Tag: multilateralism

Is Rio + 20 Going to be a Waste of Time?

This was the tone of an op-ed I pitched regarding the Rio+20 environmental summit. Below the fold, I offer a slightly more nuanced argument …

Rio+20, the twentieth anniversary of the 1992 Earth Summit, kicks off the formal part of the negotiations tomorrow as leaders of 130 countries arrive to take part. It strikes me as a misguided nostalgia tour and will probably achieve even less than the tenth anniversary that took place in South Africa. Environmental indicators continue to deteriorate but sending 50,000 people to Rio (40,000 of them environmentalists) is a waste of time and energy (literally as Joe Biden would say).

How the times have changed. In 1992, President George H.W. Bush, facing a tough reelection, made an appearance in Rio to shore up his green credentials. This time, President Obama won’t be going. Nor should he. Not much will happen there. We a new approach to conserve the resources of the planet both at home and abroad. 
Here at home we need to convince Republicans that environmental protection is a conservative value. Internationally, we need to persuade countries in Asia that is in their interest to pollute less and be more efficient in their use of energy. Environmental protection will save lives and money.
Why am I so pessimistic? As I’ve argued elsewhere, mega-conferences do not appear to be great venues for collective problem-solving. In common vernacular, it akin to too many cooks in the kitchen. In political science speak, it’s too many actors with too diverse preferences shackled by consensus-based rules. As David Bosco argues on The Multilateralist:

But the low expectations also reflect a broader dynamic: what might be called “big-bang multilateralism”–in which the world’s nearly 200 sovereign states attempt to hammer out complex agreements–is mired in a losing streak.

Pessimists of Rio+20 are focusing on the lack of agreement on a negotiating text, with developing countries fighting a losing battle for more pledges of assistance at a time when the entire European project is under threat. That negotiating text, which will be a non-binding agreement in any case, covers a raft of issues, including whether a “green economy,” whatever that is should serve as the roadmap for the future. Perhaps the most problematic issue is that developed and developing countries do not see eye to eye about what kind of meeting this is. Developed countries want this to be an environmental meeting, but developing countries want to focus on issues related to poverty. As Todd Stern, the U.S. climate negotiator and leader of the U.S. delegation to Rio, said:

Let me also remind you that sustainable development is not at all just about the environment, and this conference is not an environmental conference. This conference is a development conference.

Among the contentious issues is the fate of the United Nations Environment Programme, based in Nairobi. It is a low stature organization within the UN system, and advocates from France in particular are seeking to elevate its status from program to a specialized agency, more like the World Health Organization. The idea would be to make UNEP more politically and financially independent. Given the WHO’s current budgetary woes, it is highly problematic as a model. Moreover, as Adil Najam argued in Global Governance a decade ago, in the absence of political agreement on the environment, the organizational status of UNEP is akin to “merely rearranging the organization of chairs on our planetary Titanic.”

Nature issued a pre-Rio report card on how the world has fared on three core environmental problems, climate change, biodiversity, and desertification. The results are dispiriting, an F for stabilizing greenhouse gas emissions, an F for reducing biodiversity loss, and an F for reversing desertification and land degradation.


While CFR’s Stewart Patrick agrees that the era of “grand multilateral treaty-making is over,” he is more sanguine the Rio may exceed expectations. A number of analysts have suggested that a novel feature of the meeting, of states and other actors registering a “cloud” of commitments, may in time yield significant results. As Patrick concludes:

If this seems a depressing scene-setter, the Rio summit is not fated for failure. It may yet exceed expectations with a low-key approach focused less on the painstaking negotiation of treaties than on generating practical national commitments to advance sustainable development.

Echoing these sentiments was the late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrum who in a final op-ed before her death praised the actions of cities and other actors to build sustainability from the ground up: “we are seeing a heterogeneous collection of cities interacting in a way that could have far-reaching influence on how Earth’s entire life-support system evolves.” I tend to agree with Thomas Lovejoy that these patchwork of commitments may not be nearly enough: “The best one can hope for is a sort of mosaic approach, which by definition won’t be sufficient.”
I think thematic meetings, organized around non-binding commitments on a particular issue, are likely to be more successful than catch-all meetings like this one. 
Despite my pessimism, if nothing else, Rio+20 may have at least one positive benefit. With world media focused on the host country, on May 25th Brazil’s President Dilma Rousseff vetoed key clauses of a land law that would have opened up the Amazon to deforestation. 
The Road Ahead
Looking ahead, the environmental community needs to rethink how to approach these issues. In the United States, the challenge is clearly about making the environment a bipartisan issue again. Democrats own the issue and that is bad for the environment.
Internationally, advocates for environmental protection need to be more creative. David Victor and Leslie Coben wrote a piece some years ago that suggested there was a herd mentality among environmentalists who tended to embrace legally binding international commitments as the only way forward. While that has started to change, faith in piecemeal bottoms-up efforts seems to me like small ball. In between are more ambitious efforts like what Simon Zadek proposed — green unilateralism by the major actors. 

