Washington, 1 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- A conference on the environment highlights a fundamental fact of international life: when one sets of divisive issues recedes into the background, another one quickly emerges to take its place as an organizing principle of relations among nations.
Representatives of some 160 countries gather in Kyoto, Japan, today (Monday) for what is scheduled to be a ten-day long follow-on to the 1992 Rio environmental summit. The countries represented are deeply divided over just what this meeting should accomplish.
Most of the developed countries --including the United States and Western Europe -- are in favor of limiting emissions that appear to be causing global warning. But they disagree on just how many gases should be limited and by how much and also on which countries should be subject to just what limits.
And in every case, these countries are split internally between those in business who are opposed to limitations on emissions that would cut into their profits and environmental activists who are calling for draconian restrictions, some of which would have an extraordinarily negative impact on the economy.
Representatives from the developing world, on the other hand, also profess to believe that the world should seriously reduce emissions that are harming the environment. But they argue that the countries most responsible for these emissions -- the developed West -- should be forced to cut back the most and that the developing countries should not so that they can catch up economically.
For both political and economic reasons, some members of each group are supporting the position of the other. Some American environmentalists are sympathetic to the developing world perspective, for example, and some American businessmen with interests in the developing world are also supportive of that perspective.
As a result, the conflicts at Kyoto are likely to be messier and less clear cut than any single scenario would suggest. And much of the commentary on the meeting is likely to focus on the clash of issues rather than the clash of countries.
But to a certain degree, such a focus will miss what may be the most important message of the meeting: the emergence of a new issue -- environmentalism and its economic impact -- with the potential to divide the world, albeit in a new way, and one that great powers as China quite clearly is defending the developing world will use to generate support for their positions.
Such an outcome should not be a surprise, but for many in the West, it is likely to be just that. When the Cold War ended, many in the West suggested that the world had entered a new era, one in which conflicts were likely to be few because virtually everyone now agreed on virtually all the fundamental issues.
Those few countries that did not, this view held, were "rogue states," a formulation implying that everyone else was in agreement and that such international outlaws could be brought to heel by pressure from the international community.
A reflection of the euphoria following the collapse of communism in Europe, this view never accurately described international reality. At best, it reflected a hope -- as in the way the major powers have tried to deal with Iraq -- that all countries could now "just get along."
But as the meeting in Kyoto appears certain to demonstrate, the notion that the post-cold war world is one in which everyone agrees on all the important issues and where there is a single "international community" prepared to act as one is very much at odds with the facts.
Instead, differences in the interests and values of the countries represented there are once again generating conflicts among countries and groups of countries even as these interests and values generate conflict within each of them.
If the discussions at the Kyoto meeting lead to a new appreciation in the West that history is not over and that politics on the international scale are not dead, that may ultimately prove to be a contribution just as significant as any decision on the environment that the meeting may take.