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Foreign Policy goes Green

  • J. Bishop Grewell

    While she was Secretary of State, Madeleine Albright summed up the newest trend in American diplomacy. “Not so long ago, many believed that the pursuit of clean air, clean water, and healthy forests was a worthy goal, but not part of our national security. Today, environmental issues are part of the mainstream of American foreign policy” (U.S. Department of State 1998).

    Albright’s words reflect a dangerous paradigm shift that has become embedded in the agencies of the United States government that deal with foreign affairs. While the Bush administration may be less intent on the “greening” of foreign policy than was the Clinton administration, environmental issues have already seeped into the policies of the State Department and Defense Department and agendas for trade and aid.

    Adding an environmental component to the conduct of international affairs may arouse sympathy, but traditional foreign policy concerns are at risk of being pushed aside. At the same time, the new “green” policy fails to make significant environmental progress. It promotes pretense over performance.

    Scholars gathered together by the Hoover Institution examined evidence of this change in foreign policy (Anderson and Miller 2000). The evidence includes the following:

    • At the Department of Defense (DOD), spending on environmental programs in the United States jumped from $250 million to $5 billion between 1984 and 1994 and has remained at a high level since. These expenditures consume nearly two percent of the department’s budget (Schaefer 2000, 61).
    • In 1997, the State Department announced in its document United States Strategic Plan for International Affairs that sustainable environment and a stabilized world population are among its primary goals. These goals were listed alongside national security and the protection of American citizens (Schaefer 2000, 47).
    • The United States Agency for International Development now promotes environmental objectives. It has denied funding for countries to use DDT to combat malaria because of concerns about DDT’s environmental impact (Tren and Bate 2001, 42).
    • Trade itself is affected. The Clinton administration insisted on including supposed protections for the environment and labor in its “fast-track” authority, which streamlines the progress of free trade agreements through Congress. Partly as a result of such inclusions, Congress halted such authority in 1994, bringing trade negotiations to a virtual standstill.


    The evolving international regime seeks broad cooperation on a myriad of second-tier issues. This means trying to secure nearly universal participation in many agreements. Yet the more parties signing on to a convention or treaty, the less chance there is for actual cooperation and resolution (Barrett 1994) and the greater the chance for sovereignty loss.

    Open-door participation makes science subservient to politics. William Aron, a former United States Whaling Commissioner, suggests this happened with the International Whaling Commission. He and his coauthors have noted, “Any nation can accept the 1946 convention and become an equal voting member of the IWC” (Aron, Burke, and Freeman 1999, 24). Even landlocked countries can join the commission. Countries not directly affected by whales or whaling can vote on policies with the same degree of power as countries with a direct economic and cultural stake in whaling policy.

    Environmental organizations have taken advantage of the policy. According to some observers, Greenpeace worked to pack the IWC against whaling and may even have paid membership fees for new member countries (Andresen 1998, 439– 40). Open participation undoubtedly contributes to the continuing moratorium on whaling for whale species that scientific data indicate are no longer endangered.

    Far more effective and appropriate are treaties that involve only those countries with a direct interest. The North Pacific Fur Seal Treaty is an example (Morris 2000, 274–75). This environmental treaty was signed in 1911 (before anyone would have called it an environmental treaty). In order to protect the fur seal population from overharvest, the four nations involved in harvesting fur seals (the United States, Canada, Russia, and Japan) signed an agreement setting quotas for each country. Breach of the contract was punishable by dissolution of the treaty. Because this would lead to a return to overharvesting and eventually destroy the value of the resource, the countries had an incentive to play by the rules. Other countries were discouraged from entry into the fur seal market by credible threats of trade sanctions.

    Another example of the benefits of limited international involvement was the 1941 Trail Smelter arbitration (Morris 2000, 271–72). Fumes from a smelter operated by Cominco Ltd. in British Columbia, Canada, were harming cattle ranchers in the United States. The ranchers petitioned the U.S. government for help. The case was taken to arbitration and settled. No other country had a direct interest in the case, and so no other country was involved. The ranchers were granted an injunction and awarded damages from Cominco.

    Such limited and specific treaties have given way to broad agreements involving many countries. The Kyoto Protocol for reducing carbon dioxide emissions has raised talk of an international regulatory agency comparable to Interpol (Miller 2000, 229–30). A State Department document promoted the United Nations as a police force to patrol regulations of biotechnology. The 1992 Biodiversity Convention could interfere with national sovereignty by putting pressure on a country to set aside reserve areas for endangered species.

    Foreign policy has always been a bag of goods bought with a finite amount of diplomatic currency. Adding another item to that shopping list increases the cost of foreign policy and risks losing focus. Because of these risks, only environmental issues truly international in scope should make it into the international policy arena.

    Furthermore, economic research makes clear that wealth and well-being are linked (Anderson 2000). As people become richer, they begin to improve their surroundings and ultimately seek environmental amenities. Any foreign policy striving to improve environmental quality should promote economic growth.

    Anderson, Terry L. 2000. Bucking the Tide of Globalism: Developing Property Rights from the Ground Up. In The Greening of U.S. Foreign Policy, ed. Terry L. Anderson and Henry I. Miller. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 249–66.
    Anderson, Terry L., and Henry I. Miller, eds. 2000. The Greening of U.S. Foreign Policy. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.
    Andresen, Steinar. 1998. The Making and Implementation of Whaling Policies: Does Participation Make a Difference? In The Implementation and Effectiveness of International Environmental Commitments: Theory and Practice, ed. David G. Victor, Kal Raustiala, and Eugen B. Skolnikoff. Cambridge, MA; MIT Press, 431–74.
    Aron, William, William Burke, and Milton Freeman. 1999. Flouting the Convention. Atlantic Monthly, May.
    Barrett, Scott. 1994. Heterogeneous International Environmental Agreements. In International Environmental Negotiations: Strategic Policy Issues, ed. Carlo Carraro. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar, 9–25.
    Miller, Henry I. 2000. Biotechnology Regulation and Foreign Policy: Eccentric Environmentalism Instead of Sound Science. In The Greening of U.S. Foreign Policy, ed. Terry L. Anderson and Henry I. Miller. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 221–48.
    Morris, Julian. 2000. International Environmental Agreements: Developing Another Path. In The Greening of U.S. Foreign Policy, ed. Terry L. Anderson and Henry Miller. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 267–301.
    Schaefer, Brett D. 2000. Green Creep: The Increasing Influence of Environmentalism in U.S. Foreign Policy. In The Greening of U.S. Foreign Policy, ed. Terry L. Anderson and Henry I. Miller. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 41–113.
    Tren, Richard, and Roger Bate. 2000. When Politics Kills: Malaria and the DDT Story. Washington, DC: Competitive Enterprise Institute. U.S. Department of State. 1998. Environmental Diplomacy: The Environment and U.S. Foreign Policy. Available: earth.html. Cited January 31, 2001.

    J. Bishop Grewell, a Research Associate with PERC, is currently a visiting scholar with the Competitive Enterprise Institute. He is working on a book on eco-entrepreneurs in the agricultural sector. For more information about environmental changes in foreign policy, see The Greening of U.S. Foreign Policy, edited by Terry L. Anderson and Henry I. Miller (Hoover Institution Press, 2000) and the PERC Policy Series paper, “The Greening of Foreign Policy” (PS-20), by Terry L. Anderson and J. Bishop Grewell.

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