Environmental Diplomacy

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Environmental Diplomacy

Kurk Dorsey

Environmental diplomacy can be broken into two general categories: conventions regulating the use of natural resources, and conventions regulating pollution. In each case, the central problem is that political boundaries rarely reflect biological boundaries, so that as national economies consume resources and produce pollution, they spread environmental problems far beyond their national boundaries. The sheer size of the U.S. economy has given it both the power to degrade the environment around the world and the influence to push diplomatic efforts to protect the environment. For most of its history, the United States has been one of the leading nations in the field of environmental diplomacy, but at the end of the twentieth century the United States found itself more often on the outside, as global discussions produced treaties that were increasingly unacceptable to the U.S. government. This loss of leadership has coincided with a shift away from bilateral treaties, first to small multilateral treaties and then to conventions that are open to every nation. That shift has been a logical reaction to an increasing international awareness that some of the biggest threats to human society come from global environmental problems, but it has meant that the United States has been less able to shape the course of events to its liking.

Environmental diplomacy has almost always been a secondary, or even tertiary, goal of U.S. foreign policy. Simultaneously, though, it is often the product of intense domestic political pressure, as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have done a masterful job of putting their members' concerns on the diplomatic agenda. As such, it usually reflects the primary diplomatic and domestic goals of the time. Hence, in the twentieth century, such trends and policies as progressivism, the Good Neighbor Policy, containment, détente, and environmentalism, as well as the state of the national and world economy, all played crucial roles in shaping specific treaties. In addition, the increase in scientific knowledge as well as public awareness of and faith in that science were crucial elements in shaping the course of environmental diplomacy during the twentieth century. The United States has almost always been a strong proponent of using science as an impartial tool in international environmental protection, particularly in moving away from static treaties to dynamic bodies that can address changing problems. Finally, one must acknowledge that just as there are formal and informal forms of diplomacy, so too are there formal and informal kinds of environmental diplomacy. While the focus here is largely on conventions and treaties, it should be remembered that the sheer appetite of the United States for imported goods created an unintended international environmental impact that might actually be greater than that generated by formal environmental diplomacy.


Although the term "environmental diplomacy" is a creation of the late twentieth century, the United States has in fact been negotiating access to natural resources since its independence from Great Britain. One could certainly interpret westward expansionism as environmental diplomacy, as the United States strove to acquire the most valuable resource of all, relatively untapped land and the various forms of mineral and living wealth that came with it. More obviously, repeated deals with Great Britain between 1783 and 1910 were a sustained effort to secure access to the grand fisheries off Newfoundland, including those for cod and several other species. These two efforts were, in a way, complementary, as fishing was dear to the New England states and landed expansion was perhaps more appealing in the South and West. In any case, the efforts of the United States and its northern neighbor to work out fisheries deals were the start of a long and generally fruitful history of bilateral cooperation on both resource use and pollution control.

John Adams and his son, John Quincy Adams, personified the New England obsession with access to the Grand Banks. At the urging of the elder Adams, the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which ended the revolutionary war, ensured that U.S. fishermen would have the liberty to fish within three miles of British territory in North America, as well as the right to continue to catch fish on the high seas. Throughout the nineteenth century, the two nations continued to struggle over these fisheries, with special difficulty interpreting the meaning of the 1783 treaty.

Not accidentally, the next attempt to regularize fishing relations came during the younger Adams's term as secretary of state (18171825). The Treaty of Ghent (1815), which ended the War of 1812, had not reopened Newfoundland's inshore fisheries to the United States, but many New England fishermen pressed their luck by returning to their old haunts, and as a consequence often found their vessels confiscated. Tension forced the two nations to negotiate a new convention in 1818, which explicitly spelled out which areas were open to U.S. fishermen and which were closed, as well as shore points that could be used for drying and curing fish. Great Britain agreed that these limited areas would be open to the United States forever.

It turned out that "forever" was also open to interpretation, so the Grand Banks dispute did not go away. In the 1850s, the British threatened again to close the inshore fisheries; in the ensuing Marcy-Elgin Agreement of 1854 they traded access to all of Newfoundland's waters for a reciprocity deal between the United States and British North American colonies. After the Civil War, the United States repudiated Marcy-Elgin, and negotiations opened once again. The Treaty of Washington (1871) not only resolved the Alabama Claims but also settled questions of duties on fish products and access to Newfoundland's shoreline. Congress eventually abrogated this treaty in 1885, opening the way for yet another agreement, this one emerging from the Joint High Commission meetings in 1888. Because of congressional intransigence, this agreement was never formalized, but the two sides agreed to abide by it for many years, until in 1905 Newfoundland imposed its own set of restrictions on American fishermen.

Finally, in 1907, Great Britain and the United States agreed in principle to arbitration. In 1909 they sent the matter to the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague, as each side presented lengthy arguments to justify either expanded or restricted U.S. access. After months of deliberation, the court issued a complex ruling that resolved the outstanding disagreements and left London with the right to make reasonable regulations. Apparently, "reasonable" has not become the subject of any serious dispute since then.

This fisheries dispute consumed a remarkable amount of time for the young United States, reflecting the importance of both the North Atlantic Triangle (Great Britain, the United States, and Canada) and the raw materials involved. The terms of discussion were quite traditional, as negotiators never considered conservation of the cod and other valuable species, nor did they really address the problem of shifting technology. In a sense, the diplomats could not create a permanent solution because the environment, the technology, the fishing patterns, and the markets that shaped human fishing were all interconnected and all changing constantly. In short, they were trying to create static solutions to dynamic problems. This has been a recurrent shortcoming of environmental diplomacy.

Such problems were not insoluble though, as the North Pacific Fur Seal Convention revealed. The North Pacific fur seal first drew the attention of Europeans when Russian explorers encountered it in the Bering Sea in the late 1700s. The seals breed on rookery islands, with the vast majority using the Pribilof Islands of Alaska, although they spend about three-quarters of their lives on the high seas. They became the subject of intensive hunting early in the 1800s, when sea otter populations crashed, and it turned out that the thick coats that kept them warm in the ocean were quite appealing to people.

