Rejecting the World

SYNOPSIS: Are conservatives against all policies that include global cooperation?

The Bush administration did the right thing on diesel emissions this week, curbing an important source of air pollution. Yet George Bush has, in general, reneged on the environmental promises of his 2000 campaign. Most notably, he broke his campaign pledge to regulate carbon dioxide emissions, offering instead a purely voluntary and therefore, one might have thought, meaningless plan to limit global warming.

But even this, it turns out, was too much for Mr. Bush's party. The energy bill passed by House Republicans last week didn't include any plan, even a voluntary one, to limit greenhouse emissions. Why?

The answer, I believe, has to do with an aversion to all things global.

On its face, the Bush plan on global warming was a sham, relying on the kindness of corporations. The Department of Energy would have issued credits to companies that reduced carbon dioxide emissions, but since there would have been no legal limits, those credits would simply have been a symbolic recognition of good behavior.

Or would they? Right-wing think tanks engaged in a concerted, and successful, campaign to persuade Congress to reject the Bush scheme. Those think tanks argued that keeping track of emission reductions would make it easier for a future administration to introduce a real global warming policy: companies that had accumulated credits might favor measures that gave those credits some value. More broadly, they opposed any legitimization of the idea that global warming is a problem.

But why would that be such a bad thing, from their point of view?

We can safely dismiss the idea that the right has carefully weighed the scientific evidence and concluded that the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community is wrong. We can also dismiss the idea that conservatives have carefully examined the economics of emission controls and concluded that they are too expensive.

So was it just politics as usual? Opposition to a global warming policy partly reflects a general aversion to government regulation. Don't forget that Tom DeLay, the House majority leader, is a former exterminator who entered politics because he was angry about controls on pesticide use.

But the ferocity with which the right opposes any policy to limit greenhouse gases, even the nearly empty Bush plan, goes beyond general anti-environmentalism. What's different about global warming, I think, is that unlike local pollution, dealing with it requires concerted action by governments around the world. And that's what the right really can't stand.

This shouldn't be surprising. There was a time when U.S. conservatives were isolationists. Nobody thinks that's a viable position nowadays, but the same impulses an assertion of moral superiority, an unwillingness to consider alternative points of view lie behind America's new spirit of unilateralism. We obviously can't ignore the world, but many Americans reject the idea that other countries should have any say over what we do.

But what happens when unilateralists encounter problems that clearly require the cooperation of other countries not as junior partners, but as equals? Right now the answer is simply to deny the existence of those problems. The greenhouse effect is a quintessentially global issue fine, we'll deny that global warming exists. Fighting stateless terrorists demands a global, cooperative effort fine, we'll fight terrorism by launching a conventional war against a regime that, nasty as it was, had nothing to do with the terrorist attacks.

Eventually, of course and sooner rather than later this attempt to deny reality will fail. While we've been watching the Iraq show, many past achievements of U.S. foreign policy have been disintegrating. Through neglect and arrogance, the United States has squandered the good will it built up in Latin America in the 1990's. For half a century the U.S. has regarded the drive toward free trade as a key part of its global strategy; now trade negotiations are falling apart from lack of attention.

Even in Iraq, we're starting to see that winning the war was the easy part, and U.S. officials previously dismissive of "old Europe" are suddenly talking about the need for an international peacekeeping force. Such a force, like the one still in Afghanistan, would surely have to include French and German soldiers.

The truth is that we can't go it alone. But by the time that truth sinks in, there may be a lot of pieces to pick up.

Originally published in The New York Times, 4.18.03