When it Comes to Kyoto, the U.S. is the "Rogue Nation"

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Remember the "indispensable nation"? That was Madeleine Albright's catchphrase for the U.S. role in international affairs. Yet Monday's decision by the nations of the industrialized and developing world to adopt the Kyoto Accord — despite its rejection by Washington — may be a sign that the Home of the Brave is in danger of growing dispensable.

Of course, the revised Kyoto Accord hammered out in three days of intense negotiations in Bonn is but a shadow of its former self. It has reduced the average cut in greenhouse gas emissions required by the year 2012 from 5.2 percent below 1990 levels to 1.8 percent below 1990 levels, and has incorporated a number of the negotiating positions previously advanced by the Clinton administration, such as crediting nations for maintaining large forests to serve as "carbon sinks" to soak up the offending gas. (And all this in response not to pressure from Washington, which had removed itself from the debate by rejecting Kyoto out of hand, but to the demands of other industrialized countries such as Japan and Canada.)

A new era?

Still, the Bonn agreement has been celebrated as a historic breakthrough both by the governments of Western Europe and environmentalist activist groups such as Greenpeace, which believes even the watered-down Kyoto creates the foundations of a vigorous international system to regulate human behaviors harmful to the planet. And even though the world's largest polluter has stayed out, the treaty's signatories collectively produce more than twice as much greenhouse gas as the U.S.

But the real significance of the revised Kyoto Accord lies less in its impact on the planet's climate than in the fact that it survived Washington's withdrawal. The determination of the nations of the industrialized world to hang in and negotiate a binding treaty even after it had been nixed by the "indispensable nation" suggests that we may have entered a new era in international affairs. And that it will be an era in which the U.S. will no longer be automatically granted the leadership role among Western nations it established during the Cold War.

Indeed, the spectacle of the most far-reaching environmental treaty in history being negotiated without the United States would have been almost unthinkable a few years ago. The delegates at Bonn appeared to be well aware of the political significance of their decision to respond to the Bush administration's attempt to scrap the agreement by simply going ahead without America. EU negotiator Olivier Deleuze told the delegates at Bonn, "Almost every single country stayed in the protocol. There was one that said the protocol was flawed. Do you see the Kyoto Protocol flawed?"

Indispensable rogue?

Of course, the Europeans ultimately conceded to many of the points raised by Clinton administration negotiators in previous talks over the terms of Kyoto, and critics will charge that had they showed the degree of flexibility on view at Bonn during talks last November, President Bush might not have found it as easy to trash the treaty on taking office. The Clinton administration was never happy with the terms of Kyoto, but it kept its negotiators at the table to grind away at the original treaty. President Bush gambled that withdrawing from the negotiations — that is, removing the indispensable polluter — would force the international community back to the drawing board to seek an agreement more favorable to the U.S.'s gas-guzzling economy. But summary withdrawal from a decade-old process and failure at the same time to advance any alternative was read by the Europeans as a lack of seriousness. Indeed, there was spontaneous booing in the conference hall at Bonn when U.S. delegate Paula Dobriansky told the meeting, "The Bush administration takes the issue of climate change very seriously and we will not abdicate our responsibility." On global warming, the "indispensable nation" is looking rather more like a "rogue nation."

The real significance of Bonn was that the Europeans decided to stand up to what many view as a dangerous U.S. unilateralism on an issue in which American domestic decisions are deemed to have a global impact. And the need to send Washington a message would certainly have added incentive for the Europeans, Japanese, Canadians and others to sort out their own differences on Kyoto. Whatever the treaty's imperfections, there was a collective sense of achievement among the overwhelming majority of the world's industrialized and developing nations at the fact that they'd fashioned an epic international consensus on global warming despite the objections of the one nation that still aspires to global leadership.

President Bush may have spoken loftily about American leadership on global warming, but the reality is that he has missed the boat — instead, the international community will now be focusing its efforts on bringing Washington on board, as unlikely as that may look right now. And the Kyoto decision will have given the Europeans and other industrialized nations a sense of collective power and confidence to act independently of the U.S. that is likely to grow rather than ebb.