Russian management of the seals, limited though it was, sufficed as long as the seals were remote from centers of human habitation and Russia could claim both the breeding islands and the seas around them. When Russia sold Alaska to the United States in 1867, at the same time that British Columbia was rapidly gaining population, hunting of fur seals became a diplomatic issue. The U.S. government leased the Pribilofs and their inshore waters to a private company for twenty years and limited that company to 100,000 skins per year. Both the government and the stockholders profited immensely until the early 1880s. By then, sailors out of Victoria, as well as a few from U.S. ports, had begun to kill large numbers of seals on the high seas. The response of the U.S. government was to accuse Canadian sealers of piracy and seize their ships, arguing that it owned not only the seals but also the eastern Bering Sea. Such an argument did not get very far in London, where the British generally showed restraint despite their strong support for freedom of the seas. Neither side wanted to back down, nor could either justify military action.

The first move toward compromise, in 1891, was crucial for two reasons. First, the two nations agreed to arbitrate their dispute if necessary; second, they appointed a four-member scientific committee to study the issue during a visit to the Bering Sea. The scientists, like the diplomats, failed to find any common ground beyond the obvious conclusion that fur seal numbers were declining. Still, their very presencecoupled with an 1892 joint scientific commission to study the fisheries along the U.S.Canadian border showed that the United States and the British Empire were beginning to consider that science might offer solutions to disputes over use of resources. Given the deadlock, the two nations were headed for arbitration. In 1893, after weeks of arguing and the production of sixteen volumes full of documents, arbitrators created a buffer zone and a closed season meant to protect the seals from pelagic hunting.

Although at first the ruling settled the U.S.Canadian disagreement, the solution turned out to be temporary, as again shifting behavior and populations left a static agreement behind. Canadian sealers responded by crossing the ocean and demolishing the small Japanese and Russian herds, after which they then began to leave the industry; in response, the Japanese government lifted limits on its pelagic sealers, who promptly crossed the Pacific and took large numbers of Pribilof seals, as they were not bound by the arbitrators' ruling. The seal population continued to decline; the herd that once numbered 2.5 million was slipping toward 200,000 early in the twentieth century.

After many starts and stops, in 1911 the United States, Great Britain, Japan, and Russia worked out a deal that allowed some flexibility. The key component was a ban on pelagic sealing, which U.S. scientists had shown unequivocally to be the cause of the decline of the seal herd. In exchange, Canada and Japan received a fixed percentage of the skins harvested from the Pribilofs each year, and they allowed the United States to decide how many, if any, seals were to be taken. In effect, the United States had purchased the other nations' right to catch seals on the high seas. They had been willing to sell in part purely because of economics, but also because the United States had pressed hard that pelagic sealing was both immoral and scientifically indefensible.

The North Pacific Fur Seal Convention was one of the first great successes in environmental diplomacy. The species rebounded quickly to more than two million individuals; all four sides were reasonably happy with the deal; and all agreed that they were willing to conserve the species. The convention broke down in 1941 on the eve of World War II, but after the war international management resumed and continues today, even though the harvest for the fur trade has ended.

In the use of science as a tool of, and conservation as a goal of, diplomacy, the fur seal negotiations proved to be something of a harbinger for North American diplomacy. In 1906, Secretary of State Elihu Root proposed that the United States and the British Empire resolve three outstanding issues: the Newfoundland fisheries, boundary waters control, and inland fisheries. On the third issue he specifically proposed that the protection and conservation of the fisheries should be a central goal. After much fruitless hagglinga facet of environmental diplomacy just as any other kind of diplomacyGreat Britain and the United States signed a treaty to regulate the fisheries along their common border; this brief treaty stood out for its emphasis on a joint regulatory committee based on a scientific understanding of the fisheries. Years later, Congress killed the treaty by failing to enforce it, but it lived on as a model for later agreements.

Attempts to apply the model to just the sockeye salmon fishery in the Northwest began with frustration but eventually met with success. Scientists and regulators met often, proposed solutions frequently, and watched them collapse consistently. On some occasions the culprits were Americans, other times they were Canadians; sometimes they were fishermen, other times diplomats. In 1929, Ottawa rejected a salmon treaty; in 1930, the U.S. Senate returned the favor. Disagreements arose over two main issues: the division between U.S. and Canadian catches and the waters to be covered. Finally, in 1937, after some minor modifications, the Senate reversed course and approved the 1930 treaty, which established the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission. This commission involved Canadians and Americans in scientific research as a central tool in managing and allocating the catch of this most valuable fish species. In 1985 it was replaced by the Pacific Salmon Treaty, designed to address problems that had not been imagined in the 1930s, such as renewed political clout among the First Nations and greater foreign fishing on the high seas. Still, the startling protest by Canadian salmon fishers in July 1997, when they blockaded a ferry bound for Alaska and burned an American flag, demonstrated that diplomatic solutions rarely met everyone's requirements.

In the wake of Root's 1906 initiative, in 1909 Canada and the United States signed the Boundary Waters Treaty, which formed the International Joint Commission (IJC), with powers to regulate pollution, rivers, and the like. The treaty created a system of arbitration to find those solutions that eluded the members of the IJC. Water pollution, though, remained a low priority. On a few occasions, the two nations have established measures to reduce pollution in the Great Lakes, with a 1972 water quality agreement standing out as the most important.

Over time, the IJC found itself moving into air pollution issues, including most famously the Trail Smelter case. The Trail Smelter opened for business in 1927 and quickly earned a reputation for ruining agriculture on both sides of the British ColumbiaWashington border. The smelter's owners offered to pay for damages, but they could not agree on terms with U.S. farmers, who in turn called in the Department of State. In 1941, after years of haggling, the IJC crafted an agreement to resolve the dispute based on "the polluter pays" principle. For many years, the Trail Smelter case appeared, like the fur seal arbitration case, to be a symbol of the ability of Canada and the United States to resolve their differences amicably. In recent years, however, critics have noted that diplomats and regulators deliberately kept the ruling narrow so that it would not impact other sources of transborder pollution. For example, the historian John Wirth noted that the Trail Smelter case, rather than being a victory, in fact impeded international efforts to control pollution for thirty years.

