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date: 29 March 2023

American Environmental Diplomacyfree

American Environmental Diplomacyfree

  • Kurk DorseyKurk DorseyDepartment of History, University of New Hampshire


From its inception as a nation in 1789, the United States has engaged in an environmental diplomacy that has included attempts to gain control of resources, as well as formal diplomatic efforts to regulate the use of resources shared with other nations and peoples. American environmental diplomacy has sought to gain control of natural resources, to conserve those resources for the future, and to protect environmental amenities from destruction. As an acquirer of natural resources, the United States has focused on arable land as well as on ocean fisheries, although around 1900, the focus on ocean fisheries turned into a desire to conserve marine resources from unregulated harvesting.

The main 20th-century U.S. goal was to extend beyond its borders its Progressive-era desire to utilize resources efficiently, meaning the greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time. For most of the 20th century, the United States was the leader in promoting global environmental protection through the best science, especially emphasizing wildlife. Near the end of the century, U.S. government science policy was increasingly out of step with global environmental thinking, and the United States often found itself on the outside. Most notably, the attempts to address climate change moved ahead with almost every country in the world except the United States.

While a few monographs focus squarely on environmental diplomacy, it is safe to say that historians have not come close to tapping the potential of the intersection of the environmental and diplomatic history of the United States.


  • Foreign Relations and Foreign Policy
  • Environmental History

In November 1946, C. Girard Davidson rose to speak to delegates from sixteen nations gathered in Washington, D.C., to create the International Whaling Commission (IWC). Davidson, the assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of the Interior, had the task of framing the American proposal in a historical context, and he argued that for nearly forty years the United States had led the way in using science to manage natural resources. Central to his argument was American success in working with Great Britain to regulate the taking of North Pacific Fur Seals and Pacific Halibut. Exuding confidence, Davidson argued that if those sea creatures could be managed, then there was no reason that whales could not also be brought under effective management before catastrophe struck.

At one level, it was amazing that Davidson got more time than any other speaker, including Acting Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who limited himself to fifteen fewer paragraphs than the largely unknown wildlife official. On a larger scale, the speech demonstrated the United States’ long-term commitment to using science to solve international environmental problems. The whaling meeting of 1946 was one of the earliest global environmental negotiating sessions, and the United States was determined to anchor it to a Progressive vision of rational utilitarianism—businessmen, regulators, and scientists would work together to create the best long-term use of the resource.

Davidson’s keynote address did not seem to surprise any of the delegates nearly as much as the U.S. proposal to defend each member nation’s sovereignty. With a complex system in the draft convention, the United States proposed that any nation that joined the IWC could simply refuse to accept any amendments to the IWC’s original rules. In the vigorous debate about this idea, U.S. delegates made it known that the Senate would never accept a permanent commission with the power to change U.S. whaling regulations against the wishes of the American government. As with the commitment to technical expertise, the defense of American sovereignty would be a central piece of U.S. environmental diplomacy for most of the century.

What did force a few eyebrows into the arched position was the odd fact that the United State effectively had no whaling industry. Dr. Remington Kellogg, the head of the U.S. delegation, specialized in the science of fossilized whales. No one on his delegation had ever fired a harpoon with the idea of making a profit, and he had disdain for whalers in Britain’s delegation. The United States was not even much of a market for whale oil, with the exception of sperm whale oil, which was a valuable industrial lubricant. The United States, then, was taking a global leadership role largely out of a sense of duty to conserve a valuable resource. This approach amounted to telling the nations that had controlled whaling for decades that they had done it wrong and needed direction from an unbiased nation.1

The three important trends of U.S. environmental diplomacy up to the late 20th century were on display at the whaling meeting. First, there was nothing that science could not solve if the scientists were given some leeway. Second, since faith in rational science was not universal and small countries were not to be trusted, the United States still had to protect itself. Finally, the reach of the United States was so great that it would take a leadership role in almost every environmental issue that arose. Not surprisingly, these ideas were sometimes in tension, and eventually, in the 1990s, the structure of U.S. environmental diplomacy cracked under the strain, causing the United States to swing from being a global leader to a global outlier on environmental matters.

The long span of American environmental diplomacy can best be understood across four periods. From independence well into the 20th century, the United States tried to acquire resources and worked to open up the rest of the world’s resources to expanded commerce. Beginning in the Progressive era of the early 1900s, the United States took a new leadership role in promoting the conservation of natural resources through the use of science, focusing particularly on North America and the adjacent seas. Then, in the 1940s, the nation led the world into a new age of environmental regulation by exporting the Progressive-era vision of wise stewardship of resources to the rest of the world. At the start of the 21st century, however, it appears that the United States has lost that leadership in the fight over climate change.

Expansion and Controlling Resources

From the first decade of its existence, the United States engaged in old-fashioned environmental diplomacy, negotiating or fighting for control of resources. Fisheries and arable land were desirable commodities, and even though the United States was rich in land and resources its government frequently sought to add more of both to its larder. Much of American ideology depended either on having plenty of land for settlers or on having control of the best natural ports available, whether in the Caribbean or Pacific.