Rather than seeking to contain this unilateralism, world leaders should leverage it in pursuit of global public goods. Such a strategy’s success depends on three factors: a focus on a small number of big-ticket national and regional actions, adequate policy leverage over these actions, and international coalitions to steer them along a legitimate path.

This is an agenda I can finally get excited about. 

Politics on the Water’s Edge: U.S. Elites and Multilateralism

Are there major differences between Democratic and Republican elites on multilateral cooperation? This question animates a new study that I carried out with my frequent collaborator Jon Monten and my colleague William Inboden.  In mid 2011 and early 2012, we were able to conduct a unique survey of about 20 Democrats and 20 Republicans, nearly all of whom had served in fairly senior positions in the U.S. government, mostly the Executive Branch.

On the Foreign Affairs website, we report on the results of that survey. There are a few surprises, both in terms of areas of shared attitudes but also significant areas of disagreement. Contrary to the emergent conventional wisdom, we conclude that the basis of bipartisan support for multilateral approaches remains quite strong across a number of key areas, namely for international trade, the Bretton Woods organizations, and traditional security alliances like NATO as well as long-time bilateral partners like the UK, Japan, and South Korea.

The piece on the Foreign Affairs website and the more detailed findings here and here tell the more complete story. Will also blogged on Shadow Government about our piece here. I thought I’d use this post to say a bit more about why we wanted to do this survey in the first place.

James Byrnes, Arthur Vandenberg, and President Truman

In 2008, Jon and I published a paper in Perspectives on Politics looking at whether the tradition of liberal internationalism (or what we called establishment internationalism) had irrevocably declined. If you recall, this was a pretty hot topic (see Kupchan and Trubowitz, for example). Using a variety of measures — Congressional votes, party platforms, State of the Union addresses, and elite biographies, we concluded that the evidence was mixed. While key foreign policy votes in Congress had become  polarized, the language of party platforms and State of the Union addresses suggested that international engagement remained an important rhetorical trope for both parties.

We sought to go beyond this analysis in a recent piece in Political Science Quarterly. What we wanted to understand is whether or not the foreign policies pursued by the George W. Bush Administration (particularly in its first term rejection of the Kyoto Protocol, the International Criminal Court, and other treaties) were consistent or at odds with public opinion. We initially called that paper With Us or Against Us?, but that title died on the editorial vine. In any event, we used the Chicago Council on Global Affairs (CCGA) surveys to compare public and elite opinion from the 1980s through 2004 when the elite surveys were discontinued.

In the PSQ piece, we sought to compare public opinion with Republican and Democratic elite attitudes on core aspects of internationalism, what we grouped into carrots and sticks, following Wittkopf’s classic formulation of cooperative internationalism and militant internationalism. We found that Democratic elites were more supportive of some carrots (foreign aid and the United Nations) while Republicans were more supportive of some sticks (military spending and matching the military power of rivals). However, both parties were more supportive than the public of some carrots (international trade) and some sticks (sending troops to South Korea if the North invaded). While the public was more enthusiastic about the United Nations than Republicans were, on the whole, it appeared that both Republicans and Democrats were more internationalist than the public.

We were left though with a nagging concern. Other than a question about the United Nations, there was no consistent query about support for multilateral organizations or processes in the CCGA surveys. It might be that we were missing the core debate about differences between the parties. In an essay exchange in H-Diplo in 2011 (that includes fellow Duck Brian Rathbun), we raised a question that seemed to capture a concern about Republicans in the wake of the George W. Bush administration, particularly its first term. We asked: “What happened to support for multilateralism among elites within the Republican Party?” Implicit in this idea is that Republicans in the Kissinger, Scowcroft, and Bush senior tradition were pragmatic supporters of international organizations, and perhaps this was being supplanted by a more unilateral hostile approach to multilateral processes among Republicans.

In order to answer that question, we needed to know if the conventionalism wisdom about Republicans and their hostile attitudes towards multilateralism was true. We also thought that having a set of responses from Democrats for comparison sake would help anchor our findings. Hence the new survey.

