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Changes of Historic Magnitude
Published on Monday, August 20, 2001 in The Statesman (Calcutta, India)
Changes of Historic Magnitude
by Huck Gutman
 
THIRTY years ago American novelist Norman Mailer lyrically described that subtle moment when day slides into night: “And the afternoon takes a turn and is different having just passed through one of those unseen locks of the day, everything is altered, not saying how.” His words might serve as the rubric for what has been happening on the international scene in the past several weeks. Two major changes may have been set in motion, one recognized, the other less so. Both have to do with the role of the USA in the international arena as the 21st century begins to unfold.

In 1997 in Kyoto, Japan, most of the nations forged a preliminary agreement to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases which have been linked to global warming. This Kyoto Accord stipulated that the 38 industrialized nations which produce a preponderance of the world’s greenhouse gases reduce their output by 2012 to 5.2 per cent below 1990 levels.

Shortly after assuming the US presidency this past January, following a contested and extremely close election, George W Bush signaled that a new era of foreign policy was at hand. He declared that the USA would reject the Kyoto Accord and unilaterally withdraw from the collective effort to reduce greenhouse gases. American environmentalists were aghast. Equally concerned were the nations of the European Community, who saw the new President’s posture as not only anti-environmental but also profoundly irresponsible, since the USA emits about 25 per cent of the global total of greenhouse gases.

Perhaps some of their leaders also saw the first hints of what has transpired since an American rejection of treaty obligations and a sharp swerve away from international cooperation. Developing nations saw the American recalcitrance as a particularly egregious example of imperialist arrogance.

President Bush, whose personal background was in the petrochemical business and whose major financial supporters came from that sector of the economy, was clearly protecting the energy industry’s interests in a continuing, and highly profitable, upward spiral of energy consumption. Mr Bush was also protecting, for domestic political reasons, an American automobile industry dependent on the profligacy of the American driver, whose devotion to big and energy-inefficient sports utility vehicles has allowed American industry in recent years to beat back foreign fuel-efficient automobiles. He protected, as well, corporate agriculture with its dependence on heavy use of chemical fertilizers and a consumer economy dependent on expanding sales of everything from toasters to air-conditioners, from DVD players to lawn mowers. Looking out for various American interest groups, for Mr Bush, trumped international cooperation; his defense of untrammeled consumption triumphed over addressing a major global problem.

Capitalism in general requires ever-expanding markets. This creates a troubling aspect to all American foreign policy, but Mr Bush’s defense of old inefficient capitalist enterprises, instead of embracing, as the EU has done, the necessity for industrial changes, placed narrow American interests ahead of all global concerns.

Thus, it was not just his anti-environmentalism but his anti-globalism that worried America’s traditional allies in Europe. Mr Bush was proposing – at the same time as he continually repeated the mantra of “free trade” he inherited from his predecessor, Bill Clinton – a new isolationism, in which America would look out for Americans, and the rest of the world be damned. (Developing nations were, perhaps, less surprised by this attitude than the developed nations in the EU.)

Mr Bush, like Mr Clinton before him, is influenced by the interests of multinational corporations. But in a true multinational economy – which has its own insidious dangers – global agreements make the world safe for economic exploitation. It seems Mr Bush wants such exploitation only on his own terms.

The European nations little knew what would emerge next from the new isolationists in the Bush Administration. But it did not take either the developed or developing nations long to find out what else these isolationists had in store. Mr Bush proposed to develop and deploy a new missile defense system, an enormously expensive, high technology “anti-missile shield”, which its adherents said could protect the USA from missiles launched against its populace.

It was clear, from the moment the proposal was announced, that the antimissile shield would in all likelihood launch a new arms race. If the system worked – a very large “if” – the USA could rain missiles down in any part of the world, resting secure that its adversary would not be able to respond in similar fashion. This imbalance of power, as history has shown, would likely lead other major powers to either match the American defense system or find new ways of delivering destructive payloads. Such a new arms race would exacerbate international tensions while it diverted government spending from social concerns to stockpiling armaments.

Yet even more ominous was a simple diplomatic fact: President Bush’s proposed antimissile shield would be in violation of the 29-year-old Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty. Even the earliest tests of the possibility of this new missile defense, tests foreseen to take place in a number of months, would be violations of the ABM Treaty. It is true that this treaty allows for a nation to withdraw on six months’ notice, but Mr Bush speaks not of withdrawing from the treaty but ignoring it.

This unilateral abrogation of a negotiated major restraint on the arms race is nothing short of catastrophic. But, again, the Bush Administration seems unconcerned that world peace may be put at risk by its actions. Once gain, America’s needs come before international concerns, American wishes before global security.

