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World: Analysis From Washington -- Warming Conference Highlights Changes In International System

  • Paul Goble



Washington, 10 December 1997 (RFE/RL) -- The Kyoto conference on combating global warming highlighted three interrelated changes in the international system since the end of the Cold War.

First, the meeting pointed to the dramatic increase in the number of relevant actors on the world scene. Representatives of 166 countries participated, and many of them took an active role.

Second, it marked a decline in the relative position of the great powers. Neither the United States nor any of the traditional great powers dominated the meeting as would have been the case in the past.

And third, the Kyoto session underscored the changed nature of issues before the world community. In the past, most international gatherings focused on security questions narrowly defined. Now, as at Kyoto, these meetings seek to respond to very different challenges.

All three of these changes in the international system appear likely to have a far broader impact on the future than any of the decisions taken by the countries participating in this particular meeting on this particular subject.

And all three of them were very much on public view this week when U.S. President Bill Clinton adopted a very different approach to the diplomacy of this meeting.

On Monday, the White House announced that Clinton had telephoned the leaders of Argentina, Brazil, the Philippines and Tanzania to push for an agreement on combating global warming.

This list is striking both for the countries it includes and even more the countries it does not include.

For purposes of the Kyoto meeting, these four states all played a major role. Argentina served as chair of this meeting. Brazil has taken the lead in pushing for the establishment of a new body to monitor and regulate emissions by all countries.

The Philippines is a traditional friend of the United States. And Tanzania heads up a group of developing countries opposed to any restrictions being placed on their growth.

Consequently, Clinton's decision to call these leaders is entirely understandable. But what is striking is that Clinton did not call the major powers in Europe or elsewhere. In the past, an American president would have done just that.

But on issues like this one -- and non-traditional issues such as the environment are likely to become increasingly important -- the traditional power relationships no longer apply.

On the one hand, the larger powers are no longer in a position to dictate their will to smaller states. Instead, they must deal with the latter much more equally than they did in the past.

And on the other, any group of states, large or small, that agrees on one issue is likely to fall apart on almost any other.

Not only are there no blocs like the East and the West of the Cold War, but there is united group of developing countries.

On some issues, some developing countries are likely to form a united front. But on many others, they are likely to disagree. And that pattern is likely to be increasingly mirrored by the developed countries and major powers as well.

Such an international system presents new challenges to powers great and small. To the great powers, this new world is likely to require a more sophisticated diplomacy, one that will have to cope with rapid and kaleidoscopic changes across the world.

To the smaller ones, in contrast, this new world appears likely to give unprecedented opportunities for influence on many issues. But at the same time, it will eliminate many of the certainties they had enjoyed when the world was a simpler place.

Both groups are thus likely to be uncomfortable with this new situation, and consequently each may behave in ways that will cause the world to change yet again.

In the meantime, both the challenges and the opportunities of this world turned upside down are likely to dominate international affairs, regardless of what countries do about global warming.
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