Now, it is true that most of the respondents served in the Executive Branch so even if the findings validate the notion that there is room for bipartisan consensus around foreign policy, this may only go so far to the kinds of elites who are likely to or who have served in the White House, the National Security Council, the Department of Defense, and the State Department. We do not pick up on wider currents in Congress or partisan media. It is also possible that bipartisan cooperation could rally around ideas that are perhaps problematic for U.S. foreign policy. For example, both parties in the Senate largely rallied around the resolution that authorized force in the lead up to the 2003 Iraq War.

Even though we find that the cohort of serving Republicans in the Executive Branch remains overwhelmingly supportive of a number of core elements of multilateralism, we still have questions about the trends and tides of Republican thought on foreign policy, as the ideological objection by some Republicans to international treaties, even anodyne ones like the Law of the Sea treaty, continues to have a major influence on U.S. foreign policy given the rules for U.S. treaty accession. That will likely be our next project.


SHIELD and the US: How Realistic Is the Avengers Movie?

I guess I should not be surprised at this news that the Pentagon did not cooperate with Marvel Studios to make The Avengers movie (h/t to Jacob Levy for pointing this piece out to me).  After all, immediately after seeing the movie, I enumerated the many principal-agent problems illustrated in the movie, and the military abhors P-A problems.  It turns out that the Pentagon found unrealistic not the part about the Norse Gods, the large green rage-machine (best depiction yet by Ruffalo and Whedon), nor the un-icing of a Super-soldier.  Nope, the unrealistic part was:

We couldn’t reconcile the unreality of this international organization and our place in it,” Phil Strub, the Defense Department’s Hollywood liaison, tells Danger Room. “To whom did S.H.I.E.L.D. answer? Did we work for S.H.I.E.L.D.? We hit that roadblock and decided we couldn’t do anything” with the film.

Luckily, I have been training for years to answer precisely this question.  Well, I have been working on a book project on NATO and Afghanistan with David Auerswald that contains the seeds of an answer to this challenge.  See below the break where there might be spoilers:

Let’s start with today’s reality and then extrapolate to a world with SHIELD [Strategic Homeland Intervention, Enforcement and Logistics Division].  The US and other countries are quite accustomed to working with international organizations.  There are two basic processes that can potentially be in play here since the military operation ends up on US soil.

The first is a status of forces agreement [SOFA].  The US, when it wants to work in another country, negotiates an agreement that specify the conditions of its presence–can the US forces use force?  Under what conditions?  Are they immune from prosecution?*  The US signed a SOFA with Iraq that ultimately led to the American withdrawal but also established the conditions for the American presence in Iraq before that happened.  The recent US agreement with Afghanistan may not officially be a SOFA (I am not a legal expert) but seems to approximate one or is the basis to negotiate one–what will the US (and NATO) role be in Afghanistan post-ISAF.

 *In the last month or two in my year in the Pentagon in 2002, one of the tasks we were assigned on the Joint Staff was to get exceptions from International Criminal Court prosecution written into the mandates of the various missions in which the US was participating, including SFOR in Bosnia (my desk). 

So, in a hypothetical reality with SHIELD, one can imagine that the US has signed an agreement that allows SHIELD to operate in and over the US under various rules.  Now, one of them may actually be that SHIELD can nuke an American city if the stakes are high enough (this is where the “realism” does fail but we had to have a moment where Tony Stark plays the Kobiyashi Maru test since Captain America raised that scenario earlier in the movie).

The second process is a transfer of authority.  See the NATO jargon:

Transfer of authority of forces is the formal transfer of a specified degree of authority over designated forces both between nations and NATO Commanders, and between any two NATO Commanders.

This is really what the Pentagon means by “our place in it.”  In NATO and in other multilateral endeavors, countries transfer operational control (but not complete authority) of a unit to the commanders of the multilateral endeavor.  Countries will maintain influence over how that unit is operated, however, via a variety of means that are the subject of the aforementioned book project.  Among these means are surprise and fear the careful selection of senior leadership for the units being transferred, limits on what the units can and cannot do (caveats! more below), the requirement to call home for permission, the enabling of one’s personnel to invoke red cards which means they can say no to a command, oversight, and incentives (such as promotion or demotion) for the officers running the operation.