While the Trail Smelter case focused on a Canadian pollution source, a quick study of wind currents and the U.S.Canadian boundary would suggest that the vast majority of transborder air pollution runs north, not south. As fate would have it, the industrial heartland of the United States was not only built above a belt of sulfurous coal but under wind currents that run right into the most populated parts of Canada. Nature in turn left eastern Canada especially vulnerable to acid rainthere was very little limestone to act as a natural buffer, especially in lakes and ponds popular with both locals and tourists, and the forests were easily damaged by sustained pollution. By the 1970s, Canadian politicians were complaining loudly about acid rain and calling for the U.S. government to control industrial emissions, especially from the Ohio Valley. The Reagan Administration addressed acid rain with great reluctance, suggesting first that the scientific evidence was unclear, then in 1982 simply declaring that acid rain was not an issue. In 1987, Ronald Reagan and Canadian Prime Minister Brian Mulroney announced a treaty to coordinate joint research into acid rain. Still, no steps to curb acid rain were put in place until after passage of the U.S. Clean Air Act of 1990, which mandated a reduction in sulfur dioxide emissions.

The bilateral Canadian-American relationship has also addressed wildlife protection in North America. Most famously, in 1916 the two countries signed the Migratory Bird Treaty (MBT), which protected most species of birds that lived north of the Rio Grande. The MBT divided birds into three categories: game, insectivorous, and others. Game birds could be hunted during specific seasons; insectivores were permanently protected; and those listed in the third category got protection just because they were popular. Like the fur seal treaty before it, the MBT succeeded because it combined solid science, economics, and appeal to people's fundamental ideas about aesthetics. The rationale for protecting birds was that they were beautiful and useful.

Still, the treaty stirred controversy because its motivation was largely domestic. Conservationists had pushed through Congress a law to protect migratory birds in 1913, but most of them believed that the Supreme Court would declare it to be unconstitutional. With Root's support, they focused on the idea that the treaty clause of the Constitution in Article 6 trumped the Tenth Amendment's notion that residual powers were reserved to the states, and they began to push for treaties with other countries to protect migratory birds. That they settled for the adjective "migratory" suggested that they were still very conscious that the states had the right to protect birds that did not migrate across state lines. As in the fur seal convention, the animals' movements were central to their presence on the diplomatic agenda. When in 1920 the Supreme Court ruled on the treaty's enabling legislation in Missouri v. Holland, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes placed wildlife protection squarely in the lap of the federal government, and it has not left there since.

Since 1920, the MBT has served as the basis for bird protection throughout the United States and Canada, since the enabling legislation has been updated frequently, and it has also served as a model for three other bilateral treaties. In 1936 the United States and Mexico signed a Migratory Bird Treaty that had been on the conservationists' wish list since 1913. That treaty did little to change U.S. law, although it did add birds of prey to the protected lists, and its main value was to export U.S. ideas about bird conservation to Mexico. In 1972 the United States signed a similar deal with Japan in order to protect birds in the Pacific. And in 1976 the Soviet Union joined the club with an agreement to protect birds that migrated in the northern Pacific.

A few conclusions can be drawn from the U.S.Canadian environmental connection. First, one can well ask about the treaties that ought to have been executed but never were. The fisheries of the Great Lakes were the scene of intense competition, but only the failed treaty of 1908 attempted to regulate them in any way. Rather than make a sustained effort to work with fishermen to create a sustainable fisheries regime on the lakes, the two governments dropped the issue and focused on local regulations that were doomed to failure. Simply put, there was no strong lobbying group or government agency committed to freshwater fisheries conservation, and now there is no commercial fishery of consequence on the lakes and many native species have been severely depleted.

Second, many treaties that are completed often are held up by strong economic opposition, sometimes until it is too late. It usually takes some dire emergency to move these treaties forward at the last moment. The fur seal convention could have been completed years earlier, but stubbornness in Ottawa and Washington prevented leaders from making a few minor sacrifices until it was almost too late for the species. The water quality agreements in the Great Lakes came long after the International Joint Commission had declared all of the boundary waters far too polluted to drinkonly a catastrophe like the fire on the Cuyahoga River compelled the two sides to take any serious action. No doubt, much of the opposition to cleaning up the lakes came from the industrial concerns that would be forced to change their ways.

Third, by comparison, there have been very few treaties to regulate the environment between Mexico and the United States. In part, this trend reflects the smaller border between the two and perhaps some environmental differences in the borderlands and their species. But it also reflects differences in levels of competitionCanada and the United States were similar enough societies to demand the same goods from the same source and deep diplomatic suspicion. The Mexican War and U.S. opposition to the Mexican Revolution, not to mention deep religious and cultural differences, left Mexico uncooperative and the United States aloof. The great differences between U.S. relations with Mexico and those with Canada suggest that environmental diplomacy requires a great deal of goodwill and trust. For all of their disagreements and harsh comments, the United States and Canada have fundamentally trusted one another since Canadian Confederation in 1867. The same certainly cannot be said about Mexico and the United States. One need look no further than the sorry state of the rivers shared by Mexico and the United States to see how far these two neighbors have to go to bring their relationship to a standard that Canada and the United States have shared for years. The signing of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1992 and the subsequent creation of the Commission for Environmental Cooperation may well result in a leveling of the environmental relationship among the three countries, but it is not clear what the level will be.

Fourth, two large countries can solve a number of problems with bilateral diplomacy, but even then there are limits to what they can do. Just because of sheer land mass, the United States and Canada are in a position to create and solve important environmental problems in a way that is probably unique. And yet, for all of their efforts to protect birds, they really cannot save the scores of species of neotropical migrants that winter in Latin America without cooperation from at least a dozen nations. Likewise, a solution to the sealing crisis eluded them until they satisfied Japan. In short, bilateral diplomacy normally tackles relatively easy questions; as a consequence, when an environmental problem involves more countries, the diplomacy becomes significantly more important and more complex.


