US Unilateralism Against A Single Planet For All


The Executive Secretary to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), Christina Figueres, described 2015’s COP21 Sustainable Innovation Forum, (known less formally as the Paris Agreement on Climate Change) as a historic universal pledge of “cooperation, vision, responsibility and a shared humanity.” Yet, less than six months after the agreement came into formal effect on November 4th 2016, the USA’s revisionist government has raised serious doubts of fulfilling its ratified commitment. Although the USA remain formally bound to the agreement, their potential withdrawal may dilute political synergy towards climate action, or in a worst case scenario, negatively compound the course of climate outcomes and global capacity to meet the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals by 2030.

US government vitriol towards multilateral cooperation has intensified following two recent assertions. The first involved the Trump administration’s ‘America First’ draft budget, which proposed to realize a “historic increase in defence spending,” alongside deep cuts to diplomatic, foreign aid, energy renewal and climate focused initiatives. The second involved the US’s unyielding stance towards reaching an agreement or even compromise with G-20 partners, to move towards a common approach on the sustainable use of natural resources.

Germany, who resides over the G-20 Presidency in 2017, has resolved to place resource sustainability at the forefront of summit agendas. By doing so, it hopes to maintain states focused on their commitments to achieve Paris Agreement targets, as well as the 2030 Agenda milestones towards Sustainable Development.

Germany’s directive to make environmental issues the centre-piece at G-20 Economic forums is historic, and well supported by the timely release of the UN’s International Resource Panel (IRP) report, titled “Resource Efficiency: Potential and Economic Implications.” The report, initially commissioned in 2015 by the G-7, provides scientifically researched findings and proposals for assertive world action and investment to improve resource efficiency.

The IRP report has identified that more efficient uses of natural resources will promote resilience and a sustainable future, as well as potentially generate $2 trillion US dollars in annual global economic income. This forecast would have appealed to the community of G-20 central bankers, whose policy efforts to stimulate world economic confidence have only resulted in lacklustre economic outcomes, nearly a decade on from the beginning of the global financial crisis.

The IRP’s suggested pathway is clear, while a ‘business as usual’ approach will, according to Professor Paul Ekins from the IRP, lead to irreparable “environmental damage and dwindling natural resources (that) push up costs and cause conflicts and even wars over resource allocation.”

Supported by the report’s message and findings, German G-20 leaders sought to propose an initiative to found a collaborative investment partnership amongst G-20 participants, to build a community of sustainability practitioners. Germany’s vision for the group is one based on an operating a model of open information and technology sharing to encourage innovative best practices in the efficient use of natural resources. Unfortunately, however, the proposal was strongly opposed by the USA and Saudi Arabia, leading instead to the removal of all references to the G-20 financial sponsorship of environmental initiatives.

The USA further undermined G-20 multilateralism (and German aims to strengthen global economic confidence by “shaping an interconnected world”), by taking an illiberal stance towards renewing commitments to free and open trade with group members. The USA’s newly sharpened trade protectionist outlook and intended review of agreements with bi and multilateral partners across regions and the broader global economic community left the G-20 endorsement and pledge towards maintaining open economic trade in limbo.

Away from the G-20, the Trump Administration’s realist policy revival was underscored by its budget proposal to raise domestic security and external military spending. The aims of this move were justified by President Trump’s simple assertion that “We have to start winning wars again.”

The hard power politics of displaying defensive and offensive military capacities are blunt and ancient tactics designed to subvert aggressors (and ‘allies’ alike) through cohesive fear. Yet, power in the contemporary context is not so simply determined or defined, otherwise USA military power would already be winning the USA the wars, which President Trump apparently perceives to be the ultimate measure of success.

According to data produced by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), USA military expenditure is the largest in the world, representing 36% of total world military spending (in 2015). Comparatively, SIPRI reported the USA’s 2015 spending ($596 billion USD) to be more than $380 billion (or 64%) over China’s estimated expenditure, and around $120 billion over the collective military spending ($475 billion) of the top five spenders, excluding the USA (China, Saudi Arabia, Russia, UK and India).

With this in mind, what may have been missed by the Trump administration is that fact that modern power dynamics are far more complex than they were half century ago, in an era nostalgically referred to by President Trump as when “America never lost a war.”

Power in the contemporary international framework is a delicate, unsteady mix of hard and soft power elements. Soft power, as described by eminent political scientist Professor Joseph Nye, is the ability to influence and create, without the use of military threats, networks of state and non-state actors (including civil society) to achieve outcomes that align with the interests of the proposing actor.

USA soft power has historically been channeled through foreign aid funding that either directly targets recipients, or indirectly supports the wider global community. President Obama’s 2010 signing of the Presidential Policy Directive on Global Development reaffirmed USA objectives to support world economic  “development as a core pillar of American power in accord with diplomacy and defence, for an integrated approach to national security.”

On this basis, USA foreign policy has long maintained financial donor relations with non-government organizations, whose objectives encourage developmental capacities of states in the global community, which in turn help generate political and economic stability. In many instances, USA soft power has assisted to found and support organizations operating in the international space, including leading economic and trade institutions, human, animal and environmental rights agents, and research-based think-tanks that deliver health, education, agriculture, science and environmental initiatives.

Indeed, US soft power has been broad-reaching, and while it works to ultimately secure US foreign policy interests, its use and contribution to the global community has been enormous, highlighting that effectively managed soft power strategies achieve more holistic outcomes (particularly relative to costs associated with either military or economic power strategies).

President Trump’s preliminary budget, however, has affirmed the administration’s perspective that funding foreign policy initiatives are a financial burden in direct opposition to domestic economic planning and national security interests. The proposed budget rebalance of funds towards increasing the military overspend, may, however, rebound in ways that are presently unexpected by the current US President.

Although the budget is still to be formally debated and accepted by Congress, the biggest losers are proposed to include the domestic US and international agents committed to contributing knowledge and practice to scientific environmental initiatives on the impacts of climate and ecosystem change. The Trump administration’s willful disdain towards globally accepted environmental science has resulted in proposed funding cuts, aimed to either cripple or silence, the USA’s Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Green Climate Fund (GCF) responsible for facilitating climate projects in developing nations, the Global Climate Change Initiative (GCCI) who directly contribute around 20% of the UNFCCC budget, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) who lead diplomatic and scientific consultations, and the International Resources Panel (IRP).

Diplomatic efforts to encourage the USA to a more moderate perspective have been made by leading state and non-state officials, including UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres.  The Secretary General has attempted to impress an awareness upon the Trump Administration, that world insecurity would likely increase if the USA pursued a path away from global interaction, at a time when the “international community is facing enormous global challenges that can only be addressed by a strong and effective multilateral system.”

While many voices aim to draw the USA back to the table to pursue dialogue and an understanding that responsibility to manage transnational issues, including the environment, require collective effort and action, the Trump administration appears committed to its view that such action is a “waste of money,” as recently described by Budget Director Mick Mulvaney. Yet the strongest and simplest message Christina Figueres declared at the COP21 forum in 2015 regarding our collective human society and security, is that we only have “one planet, one chance to get it right.” How the US chooses to interpret and respond to this, and many other transnational issues, may likely determine how the international community’s diplomatic, trade and good-will alliances with the USA reshape.

Carolina Morison