Earth Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 9 April 2001


Since George W. Bush took over the US Presidency, the winds of change have blown from Washington to the rest of the world.  There are fears of a new Cold War as the new Administration reveals an aggressive stance to countries like China and Russia, whilst withdrawing or reducing international cooperation in other areas.  Equally worrying is its anti-environmental strategy, as shown in the withdrawal of US support for the Kyoto protocol on global warming.


It has only been a few months since George W. Bush became the new United States President.  But it is already clear that he is leading the US in a direction quite different from that taken by the former President Clinton, at least on issues of the environment and international relations.

And that has given rise already to grave concern, even alarm, in many parts of the world, not only in Asia, the Middle East or Russia but also among America's close European allies.

The Washington-Beijing standoff over the crash between the US spyplane and a Chinese jet fighter is only the latest example of increased tensions in international relations since Bush came to power.

The refusal so far of the US to apologise prolonged the standoff.  As a Reuters report put it, Bush's swift loss of patience, underscored by his rapid demand for the return of the 24 American crew, his call on China to "do the right thing" and warnings that the relationship could be undermined, did little to help China's President Jiang Zemin to be able to end the crisis.

This is only incident within the context of a new strategy to foreign relations that the Bush Administration is reportedly putting in place. 

That strategy seems to include a reappraisal of relations with China, Russia, Korea, the Middle East, and Europe, as revealed in a recent articles in the London-based newspaper The Guardian.

According to an analysis by Ed Vulliamy, the US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld unveiled a strategy for a new arms race with China with a 90 minute lecture to Bush on plans to overhaul America's arsenal to face the new Chinese threat.

The premise is that Asia-Pacific is the most likely theatre for US military operations (as China becomes more powerful) and Rumsfeld wants to replace dependence on aircraft carriers and short-range fighters with long-range bombers capable of flying across the world's widest ocean to fight and win a nuclear war, according to Vulliamy.

The White House meanwhile pledged to go ahead with arms sales to Taiwan, eliciting a response from President Jiang urging the US to stop the sale which he said would cause China to accelerate its military modernisation.  The sale of missile launcher destroyers equipped with the Aegis missile radar system to Taiwan threatens to rupture overall US-China relations.

The US posture towards China is only one (though perhaps the most important one) of the new Administration's many "combative international gestures", and as part of "rattling the sabres of a new cold war across the globe", as the Guardian termed it.

Other signs of the new cold war include:


   ** The deportation of 50 Russian envoys from the US on grounds of spying, causing Russia to similarly ask 50 American envoys to leave Moscow.   The anti-ballistic missile treaty with Moscow is now considered "ancient history", the Russians are viewed as a "nation of proliferators", and there is no interest in engagement with Russia's President Putin.

  ** Whilst President Clinton had tried to engage with North Korea and encouraged the move by South and North Korea to mend their fences, Bush made clear during a visit by South Korea's President Kim Dae-jung to the White House that he was now skeptical of North Korea and that the US no longer wants to pursue the missile dialogue with it that Clinton had started.

The US is also withdrawing or reducing interest from the conflict areas of the Balkans. Already, 750 US troops are confirmed to be leaving Bosnia and the current number of 5,000 troops there are expected to fall to below 1,000 by summer.  In Kosovo, US soldiers are under orders not to patrol within a mile of borders with Macedonia or Serbia.

In the Middle East, according to a report by David Hirst in the Guardian, Bush has given priority to fighting President Saddam of Iraq and to reviving the Gulf War coalition against him.  His administration is more partial towards Israel, ceding a substantial amount of what Israeli President Sharon wants at the expense of the Palestinians.

As for Bush's loss of interest in Europe, the Guardian's Martin Kettle had this to say:  "What do Tony Blair, Vladimir Putin and President Boris Trajkovski of Macedonia have in common?  Answer:  They are all Europeans and so they are all slipping rapidly down Washington's list of priorities as the Bill Clinton era finally gives way to that of George Bush.

"From Stockholm to Skopje, Europeans of every stripe are gradually discovering that the Bush administration intends to keep its distance from the Old World.  The civilities and pieties may remain essentially the same…but the truth is that the new US team is not all that interested in Europe."

The US withdrawal from international cooperation and in its place an aggressive stance is shown also in the environmental arena.

Two weeks ago, Bush practically announced that the US was withdrawing its support for the Kyoto Protocol.  This is a plan agreed to in 1997 by more than 100 nations under the Climate Change Convention, to reduce the gases that cause global warming which in turn seriously threatens the world's environment.

This US withdrawal outraged not only developing countries but especially America's allies in Europe which had tried intensely to get the US, under Clinton, to take on its emission-reducing responsibilities.

President Clinton could not deliver a good enough commitment, but at least his administration recognised the dangers of emissions and global warming, and tried (in vain) to persuade Congress and Senate members to ratify the protocol.

Bush made it clear his administration itself does not believe in the protocol. The withdrawal of the US, if it takes place, may mean the effective end of the protocol since it is responsible for 25% of greenhouse gas emissions although it has only 4% of the world's population.

Bush's reasons for withdrawing (that the protocol is unfair as it does not require developing countries to reduce their emissions, that it will harm the US economy, and that scientific knowledge of global change is incomplete) are widely seen as mere excuses, for these issues have already been thrashed out and settled.

Environmental groups and many analysts believe the real reason for this tough stance is that Bush and his team are beholden to the oil and energy industry, or rather that he and important members of the team are themselves representing or are part of that industry.

In the US itself, environmentalists are up in arms over the fact that Bush has done an about turn from his campaign promises for cleaner air, and is also turning back many environmental initiatives taken by Clinton at the end of his term.

All in all, the winds of change are certainly blowing in the White House.

And when a cold wind blows in Washington, some of the world catches the flu, and other parts must be prepared for pneumonia.