While there had been a handful of multilateral conservation agreements before 1940, none were so sweeping as that year's Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere (CNP). U.S. scientists and conservationists conceived the CNP in the 1930s as a means to spread what they considered to be obvious ideas about conservation. Each nation, they proposed, ought to set aside national parks, national reserves, natural monuments, and wilderness areas, all of which already had been established in some form in the United States. They also thought that each signatory ought to protect endangered species and migratory birds, which revealed the convention's roots in the early conservation movement. The scientists worried, despite the Good Neighbor Policy, that Latin American governments might well suspect their motives. Therefore, at the 1938 meeting of the Pan-American Union, delegates sympathetic to the idea created a study committee of Latin Americans. They came back in 1940 with a draft treaty full of ideas suggested first by the U.S. scientists. The Pan-American Union's official stamp was sufficient to give the CNP legitimacy.

By 1942 nearly every nation in the Western Hemisphere had signed on, even though few of them were in a position to fulfill its terms. There were relatively few scientists in Latin America, few conservation nongovernmental organizations such as the National Audubon Society, and few parks or reserves already established. In the face of these difficulties, only Costa Rica did much to set aside large tracts of land. Even the United States failed to take the convention very seriously, as it did not move to protect endangered species as a group until 1966. Granted, the outbreak of World War II distracted attention from nature protection, but the war also served as a catalyst to sign the treaty as a show of unity and cooperation.

While the CNP was not the first environmental treaty to draw in dozens of countries, it provides an excellent example of the two fundamental difficulties of multilateral environmental diplomacy. First, it is a challenge to coordinate policies for countries with vastly different levels of economic development. Not surprisingly, the United States and Guatemala had very different attitudes toward conservation of land and wildlife, based on differences in industrialization, population, wealth, and landmass. Some citizens of Latin American states suspected that part of the U.S. agenda was keeping their nations in a state of economic subservience, while the U.S. scientists and conservationists who created the convention believed that they were simply passing on the wisdom that they had learned the hard way, as well as ideas that were inherently good in any society. Later in the century, differences among rich and poor societies along the same lines would hamstring other efforts to protect the environment.

Second, enforcement mechanisms are usually the first thing to be dropped from such a treaty. Most governments in the Western Hemisphere were willing to say that nature protection was a valuable goal. Few were willing to be held to any specific promises. None would accept the possibility of penalties for failing to live up to the CNP. This pattern repeated itself for the next sixty years. The rhetoric of environmental protection has been unusually appealing, but few governments will sacrifice their sovereignty over internal resource decisions or forgo the possibility of economic development for the sake of environmental protection. If forced to choose between signing an environmental protection convention with real teeth or risking public censure for failing to sign such an agreement, most governments will take the risk of criticism. If anything, the United States was just as reluctant as any country to risk its sovereignty, even though it often had the least distance to go to live up to its obligations.

The reluctance of the United States to push for strong enforcement mechanismsand the implications of that policycan be seen most clearly in the long efforts to control whaling. By the early twentieth century, the vast majority of whaling was confined to Antarctic waters, with whales being caught and then brought back for processing to shore stations in such remote places as South Georgia Island. There whalers could be tightly controlled by licenses issued by the European colonial governments. Two technological innovations in the 1920s, the stern slipway and condensers for producing freshwater at sea, allowed whalers to process whales at sea on large floating factory vessels. Whaling companies in Norway and Great Britain quickly worked out the logistics for expeditions involving a floating factory and up to a dozen smaller whale catchers, which could stay at sea for months at a time, catching whales, processing them for their oil, and then delivering the oil to any port in the world. In short, because they could operate on the high seas and fly any flag they chose, they were extremely difficult to regulate.

In 1931, after two years of discussion, the League of Nations produced the Geneva Convention for the Regulation of Whaling as a first step toward international control of the industry. The twenty-six signatories, including landlocked Switzerland, agreed that all whaling vessels would be licensed, that calves and nursing females would be protected, and that they would conduct more scientific research. Despite sponsorship by the suspect League of Nations and the limited nature of U.S. whaling operations, the United States participated in the drafting of the convention, signed it, and ratified it in 1935, all because doing so was an easy way to placate domestic conservation interests.

The 1931 convention did nothing to address the real problem, which was massive exploitation of a finite number of whales. Only a huge glut in whale oil, which was used mainly for margarine, curtailed whaling operations in the early 1930s. In fact, the British and Norwegian whaling companies did more than any government to regulate whaling and save whales by their own private agreements to limit production. The problem was that they could not work with other foreign companies, especially those from Germany and Japan, that were pursuing whaling for national reasons as much as private economic gain.

Over the objections of industry, the United Kingdom and Norway called another conference on whaling in 1937 to craft a tougher convention. They set an open season for Antarctic whaling, created rules for efficient use of whale carcasses, and banned the hunting of certain endangered species. The United States, led by Dr. Remington Kellogg, took an active role, even though U.S. companies contributed only 3 percent to the world's whaling catch. Germany was also an active participant, which was a victory, but Japan refused to abide by the 1937 convention or any of its subsequent protocols. Not only were the signatory nations unable to do anything about Japanese whaling, they faced strong internal pressure from their own whalers who wanted the same freedom from regulation that the Japanese had.

Attempts to rectify the problems of the 1937 convention came to a halt when World War II erupted, and yet the war also played an important role in shuffling the interests of the nations involved in whaling diplomacy. On one hand, Japan and Germany found themselves at the mercy of the victorious Allies. On the other hand, the United States found itself somewhat unwillingly thrust into the position of global leadership. And most whaling ships found themselves on the bottom of the ocean floor. In short, the opportunity was there for a recasting of global whaling operations.

Under Kellogg's influence, the United States, a nation that neither caught nor consumed baleen whales, decided to seize that opportunity. With the reluctant compliance of Norway and the United Kingdom, in the fall of 1946 the United States engineered the writing of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling. By 1949 enough nations were on board to create the International Whaling Commission (IWC), which, for all of its flaws, is one of the oldest international bodies with a mandate for conservation. The IWC was a step forward in that it established rules for annual meetings to update whaling regulations, it relied explicitly upon the advice of scientists, and it tightened the restrictions on whalers.