The reversal of American international relations involved in this abrogation is a historic shift of monumental proportions. The basis of American foreign policy since 1945 has been treaty obligations, and the sacred nature of such agreements. While it is true that many of the most important treaties and partnerships, NATO and SEATO chief among them, resulted from, and in turn exacerbated, the Cold War, nonetheless those treaties and obligations were the basis of a certain sort of international stability. Time and again American support and at times aggression were justified by a deep national commitment to uphold the sanctity of treaties.

Yet now, focused on ways to increase American defense spending, President Bush was — is — poised to throw out a treaty which preserved the world from an ever-escalating arms race. For almost three decades, the ABM pact used mutually assured destruction, a Machiavellian but seemingly effective threat, to assure an uneasy peace. A new arms race might well shift the balance of power in the world, which in turn could tragically lead one nation to attack another in the expectation that its aggression could not be countered.

Trying to salvage Mr Bush from the rather pathetic figure he cut at the recent economic summit in Genoa, Russian President Vladimir Putin made an unexpected statement. He declared, after a meeting with the American President, that Russia would think about reworking the 1972 ABM Treaty with Mr Bush if the latter would agree to talk about large cuts in stockpiles of nuclear armaments. But Condoleezza Rice, Mr. Bush’s national security advisor, stressed that very same day that regardless of whether an agreement could be reached, the American President would “need to move forward at an appropriate time” and begin testing. The following day, Mr Bush himself confirmed that despite his seemingly amicable talk with Mr Putin, “time is of the essence”, and that he would test the missile-shield technology whether or not the Russians and Americans reached a new accord. “Since I feel it so strongly, if we can’t reach an agreement we’re going to implement” the tests. Clearly, the President’s “strong feeling” took precedence over treaty obligations.

Several days later, the Bush Administration rejected an agreement, hammered out at and by the United Nations, to append enforcement provisions to the 29-year-old treaty against germ warfare. Seven years in the making, the agreement provides for international inspection of suspected biological weapons sites. (One of the justifications for the bombing of Baghdad by President George Bush, Mr Bush’s father, was that the Iraqis were producing chemical and biological weapons of mass destruction at uninspected sites. But that was Iraq: the USA, apparently, is a different matter.) “The draft protocol,” claimed Donald Mahley, America’s chief negotiator, “would put national security and confidential business information at risk.” Thus did the Bush Administration sacrifice global security from biological weapons on the altar of business. In a similar vein, the USA recently reject the international small-arms control pact which would have curtailed illegal trafficking in such weapons.

The triple rejection of the Kyoto Accord, the UN draft accord on germ warfare and the ABM treaty are all bad news. They very obviously signal a major shift toward self-centered isolationism on the part of the Bush Administration.

But another dynamic is also at work, one which neither Mr Bush, nor national security advisor Rice, nor secretary of state Colin Powell, nor secretary of defense Donald Rumsfeld had anticipated. When a bully plays a game of football or cricket and says to the others on the field, “I’m not playing with you any more: this is my ball and I’m going home with it,” the bully thinks the game is over. But it is always possible that the others on the field or pitch will find another ball and continue the game without the departed player.

This latter possibility is exactly what has come to pass. One hundred and seventy-eight nations signed a climate treaty based on the Kyoto Accord, an agreement that would for the first time require the industrialized countries to cut greenhouse gases. The nations involved had to make compromises, especially to make sure Japan, the largest economy after the USA, would join with the other nations in signing the treaty.

Although the agreement has a huge hole, since the 25 per cent of global emissions attributed to the USA are not included, the three dozen industrialized countries who signed nonetheless account for far greater greenhouse emissions, and these will be reduced.

In its rush towards isolation, the USA has abdicated the mantle of leadership in the post-modern world. It may still be the most powerful of nations, but the combined force of the European Union has been augmented, especially as it provided the leadership the Americans were unwilling to assume. As an important American environmentalist, Philip Clapp of the National Environmental Trust, remarked, “There’s really a new force on the world stage. If the United States will not lead, Europe can and will.”

Echoing that statement in an even larger global context, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan described the result of the American rejection of the UN draft accord on germ warfare. The USA is “practically alone in opposition to agreements”, he said, “that were broadly reached by just about everyone else”. The combined nations of the world, and their legislature the United Nations, have left America sitting on the sidelines while significant moves toward a more harmonious and peaceful world are being crafted. And, having learned to play without the local bully, there is a chance that the next time the world neighborhood plays a game of cricket or soccer, other captains will choose the teams and decide the strategy.

Thus, it seems possible that the balance of global power has shifted. Not irretrievably, for the military and economic power of the USA should never be underestimated. But leadership plays an important role in global politics. The willingness of Europe and Japan to take the lead on issues of climate, when taken in conjunction with the near global unanimity which is producing an accord on biological weapons, indicates that if the USA States wants to abdicate – if it wants to take its ball away and go home – there are other nations who will lead, other nations who will assume responsibility for guaranteeing the future security of our globe.

The author is Professor of English at the University of Vermont, USA, and author, with US Representative Bernard Sanders, of Outsider in the House.

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