Jeffersonian climate change strategy

The 2008 presidential campaign is the most open race for years not least because neither the sitting president nor vice president is seeking nomination. The primaries are an anomaly, vividly portrayed in the novel Primary Colors: A Novel of Politics (1996). The Iowa caucuses are trenchantly dissected by Christopher Hitchens as being inherently corrupt and anti-democratic – characterised by the absence of secret ballots and a profusion of ‘inducements’:

as small and landlocked and white and rural as Iowa is, I would be happy to give an opening bid in our electoral process to its warm and generous and serious people. But this is not what the caucus racket actually does. What it does is give the whip hand to the moneyed political professionals, to the full-time party hacks and manipulators…

If as seems likely the candidates wish to avoid substantial policy debates – after all none have come this far by being radical, and like poker players the candidates often adjust their proposals to match their opponents latest bids – then the campaign will come down to “character”. The big ticket in the campaign now is to be seen as the “change candidate”. This can mean debunking a candidate’s experience, creating the perception that this asset is a liability, or pushing visions for change and creating the perception that a realignment is underway in American politics. What does seem a little more certain is that Republicans and Democrats alike are embarrassed by the incompetence of their own government.

And the US has been getting a bad press on climate change. This has been comforting for the Bush White House – and incidentally convenient for the European tribes since it deflects attention from the conspicuous lack of impact of the Kyoto agreement, the absence of concrete national programmes, and the rise in carbon and other greenhouse gas emissions. But it ignores or misunderstands the broader sweep of US public opinion, and probable future US leadership in global environmental policy since the serious candidates are signed up members for climate change reform.

Walter Russell Mead argues in “Special Providence: American Foreign Policy and How it Changed the World” (2001) that the US – in a little more than 200 years since gaining independence – has enjoyed considerable foreign policy success: driving the British, Spanish and French from northern America, dominating the coalitions that beat the German and Japanese military attempts to gain world power, overseeing in the past 50 years the replacement of the British and other European empires with new independent and democratic countries (with only a handful of rogues left) whilst keeping a lid on nuclear weapons, winning the Cold War, and building a new economic system world order – known more latterly as globalisation. It has frequently been messy, downright nasty (Guatemala, Vietnam) and often controversial (Iraq). Constitutionally the executive has a free hand in foreign policy; in reality presidents follow or cannot move far from public opinion (after all in democratic politics mortality is the next election). The Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act may be the first salvo in the opening debate on carbon pricing.

Walter Russell Mead looks at the trajectory of foreign policy through its four main schools of thought: to paraphrase, Hamiltonian (seen as being supportive of big business and protecting commerce through favourable global trading arrangements); Wilsonian (taking the moral high ground and making this a national security interest by actively promoting democratic values worldwide); Jeffersonian (the defence of democracy at home means avoiding conflict); Jacksonian (populism and militarism, with domestic security as the paramount interest but with a big stick in constant readiness).

In practice policy is more nuanced. For example, it is too simple to read Hamiltonians who have dominated the Bush-Clinton-Bush White Houses as simply arch-globalists. But Russell Mead concludes (in mid-2001)

in looking at the tasks we now face, it seems to me that the voice of the Jeffersonian school is the one that currently most needs to be heard.

The perception of over-reach (and its corollary of incompetence in delivering security and basic social services) suggests a Jeffersonian response to globalisation’s unnecessary – not least the environmental – risks and costs for the US. A new strategy to guide foreign policy needs to be drawn up that can manage the trade offs between American global interests and duties, security and sovereignty, and design the new institutional architecture for world trade, financial governance and environmental policy (the overdue reforms of the IMF, WTO, World Bank), and that strengthens rather than weakens the linkages and dependencies between the US and the rest of the world.

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