This transfer of authority process happens all the time and is not new at all and not new to the US.  However, one of the traditional American caveats when it participates in a multilateral endeavor is to insist that the top of the chain of command is an American.  So, Commander of ISAF is an American–General John Allen, who replaced General Petraeus, who replaced General McChrystal who replaced General McKiernan who replaced General McNeill who replaced General Richards.  Ah, but Richards was/is a Brit and his predecessors were Italians, Canadians, Germans and Turks.  The fudge that the US used prior to to McNeil was that COMISAF was a Brit but the commander of all NATO forces–SACEUR was/is always an American.  Similarly, in Kosovo, COMKFOR has never been an American (unlike COMSFOR in Bosnia), so Americans in Kosovo operated under an American general in the American sector but under a non-American general running ISAF.

So, again in alt reality with SHIELD, one could easily imagine an international organization dedicated to unconventional threats (aliens, superpowered folks, whatever) would have worked out agreements where countries would put their troops under SHIELD command.  Countries would still retain some control over these troops via caveats (Americans will not launch nukes on American territory), red cards (any American commander might refuse to obey an order to nuke an American city as an illegal or unwise command or at least call to his or her national command authority NORTHCOM-> SecDef-> President for permission), and so on.

Of course, another way to influence an international organization, as mentioned above, is to make sure that you have a countryman/woman in charge of the organization.  Nick Fury in the comic books and in the movie is very clearly an American.  His deputy, Maria Hill, is also clearly an American (and not Ted’s kids’s mother).  Having two hats, as an American officer and as a SHIELD officer, Fury would then be less likely to follow policies that would be against American interests, such as nuking Manhattan.  Indeed, this is precisely what happens: Fury defies his multinational chain as he prevents one plane from taking off and assists Iron Man and the Avengers in preventing the missile from hitting Manhattan.

The movie does not make clear what the governing council’s relationship is to the US.  It does seem fairly clear that the US is not just a member but a vocal powerful member, as portrayed by Powers Boothe.  The Council clearly included representatives from Russia, China, and Britain** at the very least, looking quite UN-ish (in the comic book source material, SHIELD was sometimes conceived as a UN organization).  Now, this might make SHIELD appear to be the black helicopter folks that various conspiracy theorists fear today, but that is not the claim the military folks told Wired.

**  The British woman was played by Jenny Agutter of Logan’s Run and American Werewolf in London, which I believe was a Whedon nod to some of the key movies of his childhood, but I might just be projecting.

My extended treatise here really leaves only one question:*** Why did the folks who have the authority in the Pentagon on movie clearances not call or walk over to the folks in the NATO division of the Joint Staff to ponder how operations with international organizations work. It is a big building but still coordination among different pieces of the Pentagon is what the folks in the building do every day.

*** We had to add a Libya chapter to our book on NATO and Afghanistan.  I don’t think my co-author will let me add an Avengers paragraph to our conclusion.  


A Seat at the Table

In a scathing analysis of the Copenhagen summit, The Financial Times published the following side-bar vignette:

Barack Obama’s meeting on Friday evening with the leaders of the major developing economies was perhaps the most farcical event in two weeks of mayhem. At 7pm, the leader of the world’s biggest economy was due at a meeting with Wen Jiabao, Chinese premier, in a backroom barred off from the rest of the conference with heavy security.

Mr Obama strode in, according to US accounts, discovering as he did so that his planned interlocutor was already there – deep in conversation with Manmohan Singh, the Indian prime minister who, the Americans had been told, had already left. With them were Brazilian president Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva and South Africa’s Jacob Zuma.

The US leader called out: “Are you ready for me?” There was no space at the table, but Mr Lula squeezed round, allowing Mr Obama to pull up a chair and sit down.

I wish I had a video of that. Welcome to the new multilateralism, where the old fiction of developing countries having a seat at the bargaining table has been transformed into reality. Surely this is a good thing?

The FT insinuates otherwise. They compare the Copenhagen process to the Doha round of World Trade Organization talks — now stalled out and unlikely to be revived in the current neo-mercantilist economic climate. Many analysts have blamed the collapse of Doha on both the increased complexity of trade issues, and the increased number of negotiating parties at the table. Basically, when multilateralism comes to mean over a hundred sovereigns at the table, rather than 15 or so who expect the hundred or so others to be too weak to object, it no longer produces meaningful binding agreements. To further quote the same FT story:

According to UN rules, countries must reach a consensus before any binding decision is made. For a climate change agreement covering many complex areas, hundreds of negotiators had to meet in dozens of groups to work on pages of highly detailed drafts.