The cod fisheries off Newfoundland took a disproportionate amount of diplomatic energy between 1780 and 1920. Britain and the United States wrestled over access to the fishing grounds and also over access to the U.S. market for fish, a useful reminder that a resource without a market is not a commodity (although it may have aesthetic or sentimental value). The Adams family of Quincy, Massachusetts, was particularly interested in preserving access for its New England constituents, and it played a role in the Treaty of Paris of 1783, the Treaty of Ghent of 1814, and the Convention of 1818.

The problem with cod, though, was that technology and, perhaps, natural variation in cod distribution, could make static treaties obsolete quickly. While diplomats were haggling over who could salt their catches where, the fishermen were degrading the resource and looking for new means of catching and preserving fish that might not even involve salting. Of course, any treaty can become obsolete because of technological innovations or shifts in political or economic patterns, but environmental treaties are especially vulnerable to unpredictable change. As abundance declined, tension rose, culminating in a series of seizures of American fishing boats by Canadian authorities in the 1870s and 1880s, adding new urgency to fisheries diplomacy. Efforts finally paid off, 125 years after the American Revolution, with an agreement to submit the questions of access to cod fisheries to international arbitration.2 But with no effort to conserve the cod themselves, the species swam a downward path until the final collapse in the 1980s, leaving the wooden cod hanging in the Massachusetts State House as a reminder of wasted abundance.

While cod drew the formal diplomatic attention, the desire for land dominated the thinking of average Americans for decades after independence. Land was a commodity to some, but in the broad swath of the U.S. citizenry, arable land was a means to attain republican virtue. Fighting the Native Americans was fundamentally about depriving them of their natural resources, as signified by the willingness to confine them to agriculturally dubious land, like modern day Oklahoma.

Of course, Oklahoma had not been part of the U.S. territory established by the Treaty of Paris of 1783. Rather, it was mostly a part of the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, the ultimate symbol of the hold that free land had on the American imagination. A country that already had a lower population density than any nation in Europe ended up buying another 530 million acres of land with almost no one it deemed fit for citizenship. Total political control of the Mississippi River and its incredibly fertile watershed had incalculable value.

The decisions to fight America’s neighbors also indicate the ways that political leaders valued resources. Historian Gary Wills has argued that the invasion of Canada in 1812 was designed to cut off Britain from a key source of natural resources, and certainly Thomas Jefferson envisioned an American victory brought on by famine in Britain.3 President Polk added a new element in 1846 with his goal of acquiring from Mexico the ports at San Diego and San Francisco. Natural harbors were almost as valuable as expanses of fertile soil for a nation of independent farmers (not to mention fishermen, merchants, and mill owners) who wanted to sell their excess produce abroad. The desire for such harbors brought American attention to Samana Bay on Hispaniola, Pago Pago in Samoa, Manila in the Philippines, and Pearl Harbor in Hawaii before they were desirable for an expanding navy.

Underlying these expansionistic desires was a set of assumptions about how to use natural resources. With nearly universal agreement, U.S. leaders argued that Americans had a right to liberate resources from people who would not or could not use them properly. Native Americans were the first to be separated from their resources, with a common justification being that they were not developing the land as God had ordained. Andrew Jackson, for instance, justified removal of the Cherokees in the 1830s by arguing that they were wandering savages, while whites brought civilization via organized agriculture. But the pre-1803 settlers of Louisiana and Mexicans faced similar pressures.

After the Indians faded from foreign policy consideration, the philosophy of resource development only got stronger. In his Fourteen Points Address of 1918, President Woodrow Wilson included freedom of the seas and open access to resources. That pair of concepts would be echoed in the Atlantic Charter of 1941, which specified that even the vanquished powers had the right to resources, presumably as a means to encourage rehabilitation in the American mold. Likewise, the undergirding of the 1944 Bretton Woods agreements, which established the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), was an assumption that the free flow of resources would contribute to peace and prosperity globally. Throughout the Cold War, the United States worked steadily, if unevenly, to create free exchange of resources among like-minded states. U.S. leaders assumed that freedom to develop resources was linked to freedom of conscience and political freedom. Soviet refusal to join in US-led initiatives did not indicate an innate conservationism, but rather a desire to keep Soviet resources fully within the Communist bloc. The Soviets’ disastrous Virgin Lands campaigns of the 1950s to use previously uncultivated land to increase food production, somewhat like trying to grow crops in the American Dust Bowl in the 1930s, demonstrated that communist land-use patterns could be just as destructive as capitalist.

The U.S. commitment to an ecological worldview predicated on developing resources outlasted the Cold War. The rising 1980s focus on free trade resulted in the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1995, the culmination of fifty years of discussions under GATT. The WTO and similar regional deals facilitate transboundary access to raw materials—governments are not supposed to use environmental regulations to prevent development. The WTO has formal language to respect environmental sovereignty, but many environmentalists concluded that such language was not as strong as the incentives and mandates to develop; hence they fought hard against the WTO.

