Albion Monitor /News

Cautious Praise for "Green" U.S. Foreign Policy

by Pratap Chatterjee

Major new U.S. initiative to incorporate environmental issues into foreign policy

(IPS) SAN FRANCISCO -- Environmental activists have welcomed a major new U.S. initiative to incorporate environmental issues into the country's foreign policy but they remain skeptical that the United States can match its words with actions.

Called the "Environmental Initiative For the 21st Century," Secretary of State Warren Christopher outlined the strategy yesterday at Stanford University. He announced that, beginning next year, the State Department will issue reports on global environmental trends, policy developments, and U.S. priorities. The reports are to be published on Earth Day every year.

"I think it is incredibly exciting and encouraging," Larry Williams of the Washington-based Sierra Club said. He added, however, that "reporting the state of the environment is nice, but there's a lot more to be done."

Promoting environment friendly projects

The new policy aims to promote global environmental treaties and to help U.S. companies win a share of the estimated $400 billion environmental industry.

A summary of the plan from the State Department calls for embassies in "key" countries to work with non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and businesses to, among other things, address "pressing" region-wide natural resources issues, especially those which might lead to conflict, and "help U.S. businesses to sell their leading-edge environmental technology overseas."

"The environment has a profound impact on our national interests in two ways," Christopher said.

Not only can global environmental trends directly threaten the "health, prosperity, and jobs of American citizens," he said. "Addressing natural resource issues is frequently critical to achieving political and economic stability...around the world."

Christopher pointed to examples of the kind of business that the United States would like to promote.

"In Central Asia, we are helping nations recover from Soviet irrigation practices that turned much of the Aral Sea into an ocean of sand," he said. "We are encouraging sustainable agriculture as an alternative to slash-and-burn cultivation of opium poppies and coca from Guatemala to Colombia."

He also cited U.S.-built solar and wind power stations in El Salvador and a contract for a U.S. company to work on fisheries and the supply of fresh water in Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda.

There is more to come, said Christopher.

"Ten days from now, President Bill Clinton will join other leaders in Moscow to promote the safe operation of nuclear reactors. We are helping Ukraine to make sure there are no more Chernobyls."

Environmentalists say the rhetoric of United States foreign policy often clashes with actual practice

Christopher said that later this spring, the U.S. government will launch a program for business and governments from the U.S. states of Texas and New Mexico, as well as from Mexico's Cuidad Juarez to reduce air pollution on the U.S.-Mexico border.

He said the United States will hold a major conference within the next two years to ensure compliance with global environment agreements, including the Law of the Sea Convention, and treaties to address climate change and ban chemicals that destroy the ozone.

"We must contend with the vast new danger posed to our national interests by damage to the environment and resulting global and regional instability," he said. "Dangerous chemicals such as PCBs and DDT that are banned here but still used elsewhere travel long distances through the air and water."

Christopher added that "Americans suffer the consequences of damage to the environment far beyond our borders."

Paul Ehrlich, author of the "The Population Bomb," welcomed the initiative.

"I was pleased by the speech. It shows that he is in contact with the world's scientists," said Ehrlich, whose book, published in 1968, theorized that over-population was causing widespread environmental degradation. But he added that "one of the things that we are not doing enough on is over consumption" of natural resources.

Christopher said the United States will work to protect "the rich diversity of life" in the Amazon rainforest and the Arctic environment.

To this end, he cited the sales of satellite tracking systems and other environmental technology to developing countries.

But environmentalists are skeptical. The Pacific Environment and Resources Network (PERC), the Rainforest Action Network (RAN), and others say the rhetoric of United States foreign policy often clashes with actual practice.

PERC's Doug Norlen agrees that U.S. Vice President Al Gore has signed important initiatives with his counterparts in Russia to save the Siberian forests, but that those same agreements have been undermined by U.S. efforts to promote business interests.

"The federally backed plans will transform Siberia and the Russian far east into a massive log export colony," Norlen said.

The U.S. government's Overseas Private Investment Corporation (OPIC) says in its 1995 annual report that it provided $10 million in political risk insurance for logging in Russia to the Global Forestry Management Group, a consortium of timber companies in the U.S. northwest. OPIC also extended to the Pioneer Group of Boston a $9.3 million loan for timber harvesting in Russia.

Christopher also did not address the role of U.S. companies abroad

Responding to the criticisms, U.S. Undersecretary of State for Global Affairs Tim Wirth said the State Department cannot control the activities of every other government agency.

"Usually, we have leverage over other agencies, but sometimes we don't have that," he said. "Congress has deliberately set up walls between our agencies. I am not familiar with the case in Siberia, but we are trying to work more closely with OPIC."

For its part, the U.S. Trade and Development Agency, a branch of the U.S. Commerce Department, presented in Brazil later last year a compilation of infrastructure projects in Latin America, including roads leading into the Amazon rainforest.

Shannon Wright of the Rainforest Action Network notes that these projects rarely ever have significant environmental protection components.

"Christopher also did not address the role of U.S. companies abroad," she said, noting that a number of companies were destroying large hectares of rainforest in Colombia, Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru.

But Wirth argued that for the most part, "U.S. multinationals have higher standards than companies in other countries." He added, "Of course there are rogue companies."

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Albion Monitor April 15, 1996 (

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