That the IWC failed to conserve whales is more a reflection of the limits imposed on it in 1946 than a reflection of the personal failings of its members. Once again, the drafters chose not to have any mechanisms to enforce conservation regulations. Kellogg had strongly advocated trade sanctions against whaling nations that did not join the IWC, but U.S. diplomats decided that trade policy and conservation issues should not be intertwined. The convention created new problems by giving members the right to object to any amendment to the original regulations and thereby exempt themselves from it. In later years, these two facets would be the target of vehement criticism among environmentalists, but the Department of State insisted on them on the reasonable theory that whaling nations would not join any organization that threatened their sovereignty. In other words, a conservation organization could have clout or members, but not both.

What a whaling commission could have was symbolic value and persuasive powers. In fact, it is clear that those two objectives were high on the list of the U.S. scientists and diplomats who drew up plans for the commission and subsequently defended it during its darkest moments. If nations, including the United States, were unwilling to surrender their sovereignty, they were still willing to listen to other nations' arguments. In fact, scientists counted on their ability to present rational, irrefutable arguments to recalcitrant commission members as the only viable means to build the necessary consensus. Even after it became apparent that persuasion was not going to stop Soviet cheating, Panamanian indifference to inspection, or U.S. efforts to restore Japanese whaling, U.S. and British diplomats supported the IWC as an important symbol that the nations of the world could cooperate in regulating the high seasthere was no need for South American nations to resort to such unsporting institutions as the 200-mile territorial limit in the name of conservation.

The IWC became the scene of some bruising political battles in the 1970s and 1980s, when the United States led a coalition of countries fighting for a moratorium on commercial whaling. By 1972, only three nations had any significant commercial whaling operations: Japan, the Soviet Union, and Norway, and Norway's industry was a mere shadow of its former self. As the surging environmental movement bore the greatest responsibility for pushing the moratorium, it was easy for the United States to support a measure that would hurt only its Cold War opponent and a major economic rival that seemed intent on destroying the U.S. auto industry. After several years of trying to push a moratorium through the IWC, only to see the whaling countries suggest that they would leave the commission rather than accept a moratorium, it became clear that the United States would have to use its own economic power to make any headway. Using the 1971 Pelly Amendment and the 1979 Packwood-Magnuson Amendment, Congress gave the president the authority to place unilateral sanctions on fishing rights of countries that continued to hunt whales in the face of IWC regulations. It is debatable how much impact these sanctions had, but they were at least marginally important in leading to the 1982 decision by the IWC to ban commercial whaling.

While the whaling commission might be the best known example of multilateral environmental diplomacy, it was certainly not the only postwar example of several nations convening to resolve their differences. The 1946 Northwest Atlantic Fisheries agreement was the first of several multinational treaties to regulate pelagic fisheries. Beginning in 1959 there was a series of treaties to regulate and protect the resources of Antarctica, including minerals and marine life. And there have been occasional isolated conventions, such as the 1987 agreement among five northern nations to protect polar bears. In each case, these treaties have brought together a set of countries with a mutual interest in a specific, local resource. Given a reasonably small number of countries with focused interests, the United States has been able to lead consistently.


Beginning in the 1950s, thanks largely to United Nations activism and pressure from countries emerging from decolonization, the nations of the world began to gather in huge conferences to discuss truly global issues. One of the first of these grand global conferences was the 1958 meeting of the UN Conference on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), and over the next forty years it would be followed by several major attempts to unite the scores of nations of the world on key issues of diplomacy. In these discussions, the United States gradually found itself losing influence and often choosing not to lead. As environmentalism gathered steam in the 1970s, it served as a force to criticize the consumerism of the United States and its role in the Cold War, which helped push the U.S. government away from a leadership role. In addition, the United States found that its sheer power, and ties to former colonial powers, made it a target of developing nations more often than their leader.

The law of the sea negotiations started out with a focus on navigation, although marine resources were never far below the surface of the agenda. In fact, while pollution and fisheries disputes were important postwar motivators for the UN to call the conference, the aforementioned claim by Ecuador, Peru, and Chile in 1952 to a 200-mile band of territorial waters was one of the most important driving forces. The 200-mile limit was also one of the most controversial issues, as the conferees failed to reach an agreement on territorial waters at either the 1958 meeting or UNCLOS II in 1960. Only with the third meeting, which began in 1972 and ran off and on for ten years, did delegates accept the idea of the 200-mile zone.

The resource issues, which at first seemed fairly straightforward, became increasingly difficult to solve. In 1958, one of the four conventions signed addressed fishing and conservation in territorial waters. But that same conference, and the second one in 1960, failed to come to terms for fishing beyond territorial seas, in part because they failed to agree on a definition of those seas. Even after 1993, when the Law of the Sea Convention went into effect, fishing nations could not agree on regulating the seas beyond the new 200-mile economic zones. While treaties covering some regions and some species are open for signature, nothing has been completed, despite intense pressure from environmentalists to ban such practices as long-line fishing and drift-netting. The surprising incident of 1995, when Canadian warships fired on Spanish fishing vessels just outside of Canada's 200-mile zone, suggests that some sort of law is needed to cover these contested fisheries. And yet, as of 2001, only twenty-nine nations, including the United States, had ratified the supplementary agreement managing straddling and highly migratory fish stocks.

The most controversial point had nothing to do with swimming marine resources, but rather with those that have been lying on the ocean floor for millenniamineral nodules. In the 1960s companies exploring the seabed discovered areas covered with rocks full of manganese, nickel, copper, and other valuable and reasonably scarce minerals. At UNCLOS III in 1982, governments split dramatically over how companies should get access to these minerals. Developing nations, often referred to as the Group of 77, argued that the minerals were the common property of mankind; therefore, an international agency should control the nodule fields, and companies that wished to exploit them would have to transfer technology to poorer countries and pay hefty fees. The United States and other developed nations countered that resources on the high seas had always been free for the taking by anyone with the capital and fortitude to take the necessary risks.