Such trends of development have not drawn as much attention from historians as they ought to. Thomas Robertson, in The Malthusian Moment, has explained how the focus on booming population and the gloomy predictions of mass starvation came to be the subject of important debates in American perceptions of the post-1945 world. Writers like Fairfield Osborn and William Vogt created concern in 1948, warning that an ecological crisis was coming that could not be solved simply by developing the world’s resources further, because they were already taxed beyond the recovery point. Yet U.S. leaders worried that a more conservative worldview would result in the starvation of millions and sure victory for the communist side in the Cold War. Nick Cullather, in his prize-winning book A Hungry World, examined how the need to feed people made it easier to import the ecological worldview that nature had to be tamed through science and technology in order to feed the greatest number in the near term and into the long future. The Green Revolution turned out not to have been such a wonderful breakthrough in science and technology. Instead, it was a victory of U.S. export strategies, including sending tractors and grain strains into new places, and sending Peace Corps volunteers to show new American methods to people with very old cultures. In the Mekong valley of Vietnam, as David Biggs has shown, the attempt to mix development theory with Cold War goals collapsed in the soggy soil.4 The clear U.S. vision of the best way to transform a backwards region yielded only disappointment.

On a more prosaic but perhaps immediate level, U.S. consumers’ demand for sugar, coffee, bananas, hardwoods, and rubber shaped agriculture and politics in tropical countries. Whether U.S. citizens had direct control or indirect influence, their desire for tropical products influenced not only ecosystems but also political and economic systems. Local agriculture that worked inside the framework of tropical ecosystems could not produce the quantity that the U.S. market could absorb, so the solution was remaking large swaths of tropical ecosystems into monocultures, whether of sugar cane or rubber trees. While such transformation was not the goal of U.S. foreign policy, it was a predictable outcome, and it is also a useful reminder that legions of consumers can have as much say as a handful of political leaders.5

Continental Visions of the Progressive Era

Separate from issues of ideological expansion, diplomacy dealing with control and protection of specific resources is now more than a century old. Great Britain had a hand in conservation efforts in Africa, and it was generally a willing partner with the United States in North American conservation issues as well. The first round of environmental diplomacy in North America focused on migratory wildlife, leaving lasting success in some cases and complete failure in others. The impetus came both from below and above, depending on the species in question. No matter the origins, the United States generally staked out a position that science should be central to the decision making process and that regulated exploitation was acceptable. In general, utilitarian thinking about nature predominated, and diplomats sought to work with scientists.

The first attempt to apply conservationist reasoning to an international problem came in 1892, with a U.S. proposal to Great Britain (which controlled Canadian foreign policy into the 1930s) to regulate the boundary water fisheries between Canada and the United States. The United States and Canada each appointed a scientist to a commission that had the assignment of cataloguing the problems along the boundary and then proposing solutions. Their charge was to consider not just fisheries but pollution and obstructions to navigation as well. And they had to cover the area from Passamaquoddy Bay to Puget Sound. Canadian William Wakeham and American Richard Rathbun were as qualified as anyone could be for such an enormous task, but they found themselves overwhelmed with the details, taking four years to produce 15,000 pages of material by 1896. Not surprisingly, the governments could not figure out what to do with that deluge, and the matter slipped away with the failure to resolve other outstanding diplomatic issues, like the boundary of Alaska.6

Wisely, in the next decade the countries separated the two issues. They first established another two-member scientific committee to focus just on the boundary fisheries; then they created a different framework for dealing with boundary water pollution. The fisheries commission was an abject failure, while the International Joint Commission (IJC) labors on more than a century after its creation.

The fisheries commission was supposed to make quick work of its study, given the 15,000 pages of material in the archives of the previous investigation. But David Starr Jordan, the president of Stanford University, and Edward Prince, his Canadian colleague, wanted to understand the fisheries that they would be regulating, which entailed visiting them and speaking with fishermen and fishmongers. They attempted to apply the best science that they could to the complex problem, hoping to strike a balance between the need to catch fish and the need not to catch them all. The delay led to battles between the State Department, which wanted a quick solution to an outstanding problem, and Jordan, who thought that only he knew how to do the thing right. Jordan, though, could never quite get the fishing communities on his side, and he discovered that no one in the conservationist camp wanted to help him battle the fishermen, their representatives, and the Taft Administration. By 1913, efforts to regulate the fisheries, particularly salmon in Puget Sound and whitefish in the Great Lakes, were dead, killed by a lack of willingness to trust scientists.

The boundary waters problems were addressed by creation in 1909 of the IJC, which was charged with solving problems all along the border, not just on the waterways. The commission was designed to be largely technocratic in nature, which was fitting for the Progressive era, with its faith in applied science. Problems stemming from pollution, fixing of the boundary with clear markers, and reduction of obstructions to navigation were the major charges to the commission, but it found pollution control to be its most challenging task. The Great Lakes in particular were affected by industrial pollution from major cities like Hamilton and Detroit, as well as garbage dumping, and waste from timbering. Air pollution, such as the plume from the famous smelter in Trail, British Columbia, which damaged agricultural land across the border in Washington State, also fell under the IJC’s mandate. That the Trail Smelter case took decades to solve, though, suggested that pollution was as much a political problem as a technical one.

