The power of the market, and of the giant corporations that dominate it, is the overriding political fact of our time. Traditionally, we think of foreign policy as something conducted among nation-states. But when fifty-one of the world’s biggest economies are corporations rather than countries, old definitions no longer apply. To be realistic, a modern foreign policy must be directed at global corporations as well as at other countries.
This is especially true of environmental foreign policy. As much as OPEC and the world’s governments, it is Exxon and the rest of the fossil-fuels industry that will determine our species’ response to climate change. This is partly because they have the money to pay for campaign contributions and misleading advertising that influences politicians to drag their feet on the issue, but it’s also because the companies control the energy production process; if they keep extracting and burning more fossil fuel–while also delaying the transition to efficiency and renewables–the problem will get worse no matter what is written in international agreements like the Kyoto Protocol, signed by governments in December 1997. Indeed, Exxon chairman Lee Raymond visited China a few weeks before the Kyoto conference to urge his hosts not to let unfounded fears of climate change reduce China’s fossil-fuel consumption. Likewise, it is the corporate proponents of globalization more than their governmental counterparts who are most insistent about spreading the American model of hyperconsumerism around the planet, with all the additional environmental damage that implies.
Governments are not without considerable power of their own, however, which is why a forceful, creative environmental foreign policy could do so much to alter our disastrous current course. True, capital’s global reach–its ability to play governments, workers and communities in one country off against those in another–gives it many advantages. But to prosper, capital still needs many things that only governments can offer: enforcement of the rule of law and respect for private property; a healthy, educated work force; a social infrastructure of communications, transportation and amenities; and much else. Therefore, astute government officials, especially in nations that are stable and boast large internal markets like the United States, should be able to bargain with corporations from a position of some strength. Moreover, much of the damage corporations inflict on ecosystems is now done with the encouragement of governments (and their proxies, like the World Bank) in the form of unwise subsidies and lax or nonexistent regulation. Since the 1992 Earth Summit, the World Bank has spent $13.6 billion on fossil-fuel development in China, Russia and elsewhere, subsidizing in the process such corporate giants as Exxon, while devoting only 1 percent of its energy loans to efficiency projects. Governments need only reverse such policies to effect great environmental improvement.
Of course, governments must want to do the right thing. Which is why a discussion of a corporate-savvy environmental foreign policy presupposes certain conditions not yet in place, especially the comprehensive campaign finance reform needed to free government policy from the grip of big-money interests.
But let’s dream awhile. Let’s assume that these conditions have somehow come into being and federal officials are seeking to formulate a principled, effective environmental foreign policy. What would it look like?