At UNCLOS III, the conferees adopted language closer to the Group of 77 nations' desires, and the Reagan administration refused to sign the convention solely because of the deep seabed articles. After a further twelve years of negotiations, the United States finally found a Deep Seabed agreement to its liking, in part because zealots on both sides were coming to the conclusion that mining there might never be economically feasible. Not only did the United States ratify the convention in 1994, but by then 159 states had at least signed, meaning that just about every national government in the world offered some form of support for the Law of the Sea Convention. When one considers that the UN has forty-two landlocked members, the signature count is especially impressive.

By the 1970s the huge meetings to discuss some global issue had become common, and in fact it is now hard to imagine a year without some grand conference sponsored by the UN. The factors that made such conferences more feasible, such as improvements in air travel, applied of course to environmental conferences, which were themselves furthered by both the strong wave of environmentalism sweeping around the world and the growing sense that some resources were simply the common heritage of humanity and therefore within the purview of all nations, not just a privileged few. Not only did new conventions and conferences come together, but membership rose dramatically in some old organizations, such as the IWC, which grew from fewer than twenty members to more than fifty in a few years. Not surprisingly, then, the 1970s witnessed a slew of conferences to deal with global issues, such as trade in endangered species, wetlands protection, and the general condition of the human environment.

None drew more attention than the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment (UNCHE) in Stockholm, Sweden. The UN had sponsored large meetings on resource conservation and protection in 1949 and 1968, but they had been limited in their scope. In 1969 the UN accepted Sweden's proposal to host a global conference on the human environment, broadly defined. When delegates from 114 countries and 500 nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) met in 1972, they ensured that the environment would have a prominent place on the diplomatic agenda for decades to come.

As one might expect, UNCHE had both its share of conflicts and cooperation. The first conflict came from the decision of the organizers to invite West Germany but not East Germany, which triggered a boycott from the Soviet bloc. Of course, that conflict contributed to the easing of negotiations by removing most Cold War tensions at the conference. Likewise, developing nations split from their industrialized compatriots in assessing the nature of the threatwas it pollution and the diminution of natural resources, or did economic imbalance lead to the other problems? Again, this disagreement led to some conciliation, as the Western nations agreed in principle that equitable distribution of wealth would lead to a healthier human environment, and both sides agreed that development agencies had to do a better job of considering the environmental impact of their decisions.

In the end, the Stockholm meeting had three practical consequences. First, NGOs gained their status as leaders in environmental diplomacy. Second, the delegates created the UN Environment Programme (UNEP) to serve as a global agency for environmental protection. Third, they produced 109 recommendations for action at local, national, and international levels.

With Stockholm as the impetus, in 1973 the United States took one of its last bold leadership steps by sponsoring the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). In many ways, it was one final example of exporting conservation strategies, as the U.S. Congress had recently passed a tough new endangered species act that served as an ideological template. The goal of CITES was to halt the commercial exploitation of endangered species, with the hope therefore of pulling them back from the brink of extinction. Nations that joined CITES promised not to allow importation of species declared endangered by any other member of the convention. In addition, CITES had a means for scientists to list species as endangered if the home government failed to do so. Threatened species could be put on a "gray list," which allowed only limited trade. At present, about 5,000 animals and 25,000 plants are listed as protected under the convention. Finally, and most critically, CITES actually included provisions to sanction nations that failed to halt trade in endangered species. The United Arab Emirates, Thailand, and Italy have all been punished by CITES, and El Salvador and Equatorial Guinea joined the convention because of sanctions pressure. In all, 154 states are parties to CITES, with the United States holding the distinction of being the first nation to ratify it in 1974.

Despite that rare display of teeth and tusk, CITES still has the problem of any environmental convention. If it enforces the rules strictly, it runs the risk of losing members, who will then be legally free to trade for all of the endangered species parts that they desire. Those who administer such conventions must decide if they would rather bend over backward in the hope of persuading rogue states to abide by the rules eventually, or punish them and hope that global public opinion and political pressure will deter them from leaving the convention. CITES's own evidence suggests that most of its members do not abide by its rules, nor do they wish to be shown the door, which suggests that it can do more than just turning a blind eye to infractions in the hope that nations will slowly develop a willingness to abide by these rules.

One of the holes in CITES was that it said nothing about habitat preservation, a subject covered in a few other treaties. The 1971 Ramsar Agreement required parties to protect at least one wetland of special significance. The convention does provide signatories with the right to revoke protection in case of national emergency, but only if the government provides sufficient compensation in the form of further protection of other sites. While 125 nations had signed on to Ramsar by 2001, they were only slowly getting around to protecting the wetlands in question. In a manner reminiscent of the 1940 Convention on Nature Protection, the wealthy nations that could afford to protect wetlands had already done a great deal of work, whether the United States with its vast system of National Wildlife Refuges or Great Britain with its impressive chain of preserves owned by the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. Even so, it took the United States until 1987 to ratify the convention, and it has designated fewer hectares as Ramsar sites than some smaller, poorer countries, such as Tanzania.

In contrast to Ramsar's narrow focus on wetlands, in 1972 the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) sponsored an agreement to preserve sites of special cultural and natural value, the Convention Concerning the Protection of World Cultural and Natural Heritage. The notion of a treaty to protect sites of cultural value dates back to at least the 1950s, but it was a U.S. idea in 1965 to combine cultural and natural sites into a single convention, and the United States was the first nation to ratify the convention in 1973. By 2001, 164 nations had become parties, making it one of the most inclusive pieces of environmental diplomacy. Member states have access to a small pool of money, about $3.5 million annually, to help them plan for listing and protecting sites, but they join mainly for reasons of public opinion and prestige, and 122 nations had listed nearly 700 sites at the beginning of the twenty-first century. The United States is one of the few countries that listed more natural sites than cultural, with eleven of its eighteen being national parks.