The problems with the border fisheries treaty were quickly overcome in two subsequent agreements that showed that the subject of the diplomacy was as important as the skill of the diplomats or scientific experts. The first agreement resolved a long-standing sealing dispute in the Bering Sea. The vast majority of breeding North Pacific Fur Seals lived on the Pribilof Islands, belonging to the United States. But the seals spend about three-quarters of their lives on the high seas, where they were vulnerable to pelagic, or high-seas, sealing. In the 1870s and 1880s, U.S. corporations were harvesting male seals on the islands while Canadian sealers were taking males and females at sea. In 1893, an arbitration panel tried to set rules that would resolve the gathering diplomatic tension, in which Americans accused Canadians of piracy. Arbitration succeeded largely in opening the door for Japanese sealers to harvest the seals for the London fur markets, and the steady demand and uncertain enforcement pushed the seal population down from more than two million to barely more than 100,000 early in the 20th century.7

In the late 1890s, U.S. government scientists began to make the case that catching male seals on land was not causing the decline; rather the decline was the product of catching female seals—often nursing mothers—on the high seas. The U.S. government reformulated its negotiating position with Great Britain and Japan to emphasize the immorality and wastefulness of shooting seals on the water, and they were met with the position that catching things on the high seas was a national right that could be surrendered only for some compensation. After much negotiation and the creation of public sympathy for starving seal pups, in 1911 the United States agreed to pay Canada and Japan a portion of the proceeds from the regulated land hunting of seals in exchange for an end to pelagic sealing. The combination of scientific reasoning and the stirring of emotion created an opportunity, but it still took hard-nosed diplomacy to close the deal.

Five years later, the United States and Great Britain cooperated on the Migratory Bird Treaty. Unlike the seal convention, which started as an effort to remove a diplomatic irritant, the bird negotiations started as a grassroots effort to mobilize the federal government to protect birds from many forms of hunting that conservationists deemed unsporting. Just as seals’ migrations made it impossible for one nation to regulate the species, so too did migratory birds defy similar efforts by states. A federal migratory bird law passed in 1913 was of dubious constitutionality, so the solution was to negotiate a treaty with a neighboring nation that mandated protection of migrants. The State Department acquiesced but was not enthusiastic, with the impetus largely from private citizens. The Canadian government was happy to cooperate given its own concerns about American hunting practices, and the convention was signed in 1916 and followed with enabling legislation two years later. Just as the seal hunt would be regulated by government appointees with scientific backing, so too would legal hunting of migratory birds be under the auspices of a federal commission of experts.

The migratory bird treaty act, amended a few times after new treaties were signed (1936 with Mexico, 1970s with Japan and the USSR), is still in force early in the 21st century. Not only did it have surprising longevity, but it also spawned a critical Supreme Court case, Missouri v. Holland, in which Missouri challenged the right of the federal game warden, Ray Holland, to enforce the enabling legislation, perhaps because he had arrested Missouri’s attorney general for violating said law. Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, writing for the seven-member majority, rejected Missouri’s claim that the administration was trying to do an unconstitutional thing by hiding behind the treaty power, though he also thought little of the government’s argument that an administration could do whatever it wanted via diplomacy. Instead, he focused on the conservationist argument that only the federal government had the scope and power to step in and protect the migratory wildlife of the continent, which represented a public good that needed protection. The federal role in environmental law, not to mention environmental diplomacy, was cemented. For good or ill, cemented things are hard to alter.8

One last effort to cooperate with Canada in this era produced the Pacific Halibut Treaty of 1922. Halibut was a valuable food fish that came under increasing pressure as the century wore on. As a migratory, pelagic species, it was beyond the range of any one government, but only Canadians and Americans were in position to exploit it, which meant that a bilateral solution was possible. Again putting their faith in scientific expertise, the two governments agreed to set up a bilateral commission. The treaty succeeded in halting the decline of the fishery, although it is always possible that natural fluctuation played a role in the halibut population rebound, too. Still, by 1946, when Davidson gave his address, the halibut agreement and the seal agreement were widely considered to have been very effective.

Exporting the Progressive Vision

The level of activity in U.S. environmental diplomacy was, not surprisingly, tied to the nation’s general level of international engagement. The Progressive-era thinking about utilizing science to make resource use rational or sustainable moved beyond North America in the 1940s when the United States took on a global role. American leaders had faith that the lessons that they had learned on the relatively local scale of their continent could apply elsewhere, whether those lessons were about universal human values or how to interact with nature. Only twenty-five years after the end of World War II did the United States really begin to modify its vision of how to interact with nature to meet the thinking of modern environmentalism, and even then it was usually behind the curve.

Ever since the Progressives had cooked up schemes for protecting migratory birds, they had been dreaming of exporting bird protection throughout Latin America. They envisioned societies south of the Rio Grande as basically without law, and probably without education, when it came to conservation and hunting. Of course, they might also have recognized that threats from mechanized agriculture and pollution were much less, too. American migrants, they thought, headed south without the benefit of protective laws, protected landscapes, or scientific understanding. Working through the Pan-American Union (PAU), U.S. scientists like Alexander Wetmore took their faith in the U.S. system and their knowledge of the flora and fauna of the New World to work toward the Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere, signed in 1940 (CNP).9

The CNP was remarkable both in its terms and in the support it received. Signatories included almost every nation in the hemisphere, except Canada, which was not asked to sign because it was not considered independent of Great Britain. With World War II emerging in Europe, the nations that signed pointed out that their hemisphere was working toward cooperation even as Europe was collapsing into anarchy, and signing was a mark of unity against the Germans in particular. Signatories agreed to protect rare species and set up a number of institutions, like national parks, national forests, nature reserves, and natural monuments, all based on scientific knowledge and expressly modeled after similar U.S. institutions. Even though the Pan-American Union was the official sponsor of the CNP, it was clearly an attempt to export U.S. thinking about nature.

