German Viewpoint on American Policy or the Lack Thereof
An American Abdication
Our thanks to the author of this article for distributing it. We can always benefit from seeing the perspective of others.
Herr Walter's article originally appeared in the New York Times.
by Norbert WalterAt present there is much talk about the unparalleled strength of the United States on the world stage. Yet at this very moment the most powerful country in the world stands to forfeit much political capital, moral authority and international good will by dragging its feet on the next great global issue: the environment. Before long, the administration's apparent unwillingness to take a leadership role -- or, at the very least, to stop acting as a brake -- in fighting global environmental degradation will threaten the very basis of the American supremacy that many now seem to assume will last forever.
American authority is already in some danger as a result of the Bush administration's decision to send a low-level delegation to the World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg -- low-level, that is, relative to America's share of both the world economy and global pollution. The absence of President Bush from Johannesburg symbolizes this decline in authority.
[The Progress Report points out that Secretary of State Colin Powell is not a low-level delegate. What Herr Walter is noting, however, is that most countries in the world have sent their very highest leaders to Johannesburg, while Bush remains on vacation.]
In recent weeks, newspapers around the world have been dominated by environmental headlines: In central Europe, flooding killed dozens, displaced tens of thousands and caused billions of dollars in damages. In South Asia, the United Nations reports a brown cloud of pollution that is responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths a year from respiratory disease. The pollution (80 percent man-made) also cuts sunlight penetration, thus reducing rainfall, affecting agriculture and otherwise altering the climate. Many other examples of environmental degradation, often related to the warming of the atmosphere, could be cited. What they all have in common is that they severely affect countries around the world and are fast becoming a chief concern for people everywhere.
Nobody is suggesting that these disasters are directly linked to anything the United States is doing. But when a country that emits 25 percent of the world's greenhouse gases acts as an uninterested, sometimes hostile bystander in the environmental debate, it looks like unbearable arrogance to many people abroad.
The administration seems to believe it is merely an observer -- that environmental issues are not its issues. But not doing anything amounts to ignoring a key source of world tension, and no superpower that wants to preserve its status can go on dismissing such a pivotal dimension of political and economic -- if not existential -- conflict.
In my view, there is a clear-cut price to be paid for ignoring the views of just about every other country in the world today. The United States is jettisoning its hard-won moral and intellectual authority and perhaps the strategic advantages that come with being a good steward of the international political order. The United States may no longer be viewed as a leader or reliable partner in policymaking: necessary, perhaps inevitable, but not desirable, as it has been for decades. All of this because America's current leaders are not willing to acknowledge the very real concerns of many people about global environmental issues.
No one can expect the United States to provide any quick fixes, but one would like to see America make a credible and sustained effort, along with other countries, to address global environmental problems. This should happen on two fronts. The first is at home in the United States, through more environmentally friendly policies, for example greater fuel-efficiency standards for cars and light trucks and better insulation for buildings. The second is international, through a more cooperative approach to multilateral attempts at safeguarding the environment. Simply rejecting international treaties (like the Kyoto Protocol) then failing to offer a better proposal cannot be an acceptable option for American policymakers.
Much of the world has come together to help the United States in the fight against terrorism, out of the realization that a common threat can only be beaten through a cooperative effort. It is high time for the United States, metaphorically speaking, to get out of its oversized, gas-guzzling S.U.V. - and join the rest of the world in doing more to combat global warming and protecting the planet.
Norbert Walter is chief economist at Deutsche Bank Group.
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