A Green Foreign Policy

A Green Foreign Policy

The power of the market, and of the giant corporations that dominate it, is the overriding political fact of our time.


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?

First, environmental values would be at the heart, not the margins, of American foreign policy. Just as the United States says it supports democracy and private enterprise in its overseas dealings, so it should support ecological sustainability. Specifically, an environmental foreign policy would: seriously address climate change; reverse subsidies and other policies that hasten rainforest destruction and the epidemic of plant and animal extinctions it causes; promote female literacy and equality as the surest step toward lower birth and poverty rates; adopt trade, aid and investment guidelines that promote solar energy, “drip” irrigation and mass transit, rather than fossil fuels, private cars and industrial-scale, chemically dependent agriculture; halt the dumping of toxic waste in poor nations; and require labeling and testing of all genetically modified organisms before allowing them onto the market.

Second, the President must make it clear that environmental issues matter in America’s foreign conduct. Bill Clinton has, on the contrary, relegated them to the periphery. In pushing NAFTA, the WTO and other parts of his free-trade agenda, for example, Clinton insisted that environmental and labor considerations be handled in side agreements, rather than in the main agreements. That’s not good enough. Policy-makers must recognize that the environmental crisis threatens consequences no less dangerous than shooting wars and trade disputes do. Unchecked climate change, for example, will swamp the coastal regions where one-third of the world’s people live and generate more killer storms like 1998’s Hurricane Mitch, bringing misery to millions and greatly worsening the already overwhelming global refugee problem. (Credible analysts project that the 25 million environmentally induced refugees in the world today could increase to 50 million or more by the year 2010.)

The environment therefore must be elevated to the same priority status within foreign-policy-making as security, economics and politics. In practical terms that means, among other things, assigning to the environment Cabinet-level authority, budgets and access to the President. The Clinton Administration took a step in this direction in 1993, when it created the Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs position and appointed former Senator Timothy Wirth to the job. But the move, though impressive on paper–Wirth ranked very high in the State Department hierarchy–had little effect on overall policy, largely because Clinton and his Secretaries of State made it clear by their inattention how little they really cared about the Under Secretary’s issues. Without concrete, outspoken support from the very top, the culture of the foreign policy bureaucracy will not change. Foreign-service officers must see that environmental expertise leads to the kind of quick promotion and choice assignment usually associated with security and political specializations.

Next, a substantive reform. It’s one thing to give lip service to environmental values, another to integrate them into policy-making. One mechanism that could help is the environmental impact assessment, or EIA. Introduced thirty years ago in the National Environmental Policy Act, the EIA is now a basic tool of domestic environmental policy. In effect, it forces government and corporate officials to acknowledge the likely environmental consequences of a proposed course of action, even as it gives citizen groups a procedural basis for opposing or influencing the action, thus democratizing decision-making.

Applying the EIA to foreign policy should yield similar benefits. If our trade policy with China, for example, were subjected to an EIA, the findings would confront US officials with some awkward facts: that the United States does much more in China to encourage expanded coal use than energy efficiency, even though China is already the world’s second-largest producer of the greenhouse gases that cause climate change; that the World Bank, over which Washington has decisive influence, displays an even more lopsided pro-coal bias; that a policy that promoted energy efficiency would lower China’s coal use by 50 percent; and that while today’s policy delivers great benefits to fossil-fuels companies, the efficiency alternative would yield comparable benefits to other American-based companies even as it produced far more jobs for American workers. Faced with this information, US officials might of course still make the environmentally incorrect decision. But they would find it more difficult to do so, especially if they were being monitored by citizens’ groups, the media and Congress.

EIAs would, in short, institutionalize an environmental perspective on foreign policy. They would not guarantee that environmental values always triumphed, but they would formally insert them into the official debate–a necessary first step–and help create the political space in which to fight for alternative approaches.

And what should those be? The temptation is to offer a laundry list of measures to encourage environmentally sustainable practices in all spheres of human activity, from agriculture and energy to construction and transportation. The truth is, experts here and abroad for the most part agree on what changes are needed to bring humanity’s behavior into balance with the natural systems that make life possible on earth. The trick is to figure out how to make those changes happen.

Which brings us back to the power of the market. Assuming that the market will be with us for years to come, we must find a way to make it compatible with environmental survival. Not an easy task, but not impossible either. The way to start, I believe, is for the United States to launch a Global Green Deal: a program to retrofit civilization environmentally from top to bottom–and in the process create the biggest jobs and business stimulus program of our time. Making use of both market incentives and government leadership, a Global Green Deal would do for environmental technologies in the twenty-first century what government and industry have done so well for computer and Internet technologies at the end of the twentieth: launch their commercial takeoff.

Under a Global Green Deal, the government need not spend more money–only shift existing subsidies away from environmentally dead-end technologies like coal and gas-guzzling automobiles. Every year, the General Services Administration buys about 50,000 new cars for official use from Detroit. Under the Global Green Deal, Washington would tell Detroit that from now on the cars have to be hybrid-electric or hydrogen-fuel-cell cars. Soon, carmakers would be climbing the learning curve and offering the competitively priced green cars consumers say they want.

We know this model of government pump-priming works; it’s why so many of us have computers on our desks today. America’s computer companies began learning to produce today’s affordable systems during the sixties, while benefiting from long-term subsidies and guaranteed markets under contract to the Pentagon and NASA. Thirty years later, the United States is still reaping the benefits: The cyberrevolution is fueling one of the most extraordinary economic expansions in history.

The same principles would apply overseas. As noted above, the potential market for energy efficiency is huge in China (and throughout the Third World, for that matter). If Washington were smart, it would help the Chinese buy lots of this technology rather than the fossil fuels our tax dollars currently subsidize, thus producing lots of jobs and profits for American workers and companies, while at the same time fighting climate change.

We need an environmental foreign policy that recognizes the power of the market without surrendering to it. In today’s world, every government ends up cutting a deal with capital. The goal should be to make it a deal that also works for the rest of us. A Global Green Deal would be no silver bullet. But it would allow the United States to lead by example and begin to “green” economic behavior around the world–and that would be a foreign policy worth having.

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