The CNP was also wholly unremarkable in its lack of enforcement mechanisms. Signatory states were under no threat of sanctions or condemnation if they did absolutely nothing. Each was solely responsible for implementing the provisions, and there was no central body for collecting information or making reservations, much less pressuring governments to act. A few states used the convention as a steppingstone to more conservationist acts, most notably Costa Rica, which began its famed environmentalist moves in the 1960s by using the convention as a justification. But by and large, the CNP was just a statement of principles, and weakly held ones at that.

After World War II, the United States threw itself headlong into global environmental diplomacy in an effort to make whaling rational. The industry had been focused on large whales in the waters off Antarctica since the turn of the century, and new technology allowed whaling vessels to remain at sea for months at a time, and hence free of most regulations. Whale oil reached consumers in the form of margarine, most of which was consumed in Europe, which was also home to most of the whaling companies. The United States had little stake in modern whaling, consuming only sperm whale oil as an industrial lubricant and having only an occasional whaler flying the U.S. flag.10

The United States had signed whaling conventions in 1931 and 1937, but it had played a small role in each. The first had established basic rules of conduct, and the second had applied some conservation measures to reduce the take of great whales. Remington Kellogg, a Smithsonian scientist who led U.S. efforts, dismissed the whaling meetings as junkets in 1939; in 1946, he found himself chairman of a meeting with delegates from each inhabited continent talking about the waters off the vast uninhabited one. The new convention would establish a permanent commission to regulate whaling, taking input from both scientists and whalers. The new regulations aimed both to reduce the whalers’ catch dramatically from the pre-war years and ensure maximum production from each whale captured.

The post-World War II occupation of Japan captured the essence of the Progressive nature of U.S. whaling diplomacy. General Douglas MacArthur and his officers turned to the sea to find the protein to feed the Japanese people. The Japanese had a certain reputation for waste and aggression to overcome, so the occupation officers worked to remake Japanese whaling in a utilitarian conservationist manner. The Japanese became paragons of whaling rectitude, circa 1946—they reduced waste and followed the rules as well as anyone. Of course, they maintained that attitude well into the 21st century, long after the United States and almost everyone else had abandoned it.

The three problems that most vexed the International Whaling Commission (IWC) were protection of national sovereignty, scientific uncertainty, and enforcement of the rules, and each of these problems would apply more broadly to environmental diplomacy. Scientific uncertainty drew the most attention because it became the easiest point of attack for people opposed to tighter regulations. While whales were unusually hard to study, all areas of science have important uncertainties waiting to be studied and resolved. Hence, scientists are limited in what they can report with certainty; in any case, they are not inherently qualified to offer political solutions, just scientific insight. Bureaucrats who want advice on what to do are often frustrated. Still, in a handful of relatively unknown conventions in the 1940s in particular, the United States worked to set up international fisheries commissions that would use science to set policy.11

The defense of sovereignty and the difficultly of enforcing rules are intertwined problems. Flagrant cheating racked the whaling commission in the 1950s, which no one could stop. Soviet whalers were both outrageous and tricky in their schemes, so that no one could entirely understand what they were doing until secret data was released in the 1990s. Aristotle Onassis used a flag of convenience to set up his whaling operations in Panama, which ignored the whaling rules. Members of the IWC spent countless hours discussing both matters to no end. They could not imagine a scenario in which confrontation of the cheaters would work out well. In fact, at the creation of the IWC, delegates from several states commented that the U.S. proposal did an excellent job of protecting a member nation’s sovereignty. Members were free to renounce new rules passed by the commission, even if they had originally voted for those rules. Any commission with the power to enact sanctions against rogue states would not have had the support to be created in the first place because of a fear that those powers might be used against any member. Just as the United States protected its veto in the UN Security Council, it protected its position in the IWC. But that concern about sovereignty and faith in rational utilization of resources became untenable in the last third of the century.

Global Diplomacy in the Age of Ecology

In the most recent phase of U.S. environmental diplomacy, the power of public opinion in the form of an influential transnational environmental movement has muted concerns about national sovereignty in many governments—but not the United States. While governments did not willingly give away sovereignty, they did sometimes see that the benefit of signing an agreement was international branding as an environmentally responsible nation. One of the great ironies of this last period of environmental diplomacy is that the United States has surrendered its position as a leader and found itself branded as an irresponsible nation, particularly in its position on anthropogenic climate change.

The 1970s were rife with treaties focused on the environment. At the 1972 Moscow Summit, which usually is recalled for agreements on nuclear weapons, grain sales, and the uses of outer space, the United States and Soviet Union also signed agreements on environmental cooperation (one could argue that the grain agreement was also a form of environmental diplomacy in that the United States was able to take advantage of its ability to squeeze more from the land than the Soviet system). The 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment at Stockholm focused some of the world’s energies on large-scale environmental problems. It also witnessed the beginning of the United States moving toward outcast status. Environmentalists expressed concern about pollution, resource depletion, and endangered wildlife, and the United States seemed to contribute disproportionately to each problem as the major consumer and polluter nation. Even as the United States used its power and prestige to advance such causes as an end to commercial whaling and protection for other species, it was losing ground in terms of global public perception, in part because of the Vietnam War and other black eyes on the American reputation.