In an attempt to follow up on CITES, Ramsar, and the World Heritage conventions, in 1979 the UN opened for signature the Convention on Migratory Species. The negotiators began with a premise that U.S. conservationists had acted upon at the turn of the twentieth century, that migratory animals inherently needed international cooperation for their protection. Parties agree to protect habitat for endangered and threatened species, pass laws to protect them from hunting, and study them to learn more about means of protecting them. Seventy-four nations ratified the agreement, mostly from Europe and Africa. The United States, like Russia and China, did not sign, but U.S. wildlife officials cooperate with policies from the Convention on Migratory Species. This cooperation suggests a recurrent problem, that the U.S. government is especially reluctant to accede to a convention that might override its own laws.

As if exhausted from the spate of treaties in the early 1970s, the world did not create another major piece of environmental diplomacy until the middle of the 1980s, when it tackled the problem of ozone-depleting chemicals. Ozone, a collection of three oxygen atoms, serves as a shield in the upper atmosphere against ultraviolet radiation from the sun. As such, it makes life on earth possible. In the 1970s, scientists theorized that ozone would break apart when it came into contact with chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), a family of chemicals widely used in Styrofoam, refrigerants, and aerosol cans. CFCs had been invented in the 1930s, and they seemed like the ideal chemical inert, nontoxic, cheap, and useful in a variety of ways. But by the 1980s, a move was afoot to ban them based on theoretical concerns.

In a move that surprised many people, the usually antiregulatory Reagan administration vigorously supported efforts to ban CFCs. In part, this position depended on the strong position of U.S. industry to benefit from a ban on CFCs, and perhaps in part it grew from the president's own brush with skin cancer. The first step came in 1985, when delegates from twenty nations met in Vienna and signed the Convention for the Protection of the Ozone Layer, which did no more than commit the signatories to unspecified actions to protect the ozone layer. In addition, they agreed that the UN Environment Programme would monitor the ozone layer and conduct research on it. In short, the signatories could agree on nothing more specific than the theory that the ozone layer was probably in trouble. They did, however, agree to a U.S. proposal to meet two years later to create a binding set of rules.

The discussions evolved from multilateral to global in 1987, as delegates from sixty states convened in Montreal. Evidence that humans were somehow eroding the ozone layer was still sparse, as the famed ozone hole over the Antarctic had just recently become known, and its causes were absolutely uncertain. Still, there can be no doubt that the ozone hole had caught the attention of the U.S. public, although the delegates themselves seemed largely unmoved by itthey were driven still by the scientific theories. Over objections from industry in Japan, western Europe, and, to a lesser extent, the United States, the delegates formally named CFCs as the culprits. Through the Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, they agreed to cut production of these chemicals in half by 1999.

In retrospect the Montreal Protocol was at once one of the most amazing pieces of environmental diplomacy and obviously flawed. Working largely on complex scientific theory rather than compelling data, diplomats from around the world agreed that a seemingly benign chemical had disastrous potential and therefore had to be curbed dramatically. At the same time, critics pointed out that developing nations, such as India, China, and Brazil, needed CFCs to raise their standards of living, but the convention said nothing about transferring technology to them. Finally, many Europeans condemned the convention as too strict, while many U.S. environmentalists and industrialists worried that it would be unenforceable.

To address this range of concerns, delegates from eighty-one countries met in Helsinki in 1989. With further research showing that the ozone problem was not just theory, they agreed to ban all CFC production by 2000. In addition, they drew up schemes to facilitate technology transfer, and they tightened up the rules. The next year in London they finalized all of the details of these agreements, and in 1992, President George H. W. Bush announced that the United States would eliminate CFC production by 1995.

The U.S. position on the ozone layer makes especially puzzling its general lack of leadership in the 1990s. On the twentieth anniversary of the Stockholm meeting, the nations of the world met at the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Known formally as the UN Conference on Environment and Development, the Earth Summit was supposed to provide leaders a chance to assess and build upon the accomplishments of the 1972 meeting. One of the accomplishments of the meeting was the production of a massive document, known as Agenda 21, as a follow-up to the 1972 recommendations for action. In addition to the thousands of activists who attended on their own, 170 nations sent delegations, many led by their head of state, but President Bush publicly vacillated about attending. Rather than taking an opportunity for leadership, Bush was concerned that he might find himself boxed into an uncomfortable position. In the end, he paid a brief visit, but he was unable either to rally other nations to his positions or even tame the dissent within the U.S. delegation.

On two important issues the United States found itself out of step with the majority of the world's governments. First, and perhaps most controversially, the conferees agreed to the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). The UN Environment Programme had been working on this convention for four years, goaded by alarming reports of the extinction of hosts of species, many of which had never been scientifically catalogued. The final convention required signatory nations to take appropriate steps to preserve their own biodiversity, and it established a fund for helping poorer countries do just that. Bush noted that the United States already did more than any other country on both points. The real point of disagreement came with the convention's provisions on biotechnology and intellectual property. In a debate reminiscent of the discussions about minerals on the deep seabed, U.S. officials argued that American companies had far more to lose than gain because the protections for their patents were insufficient. Despite great pressure at home, abroad, and within the U.S. delegation, Bush refused to sign the CBD. A year later, after consulting with both business and environmental leaders on an interpretive statement, President William Jefferson Clinton signed the convention just days before it was closed to signatures. While 186 governments signed the CBD, the United States is one of only sevenincluding such pariahs as Afghanistan and Yugoslaviawho have not ratified it.

The other major agreement to come out of the Earth Summit was the Framework Convention on Climate Change. As concern about the ozone layer was heating up, scientists began to fear that the Earth itself was heating up because of human economic activity. In particular, they were coming to the conclusion that industrial emission of so-called greenhouse gasses, such as carbon dioxide, was resulting in a slow but steady warming of the earth's temperature. By 1989 the UN had endorsed the idea of a convention to curb global warming, and the Rio meeting provided an opportunity to sign an agreement that had been finalized the month before. As usual, there was a split between the developing world and industrialized nations over who should pay for the technological advances necessary to address global warming. In addition, the United States split from its industrialized partners by opposing any hard targets for emissions levels. Without U.S. willingness to commit to anything specific, the convention was necessarily vague. Signatory nations agreed that humans were causing climate change, that more research was necessary, and that they would meet five years later to set specific targets.

