European Affairs

One issue the report does not directly deal with, however, is the importance of state action to set more ambitious environmental goals and to ensure that those goals are met, particularly in the United States.

The outcome of the conference makes this issue even more important than it was before. What emerged from the conference was a series of voluntary commitments focusing on improving the quality of life of the world's poorest people and ultimately lifting them out of poverty. The desirability of achieving these commitments is beyond dispute.

The conference did not, however, identify the specific policy changes or resource commitments necessary to achieve them. Even if they were achieved, moreover, there would be no assurance that our atmosphere, oceans and terrestrial ecosystems - the global commons - would be protected.

To achieve that broader goal, governments would have been required to make specific additional commitments to reduce the amount of pollution being generated in their countries and to curb the exploitation of natural resources.

It was precisely these additional commitments by governments that the Bush administration was determined to avoid. It succeeded. The commitments made at the conference with respect to health, water, energy and other areas are designed to be implemented through voluntary public-private partnerships that emphasize the role of the private sector and specifically of private investment.

Governments are committed to pursuing the overall goals agreed at the conference in good faith and to providing an indeterminate level of resources, but are not committed to making any changes to their domestic laws or international obligations. To the extent that there were differences of approach between the United States and the European Union at the conference, such as on a numerical target for the percentage of energy derived from renewable sources, the U.S. approach prevailed.

The U.S. negotiators regard this outcome as a diplomatic success, despite the criticism and bad publicity that they received in Johannesburg. In my view, it was a hollow victory. Until the United States accepts its full responsibility to the global community in reducing its own contribution to global pollution and resource degradation, it will be impossible to achieve the goals set forth at Rio de Janeiro in 1992 and Johannesburg in 2002.

The only way we can demonstrate that responsibility is to put into place the domestic policies, laws and regulations necessary to curb our own pollution and resource degradation. This type of state action remains the central issue, not merely for the global community, but for our own children and grandchildren.

William A. Nitze
Gemstar Group Inc.


This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number III, Issue number IV in the Fall of 2002.