But once this was under way, the technical meetings did not go as planned. Smaller developing countries raised questions of procedure, repeatedly delaying discussions of the substantive issues. Some reopened discussions on matters others had thought settled. For instance, Tuvalu and several small island states forced a half-day suspension by seeking to make the talks’ ultimate aim a limit of 1.5°C in global temperature rises rather than 2°C – a limit many countries view as impossible to achieve.

As the talks entered their final week, the wrangling grew worse. Australia was to be the co-chair of a group discussing commitments to reduce emissions but needed a developing country partner. Of at least 10 approached, none would do it.

While some of the countries raising objections had legitimate concerns – “It’s hard to argue with people whose homeland is going to disappear”, as one negotiator put it – the effect was a failure to make progress on the formal aspects of an agreement.

So effective were the tactics that some developed countries suspected a co-ordinated campaign, backed by China. China has many trade links with the 130 developing nations in the “Group of 77”, of which it is the most powerful. For instance, the G77 chair is held by Sudan, closely tied to China through investments and oil trade. Lumumba Di-Aping, the group’s leader, was one of the most confrontational developing country representatives, likening the rich countries’ stance to genocide.

By the time the leaders began to arrive last Thursday night, Ed Miliband, UK climate change secretary, was warning the talks were in danger of degenerating into farce. Progress was stalled on substantive issues and the wording of the draft text was still subject to intense quibbling. Hugo Chávez of Venezuela, Evo Morales of Bolivia, and Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad chose to use their time on the world stage to denounce western capitalism rather than discuss climate change, which did not help the atmosphere.

“Degenerating into farce” is the operative term. Has conference diplomacy ever been anything other than farce? Surely something like the 1814 Vienna Congress is exempt from such a charge? They only had a few great powers to contend with, not demagogues and rabble, right? But I recently read (just for fun) a popular, gossipy account of the Congress (Vienna 1814 by David King) that makes this haloed moment in international history seem just as much a farce as Copenhagen (the full text of the Copenhagen agreement is here).

Of course, the fact that a conference appears as farce does not preclude it having lasting and significant effects. But it is difficult (impossible?) to disentangle those while the initial drama is still reverberating.

Is there a general problem with conference diplomacy? Too many parties at the table? The degeneration of UN conferences into nothing but opportunities to grandstand for a domestic audience? The inability of governments to cope with global problems, combined with their inability to make credible commitments to each other? The nefarious and increasingly powerful influence of China? Does the new clout of countries like China, India, and Brazil undermine progress toward binding commitments? Or is this just an imperialist attitude? Is what we have now Multilateralism 2.0, or is it the same old game, with some new players stepping into old roles? I’m wondering.


Tortured Rhetoric

President Obama said a lot of important things tonight, but he also regurgitated a disturbing Bushism or two.*

One of these is the term “America does not torture.”

Stated in this particular way, an indisputible statement of principle is conflated with and therefore masquerades as an empirical “fact,” one which is blatantly untrue. This trope was one of the Bush Administration’s many brilliant inventions, and was designed as a public relations counter-response to growing acknowledgement that US military and intelligence personnel not only had tortured detainees, but had in fact been ordered to do so.

In the context of some other disturbing continuities between Bush Administration policies and Obama’s policy so far, this worries me. It should also worry Obama’s advisors: these kinds of rhetorical not to mention policy non-changes are precisely the type of behavior that will undermine Obama’s effort to reengage the international community in the wake of Bush-era unilateralism. Why? Because these particular issues are so closely emotionally associated with Bush-era unilateralism. If there is any sense in Obama’s decision to retain a policy of extraordinary rendition (and I can’t see any), there is certainly no sense in the decision to draw attention and umbrage to it by failing to at least change the rhetoric.

One of the most interesting conversations I had at ISA was about the Geneva Conventions. I had suggested in The National Interest last year that the Bush Administration and the human rights community work together toward an Additional Protocol to clarify the law, and my colleague asked whether I thought this advice still applied after the transition.

I would say it is even more relevant now. The Bush White House flaunted multilateral institutions like the torture regime because Bush’s policy was to flout multilateralism. Obama can’t continue that course – simply reinterpreting and then violating the law – while claiming to embrace multilateralism. But what he could do is lead a multilateral effort to clarify the law. An effort framed in good faith by a skillful and (as yet) largely untarnished leader like Obama could unite both the human rights community and those concerned about how to apply the laws in an era of asymmetric warfare. It could resolve some of the interpretive problems as a community. Obama should shift course and lead this movement before the opportunity is squandered as the US once again instead becomes its target.

*I mean, how it within his perogative or power to “not allow people to plot against America”? What does that mean as a basis for one’s foreign policy?


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