)

But Julian raises the interesting question of whether it is useful to promote “internationalism” as a valuable in and of itself. Part of the problem is defining what we mean by internationalism. If by internationalism we simply mean reaping the benefits of participation in the international system (e.g., free trade, convertibility of currency, respect for nationality, predictability in the use of force, etc.) in exchange for, more or less, agreeing to certain obligations, than the US is by all accounts “internationalist.” The enormous number of bilateral treaties in which the US participates are evidence of this “internationalism.” And the best evidence of “internationalism” in the area of multilateral treaties is our participation in the WTO, in which the US voluntarily has signed up for multilateral regulation of vast areas of its own economy in exchange for the benefits of the free trade regime. Of course, the decision to do continue to participate in the WTO will be debated as a national political matter, and there may come a time when we decide — through our own political process, subject to all its mechanisms for accountability — to withdraw from the WTO and not participate. That is our right within the international system.

But to say that you cannot nonetheless argue ex ante that participation in a particular multilateral regime (such as the WTO or Kyoto) is on balance a good thing for the US seems unfair. We know from economic theory what the benefits of participating in free trade are, and we can make the case that being “internationalist” on trade is a good thing, without going through all the pluses and minuses of each individual food safety regulation or worker protection statute. Similarly, it is fair to argue that the science behind global warming demonstrates that cooperative, multilateral approaches will be most effective in solving the problem. The only thing lacking in this kind of ex ante analysis, as Julian implies, is the democratic accountability within the participating state. (This is why free trade internationalists have to take seriously the critiques of Ralph Nader, Pat Buchanan and, indeed, the NRDC.) In fact, NRDC knows this; the point of an op-ed in the LA Times, as opposed the the London Times, is to influence opinion in the US to put pressure on the corporations and politicians standing in opposition to Kyoto.

Kevin Heller is correct in his comment noting that the US has, historically, not concerned itself with how many other states have signed on to an agreement when debating the pros and cons of US participation (see, e.g., the League of Nations, the ICESCR). I don’t think that is central to the argument the NRDC is trying to make here. (Although tossing in inaccurate statements that the US has taken the position the “Geneva Convention” [sic] should not bind the US was gratuitous and sloppy.) However inartfully, the NRDC is trying to make the argument that Kyoto is a set of rules that the US should sign onto because:
1) the problem of global warming is scientific fact;
2) reduction of greenhouse gases through Kyoto will help alleviate the problem;
3) the US is the largest producer of greenhouse gases;
4) a multilateral regime without the participation of the US will be ineffectual; and
5) by staying outside the regime, the US is angering the rest of the world, including close allies like the UK.

The fourth point is what makes a unilateral decision of the US not to participate in one or another international agreement different from, say, the decision of Luxembourg not to join. Our failure to participate can doom the agreement. It is the fifth point that, I think, sets up the false internationalist v. non-internationalist dichotomy. I happen to agree that our long-term foreign policy interests should take the views of the rest of the world into account for a host of practical reasons. It doesn’t mean, however, that those views should be determinative of our action.

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Linked to this post today on a wrap-up of the Montreal conference last week. You’ve hit on an important though little-noticed issue in the Kyoto debate. Link is here.

I would add that the rhetoric over the Bush administration’s “failure” to follow the “international community” in the Kyoto process has predictably fallen along the same lines as the Iraq war debate.

The pressure to walk away from American voter (and taxpayer) opinion and embrace the favor of internationalists is probably tempting for politicians, but not so tempting, I hope, to risk losing their constituency (or donor support) at home.

Best regards,
Don Bosch,
Editor, “The Evangelical Ecologist”