The last great wildlife treaty championed by the United States was the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), signed in 1973 at the Pentagon. While other wildlife and habitat treaties in the 1970s, such as the Ramsar wetlands agreement of 1971 and the Bonn Convention on Migratory Species of 1979, were equally sweeping in their membership and goals, CITES stood out because it had actual enforcement mechanisms. CITES members as a committee of the whole decide which species should be protected from trade or subjected to restrictions, and individual states can elect to add protection for their own species. Member states agreed to a set of guidelines for listing species, and they also accept that CITES has the authority to instigate sanctions against countries that routinely violate its rules. While CITES’ sanctions are not going to break any nation’s economy, they are a major embarrassment for any country that wishes to appear to take environmental issues seriously. The United States was close to finishing strict endangered species legislation when CITES was created, so its support for the convention was really about building an international code of standards. It may seem surprising that almost every nation in the world subjects itself to the risk of sanctions over such things as elephant ivory or falconry, unless one considers the importance of global public opinion on environmental matters. A nation that renounced its acquiescence to CITES would basically be announcing its status as a rogue state.

For a variety of reasons, the United States started backing away from its leadership role in environmental diplomacy in the 1970s. The most important cause for this change centered on the worldwide shift in environmentalist rhetoric from utilitarian values to a critique of capitalism. CITES and whaling regulation suggested that trade was not inherently a problem, but outlier behavior was. The rising global focus on industrial effluent, which not just crossed borders but affected the entire atmosphere, fundamentally challenged the free market industrial order that the United States had championed since the end of World War II through such institutions as those created at the 1944 Bretton Woods meeting. Admittedly, the United States was getting a bit wobbly about those institutions in the 1970s, but much global environmentalism challenged the American order as well as the incredibly wasteful and polluting Soviet order.

In many ways, the transnational environmental movement was a response to Cold War environmental abuses justified in the name of national security. The nuclear arms race compelled Americans to ask themselves if they—and the planet—were in fact better dead than Red, as the certainty of the 1950s on that question gave way to widespread uncertainty by the 1970s. The United States led the world in research to weaponize natural forces, whether that meant controlling local weather events or altering the climate. Particularly in Vietnam, the United States altered the environment through defoliants, development programs, and even forest fires. The utter failure of these policies was, at times, evident for the world to see and undermined U.S. attempts to lead the world in environmental diplomacy.12

While there had been agreements on marine pollution and local agreements about air pollution, global atmospheric issues first came to the fore at a 1985 Vienna meeting to discuss the threat to the ozone layer. Scientists had concluded that chlorofluorocarbons (CFC), a seemingly benign substance used in aerosol cans and air conditioners, had the capacity to break down the layer of ozone in the upper atmosphere, which protected the earth from harmful UV radiation. Two years later, at Montreal, most of the CFC producing nations signed a protocol to the Vienna convention that set strict targets for the reduction of the chemicals. As one of the biggest producers, the United States took the lead to not only reduce its emissions (eventually to almost zero) but also help spread technology to replace CFCs.13

In stark contrast, the United States was a laggard at the UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992. Delegates from around the world negotiated a series of conventions and guidelines for sustainable development, and the United States found itself applying the brakes pretty consistently throughout. A convention on the protection of biodiversity was watered down because the United States led a group that objected to paying royalties to countries that hosted species that became the basis for biotechnology. The United States eventually signed the convention, but it is almost alone in not ratifying it.

More controversial was the Framework Convention on Climate Change, which was also a watered down version of what the United States would not accept. Driven by rising scientific concerns in the 1980s that carbon dioxide emissions would increase the greenhouse effect, leading to a warmer planet and subsequent environmental problems such as melting ice caps, delegates at Rio had been prepared to negotiate reductions in such emissions, mainly from cars and large power plants. Instead, the United States again led an effort to slow things down, arguing that the scientific jury was still out. The framework convention required signatory states to gather data, make voluntary reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and begin planning for more reductions, but only the subsequent protocols have had any actual targets or requirements. Most famous was the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, which set specific targets for each developed nation, although China and India were able to avoid any targets for emissions as they worked to catch up industrially.14

The Kyoto Protocol became almost a household name in the United States, but not necessarily a positive one. The separate standard for China was particularly rankling, joined by concern that the U.S. economy would suffer from any mandates to control pollution. Most surprising, though, was an assault on the science behind anthropogenic climate change. The United States had once been the biggest proponent of using science to discern the nature of transnational environmental problems. But now the scientific consensus found many prominent detractors, including some who considered it a hoax. The Clinton administration signed the protocol but declined to submit it to the Senate for approval, given that the Senate had made clear that it would require that developing nations also make sacrifices. In 2001, the Bush administration simply withdrew the United States from the protocol and subsequent meetings of the signatory parties. With more than 190 nations having ratified the protocol, the failure to ratify the protocol has isolated the United States on the most important element of environmental diplomacy of the early 21st century.

