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.
From the founding of the American republic through the 19th century, the nation’s environmental policy mostly centered on promoting American settlers’ conquest of the frontier. Early federal interventions, whether railroad and canal subsidies or land grant acts, led to rapid transformations of the natural environment that inspired a conservation movement by the end of the 19th century. Led by activists and policymakers, this movement sought to protect America’s resources now jeopardized by expansive industrial infrastructure. During the Gilded Age, the federal government established the world’s first national parks, and in the Progressive Era, politicians such as President Theodore Roosevelt called for the federal government to play a central role in ensuring the efficient utilization of the nation’s ecological bounty. By the early 1900s, conservationists established new government agencies, such as the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Reclamation, to regulate the consumption of trees, water, and other valuable natural assets. Wise-use was the watchword of the day, with environmental managers in DC’s bureaucracy focused mainly on protecting the economic value latent in America’s ecosystems. However, other groups, such as the Wilderness Society, proved successful at redirecting policy prescriptions toward preserving beautiful and wild spaces, not just conserving resources central to capitalist enterprise. In the 1960s and 1970s, suburban and urban environmental activists attracted federal regulators’ attention to contaminated soil and water under their feet. The era of ecology had arrived, and the federal government now had broad powers through the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to manage ecosystems that stretched across the continent. But from the 1980s to the 2010s, the federal government’s authority to regulate the environment waxed and waned as economic crises, often exacerbated by oil shortages, brought environmental agencies under fire. The Rooseveltian logic of the Progressive Era, which said that America’s economic growth depended on federal oversight of the environment, came under assault from neoliberal disciples of Ronald Reagan, who argued that environmental regulations were in fact the root cause of economic stagnation in America, not a powerful prescription against it. What the country needed, according to the reformers of the New Right, was unregulated expansion into new frontiers. By the 2010s, the contours of these new frontiers were clear: deep-water oil drilling, Bakken shale exploration, and tar-sand excavation in Alberta, Canada. In many ways, the frontier conquest doctrine of colonial Americans found new life in deregulatory U.S. environmental policy pitched by conservatives in the wake of the Reagan Revolution. Never wholly dominant, this ethos carried on into the era of Donald Trump’s presidency.