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American Hegemony and the Global Environment

Robert Falkner
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1468-2486.2005.00534.x 585-599 First published online: 1 December 2005

What about the critics who say the Bush Administration—at best—lacks an environmental policy? Or—at worst—is engaged in an assault on the environment? It's clear that we have failed in the court of public opinion to tell our story. (John F. Turner, US Assistant Secretary for Oceans and International Environmental and Scientific Affairs, March 2, 2004)

For many environmentalists in Europe and elsewhere, the United States has emerged as the new “rogue state” in global green politics. Ever since the United States took a backseat at the UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in 1992, US foreign policy has appeared to be lukewarm about, and often hostile to, multilateral environmental policymaking. From the rejection of the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) to the withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol on climate change, the United States has shown itself to be concerned more with national economic interests than global environmental threats. Many observers see this as a fundamental shift away from the US environmental leadership of the 1970s and 1980s. In the early days of global environmentalism, the United States pioneered modern environmental legislation and promoted the creation of global regimes ranging from ozone layer protection to the preservation of threatened species. More recently, however, the US government has repeatedly challenged the need for new environmental treaties; questioned the scientific basis of international regulation; and rejected the notion that precautionary action is warranted in the face of potential ecological dangers. Whereas in the 1970s and 1980s, the United States frequently branded European countries as environmental laggards, it is the European Union (EU) that now claims the mantle of international leadership in sustainable development.

This reversal in international environmental roles coincides with a fundamental shift in international relations. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War have precipitated …

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