Because the United States is such an important consumer, trading partner, and originator of environmental ideas and thinking, it will never be completely cut off from environmental diplomacy. Efforts to stem anthropogenic climate change will ultimately get nowhere if the United States does not cooperate with them in important ways. U.S. credibility and reliability, terms frequently bandied about to describe military and political power, have been harmed in terms of environmental power as well. At the same time, in areas where the United States tries to lead, it will automatically have a voice because of its general power. But as long as it is out of step with much of the world’s environmental politics, it will find its voice muted.

Discussion of the Literature

Political scientists and international relations scholars have been prolific in their analysis of recent environmental issues, and one could do very well by starting with the various works by Oran Young. His 1981 book, Natural Resources and the State: Political Economy of Resource Management, was the first of many influential publications. Certainly some of the older work of environmental historians focused on international interactions, such as Alfred Crosby’s brilliant books on the interaction between Old World and New, The Columbian Exchange and Ecological Imperialism. But formal environmental diplomacy has received only limited attention from historians. A few older historical monographs addressed subjects such as the International Joint Commission (IJC) or fur seal diplomacy, but only since the middle of the 1990s have historians attempted to combine diplomatic and environmental history. There has been so little done on the intersection of the two fields that there are no real historiographical disputes yet.

The journal Diplomatic History has carried three important articles on environmental diplomacy. Thomas Paterson wrote the first, in 1990, including environmental issues in a host of possible topics that might open up as the Cold War ended. Four years later, Mark Lytle explicitly addressed how diplomatic historians might address environmental issues. A decade after that, Kurk Dorsey built on Lytle’s article to suggest ways in which practitioners of the two fields might speak to one another. More than anything, these articles were exhortations for historians to tackle important neglected problems and attempts to encourage diplomatic historians to take environmental history seriously, as they took gender or race seriously.

The first monographs to explicitly connect diplomatic and environmental history followed in the late 1990s, with Kurk Dorsey’s Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy and Richard Tucker’s Insatiable Appetites. Dorsey’s focused on three particular case studies of US-Canadian/British cooperation during the Progressive era, when formal environmental diplomacy began. Tucker’s was an expansive and ambitious study of the ways in which U.S. consumption influenced formal and informal diplomacy across the tropics in the middle of the 20th century. Both attempted to understand the ways in which economics and domestic cultural influences influenced transnational uses of the environment. The books represented two basic ways to approach environmental diplomacy, either by taking on neglected subjects that are explicitly environmental, like sealing and whaling, or by adding an environmental dimension to old questions, such as U.S. imperialism in Latin America or the nature of the Vietnam War.

If there is potential for an historiographical dispute to break out, it would be over the ways in which development policies have been shaped by preconceived environmental thinking and have in turn shaped the environment. Nick Cullather and Tom Robertson have written about Cold War era efforts to wrestle with population and standards of living. Cullather looked at the people behind the Green Revolution, while Robertson was more interested in the people who sparked, and those who responded to, the population bomb idea. With Matt Connelly’s study of population control, Fatal Misconception, added into the mix, there is a healthy literature about the nature of the concern about overpopulation and its solutions, but the differences among the authors are not deep.

Historians of science have made a large contribution to our understanding of American environmental diplomacy, especially as it relates to the oceans. Jacob Hamblin alone has written three monographs and several articles dealing with the intersection of diplomacy and environmental sciences, such as oceanography and climatography. Carmel Finley’s work on fisheries and maximum sustained yield theory has made direct connections between scientific theory and diplomatic practice. In general, historians of science, especially those who study formal scientific mechanisms, seem predisposed to studying the diplomacy that affects the environment and depends on specific ways of thinking about the environment as well.

The future of writing about environmental diplomacy is wide open. Certainly, the various edited collections have suggested the broad scope of monographs waiting to be written or underway. Three in particular suggest the range of possible topics and future historiographical battles: the special issue of Diplomatic History in September 2008; Richard Tucker and Edmund Russell’s collection on war and the environment entitled Natural Enemy, Natural Ally; and the collection from Erika Bsumek, David Kinkela, and Mark Atwood Lawrence on the state and the transnational environment, Nation-States and the Global Environment. A host of international agreements, like the Convention on Trade in Endangered Species (CITES), await their historians. At the same time, recent work on the Vietnam War has suggested ways in which a traditional diplomatic topic can support a brand new approach, such as the study of Agent Orange or economic development policy. An ambitious historian could reach to analyze how assumptions about resources and environmental amenities have shaped American trade and economic policy around the world. Diplomatic historians have long believed that understanding decision makers’ worldviews is critical to understanding their policies, and it certainly would seem to apply to natural resources as well.

Primary Sources

The source base for writing about U.S. environmental diplomacy is not substantially different from writing about more traditional topics. Very few sources are specific to environmental diplomacy, as there are no collections dedicated to the topic. On the other hand, relevant source materials may be found almost anywhere: from traditional government archives, to almost any research library, to specific environmental organizations that hold their own papers. The books in the bibliography are based largely on government documents and personal papers in research libraries, with a smattering of newspaper and other periodicals. They also frequently depend on substantial use of foreign archival material, as does most diplomatic history.

