A Green Foreign Policy
by Mark Hertzgaard
The Nation magazine, May 8, 2000
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
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
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
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
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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