In 1997 they convened again at Kyoto, Japan, to update the climate change accord. Each nation received targets for reduced emissions of greenhouse gasses, with the U.S. target set at a 7 percent reduction on 1990 levels by 2012. The Kyoto Protocol takes effect when at least fifty-five nations, which in aggregate produce 55 percent of the world's greenhouse gas emissions, ratify it, but as of 2001 only thirty-seven nations had in fact completed the ratification process. While the United States is one of eighty-four states to have signed the protocol, the Clinton administration did nothing to move it forward in the Senate. Once again the split between the developing and industrialized worlds presented an insurmountable obstacle. Under Kyoto, nations such as China and India have to make no firm commitments to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Leaders of those nations argue that they deserve the opportunity to pursue economic growth as the West did before. But many opponents of the protocol in the United States say that they will not accept any agreement that does not commit every nation and especially the two most populousto some restrictions. In the fall of 2000, diplomats met at The Hague to iron out differences in the protocol, and they came very close to a deal that would have placated concerns of the United States and some of its allies, notably Canada, Australia, and Japan, by offering credits for the carbon absorption action of forests. European environmentalists took the lead in killing this compromise; within months the new U.S. president, George W. Bush, announced that the United States would no longer work within the Kyoto framework, which his aides described as "dead." Efforts to implement the Kyoto Protocol continued to go forward, but it seemed unlikely that greenhouse gas emissions could be curbed without the enthusiastic support of the United States.

The United States has by no means dropped from its active role in environmental diplomacy, even when various administrations are not strongly committed to environmentalism, and it still uses its power to cajole other countries into such conventions. The administration of the younger Bush surprised many people in the spring of 2001 by signing on to a convention to ban the use of persistent organic pollutants, such as DDT and PCBs. These chemicals have been outlawed in the United States for many years, but U.S. companies still exported them. Instead of focusing on lost export revenue, the administration noted accurately that the convention was necessary to stop these chemicals from winding up in the wind and water currents that bring them to the United States. Likewise, in twelve embassies around the world, the Department of State has recently established centers to promote regional environmental cooperation, which will in turn further the work of the department's Office of Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs. And yet the action of the Clinton and George W. Bush administrations toward the Kyoto Protocol makes clear several points: the United States, because of the sheer size of its economy and the vast cultural influence of its society, is still the most powerful force in environmental diplomacy; it is also now the power most likely to break up potentially stringent conventions; and unless the United States and the two future behemoths, China and India, can bridge their differences there will be little progress on environmental diplomacy. No global agreement on the use of resources can move forward if the prime consumers of resources fail to cooperate.


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Chacko, Chirakaikaran Joseph. The International Joint Commission Between the United States of America and the Dominion of Canada. New York, 1968. The best single study of the International Joint Commission.

Dorsey, Kurk. "Scientists, Citizens, and Statesmen: U.S.Canadian Wildlife Protection Treaties in the Progressive Era." Diplomatic History 19 (1995): 407430.

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Innis, Harold A. The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy. Rev. ed. Toronto, 1978. A classic work in the field that examines the regulation and use of oceanic fisheries.

Levering, Ralph B., and Miriam L. Levering. Citizen Action for Global Change: The Neptune Group and Law of the Sea. Syracuse, N.Y., 1999. Demonstrates the roles of private citizens in shaping UNCLOS III.

Lytle, Mark. "An Environmental Approach to American Diplomatic History." Diplomatic History 20 (1996): 279300. The first work that any historian interested in environmental diplomacy should read.

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Roos, John F. Restoring Fraser River Salmon: A History of the International Pacific Salmon Fisheries Commission, 19371985. Vancouver, 1991.

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Susskind, Lawrence E. Environmental Diplomacy: Negotiating More Effective Global Agreements. New York, 1994.

Tolba, Mostafa K. Global Environmental Diplomacy: Negotiating Environmental Agreements for the World, 19731992. Cambridge, Mass., 1998. One of the UN's leading environmental diplomats draws lessons from twenty years of work.

Tønnessen, J. N., and A. O. Johnsen. The History of Modern Whaling. Translated by R. I. Christophersen. Berkeley, Calif., 1982. The best single volume on whaling, the whaling commission, and the whaling industry.

Tucker, Richard P. Insatiable Appetite: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World. Berkeley, Calif., 2000. Shows the environmental impact of the U.S. informal empire.

Wirth, John D. Smelter Smoke in North America: The Politics of Transborder Pollution. Lawrence, Kans., 2000. The most valuable interpretation of the Trail Smelter Case and subsequent U.S.Mexican pollution problems.

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See also Arbitration, Mediation, and Conciliation; Globalization; Science and Technology; Treaties .


Remington Kellogg may have been the single most influential person in the history of efforts to regulate whaling, and he is therefore an excellent example of how one person canand sometimes cannotshape environmental diplomacy. In 1930, after receiving his Ph.D. from the University of California for his work on whale fossils, Kellogg worked at the Smithsonian Institution as a curator of mammals. As such, he was the closest thing that the Department of State could find to an in-house expert to send to the League of Nations meeting on a whaling convention. For the next thirty-five years, Kellogg served the cause of international conservation as an adviser to the Department of State, a delegate to the IWC meetings, and chair of the commission. The State Department took no step on whaling matters without consulting him, although it did not always follow his advice.

Most importantly, Kellogg urged the Department of State to use the opportunity provided by World War II to grab control of whaling diplomacy from Norway and the United Kingdom. He feared, rightly, that the British and Norwegians would be more concerned with harvesting whales in the aftermath of the war than with conserving them. Only American leadership, he concluded, could give science its proper place relative to the whalers, who seemed to have too much say in London and Oslo. Kellogg, then, was one of the most active advocates of a strong IWC and, indeed, one of the people most disappointed by its failures. His last meeting of the commission came in 1964 at Sandefjord, home to the Norwegian whaling fleet. At that meeting, the whaling countries fended off powerful scientific arguments that whaling needed to be curtailed before the industry destroyed itself, and Kellogg came home embittered by the experience. It was not the happy ending for which some might wish, but it is emblematic of the difficulties of pushing conservation through diplomacy.

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