Of all the explanations for Barack Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize, the one that rang truest came from French President Nicolas Sarkozy. “It sets the seal on America’s return to the heart of all the world’s peoples.” In other words, this was Europe’s way of saying to America, “We love you again”–sort of like those weird “renewal of vows” ceremonies that couples have after surviving a rough patch.
Now that Europe and the United States are officially reunited, it seems worth asking: is this necessarily a good thing? The Nobel Committee, which awarded the prize specifically for Obama’s embrace of “multilateral diplomacy,” is evidently convinced that US engagement on the world stage is a triumph for peace and justice. I’m not so sure. After nine months in office, Obama has a clear track record as a global player. Again and again, US negotiators have chosen not to strengthen international laws and protocols but rather to weaken them, often leading other rich countries in a race to the bottom.
Let’s start where the stakes are highest: climate change. During the Bush years, European politicians distinguished themselves from the United States by expressing their unshakable commitment to the Kyoto Protocol. So while the United States increased its carbon emissions by 20 percent from 1990 levels, the European Union countries reduced theirs by 2 percent. Not stellar, but clearly a case where the EU’s breakup with the United States carried tangible benefits for the planet.
Flash forward to the high-stakes climate negotiations that just wrapped up in Bangkok. The talks were supposed to lead to a deal in Copenhagen this December that significantly strengthens the Kyoto Protocol. Instead, the United States, the EU and the rest of the developed countries formed a unified bloc calling for Kyoto to be scrapped and replaced. Where Kyoto set clear and binding targets for emission reductions, the US plan would have each country decide how much to cut, then submit its plans to international monitoring (with nothing but wishful thinking to ensure that this all keeps the planet’s temperature below catastrophic levels). And where Kyoto put the burden of responsibility squarely on the rich countries that created the climate crisis, the new plan treats all countries the same.
These kinds of weak proposals were not altogether surprising coming from the United States. What was shocking was the sudden unity of the rich world around this plan–including many countries that had previously sung the praises of Kyoto. And there were more betrayals: the EU, which had indicated it would spend $19 billion to $35 billion a year to help developing countries adapt to climate change, came to Bangkok with a much lower offer, one more in line with the US pledge of… nothing. Oxfam’s Antonio Hill summed up the negotiations like this: “When the starting gun fired, it became a race to the bottom, with rich countries weakening existing commitments under the international framework.”