The starting point for most projects would probably be Record Group 59, General Records of the Department of State, in the U.S. National Archives in College Park. State’s decimal file system, which was in use into the 1960s, makes researching environmental topics relatively easy. For instance, file 562.8 became the location for documents related to whaling diplomacy, with subdivisions such as 562.8F1 for the first international whaling meeting and 562.8 London for a small conference in Great Britain. After 1963, State changed its filing system to one that is hard to explain by comparison, and a researcher needs finding aids and archivists to readily access files with headings like INCO—Whales 1/1/70. The post-1963 system did break the collections into broad subheadings, including science, economics, and special topics like international conferences, any of which may include environmental topics. Some of this material can be found in the Foreign Relations of the United States series, published by the State Department, much of which is digitized.

The national archives holds a number of other government collections that could be of use for tracking thinking about the environment and science done in support of resource initiatives, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, RG 22; Department of Commerce, RG 40; and the Department of the Interior, RG 48. Many of the departments do not yet have materials after the 1970s available. At the same time, the U.S. Congressional Serial set, which is often available through links on university library webpages, has a vast trove of documents produced by and for Congress covering 1817 to the late 20th century.

Beyond the national archives, one may find material in almost any of the major research libraries in the country. The Hoover Institute, for instance, has the papers of Colonel Hubert Schenck, who played an important role in the establishment of Japan’s natural resources policy during the occupation. Yale University has the papers of Charles Nagel, the Commerce Secretary in the Taft administration and important figure in the fur seal controversy. The Smithsonian Institution has the records of a large number of scientists who played roles in international negotiations, such as Remington Kellogg, Alexander Wetmore, and E. W. Nelson. It is worth noting that none of these people is a household name, but each played an important role in some aspect of environmental diplomacy.

National archives outside of the United States would be logical places to search for relevant materials. The Library and Archives Canada is a good place to start for transborder issues. The National Archives of the United Kingdom holds material for a range of departments that had global reach throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Those two alone would provide useful international perspective, but many other nations have liberal archival policies.

Further Reading

  • Benedick, Richard. Ozone Diplomacy: New Directions in Safeguarding the Planet. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998.
  • Biggs, David. Quagmire: Nation-building and Nature in the Mekong Delta. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.
  • Cullather, Nicholas. A Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty. Cambridge. MA: Harvard University Press, 2011.
  • Dorsey, Kurkpatrick. The Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy: US-Canadian Wildlife Protection Treaties in the Progressive Era. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998.
  • Dorsey, Kurkpatrick. Whales and Nations: Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013.
  • Finley, Carmel. All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.
  • Hamblin, Jacob Darwin. Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013.
  • Howe, Joshua. Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014.
  • Lytle, Mark. “An Environmental Approach to American Diplomatic History.” Diplomatic History 20.2 (Spring 1996): 279–300.
  • Paterson, Thomas. “Defining and Doing the History of American Foreign Relations: A Primer.” Diplomatic History 14.2 (Fall 1990): 584–601.
  • Robertson, Thomas. The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012.
  • Tucker, Richard. Insatiable Appetites: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.


  • 1. A discussion of Davidson’s address can be found in Kurkpatrick Dorsey, Whales and Nations: Environmental Diplomacy on the High Seas (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2013), 115–117.

  • 2. It has been years since anyone has studied the diplomacy of the cod fisheries, and no one has done it from the perspective of environmental history, so Mark Kurlansky’s Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (New York: Walker, 1998) is probably still the best source.

  • 3. Gary Wills, James Madison (New York: Times Books, 2002), 122–124; the letter from Jefferson to James Madison is reprinted in Major Problems in American Foreign Policy, eds. Dennis Merrill and Thomas Paterson, vol. I, 7th ed. (Boston, MA: Wadsworth Cengage, 2010), 128–129.

  • 4. Thomas Robertson, The Malthusian Moment: Global Population Growth and the Birth of American Environmentalism (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2012); Nicholas Cullather, A Hungry World: America’s Cold War Battle Against Poverty (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011); and David Biggs, Quagmire: Nation-Building and Nature in the Mekong Delta (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2010).

  • 5. Richard Tucker, Insatiable Appetites: The United States and the Ecological Degradation of the Tropical World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000).

  • 6. These fisheries negotiations are discussed in Kurkpatrick Dorsey, The Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy: US-Canadian Wildlife Protection Treaties in the Progressive Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1998), chapters 1–3.

  • 7. Dorsey, Dawn of Conservation Diplomacy, chapters 4–5.

  • 8. Ibid., especially chapter 8.

  • 9. The CNP is the subject of Keri Lewis, “Negotiating for Nature: Conservation diplomacy and the Convention on Nature Protection and Wildlife Preservation in the Western Hemisphere, 1929–1976,” dissertation, University of New Hampshire, 2008.

  • 10. The whaling section comes from Dorsey, Whales and Nations, chapters 3 and 4.

  • 11. Carmel Finley is skeptical of the value of that science in All the Fish in the Sea: Maximum Sustainable Yield and the Failure of Fisheries Management. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

  • 12. See for instance Jacob Darwin Hamblin, Arming Mother Nature: The Birth of Catastrophic Environmentalism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); and Edwin Martini, Agent Orange: History, Politics, and the Science of Uncertainty (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012).

  • 13. Richard Benedick, Ozone Diplomacy: New Directions in Safeguarding the Planet (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1991).

  • 14. Joshua Howe, Behind the Curve: Science and the Politics of Global Warming (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2014).