The president of the United States who is inaugurated on January 20, 2009, will inherit the most complex, difficult, and dangerous array of foreign policy challenges ever facing a newcomer to the Oval Office. The United States, under its next president, will need all the help in can get from other nations. Therefore the incoming chief executive will have to move quickly to improve—and indeed repair—America’s image in the world.
These steps—in addition to being important in their own right—will burnish the United States’s credibility as a leader in undertaking two multilateral initiatives that are of surpassing importance to the global community: rescuing the nuclear nonproliferation regime and avoiding a catastrophic tipping point in the process of climate change
Hard as preventing a spiral of nuclear proliferation may be, it is easy compared to stabilizing climate change. Aside from the technical difficulties, there are heavy financial and political costs associated with the measures necessary to reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. Arms control and nonproliferation, by contrast, actually save money. Furthermore, we have been living with the danger of blowing ourselves up for more than 60 years—and we have experience, and success, in not doing so.
As the science of the problem becomes clearer to all of us, the politics, economics, and timetable of the solution become starker: in order to slow down the rate at which the earth is warming, the United States, the European Union, Russia, and nine other countries—the so-called “dirty dozen” that account for 80 percent of the problem—will have to accept drastic and mandatory cuts in emissions. Half of the countries on that list are considered “developing.” Under the Kyoto Protocol, they get a pass on binding reductions. The Big Three are India, China—whose giant populations and thriving economies make them major greenhouse-gas emitters—and Brazil, the leading source of greenhouse gases produced by tropical deforestation. (The other members of the dirty dozen are Canada, South Korea, Mexico, Iran, Australia, and South Africa.)
Kyoto will expire in 2012. That means the next US president will have fewer than four years to play a decisive role in the design of an effective successor to the treaty. The United States must do this through diplomacy and by example. Given the amount of time and effort that would go into ratifying Kyoto, the new administration will likely not want to go down that road. However, if it instead passes legislation imposing stringent emissions limits on itself, while offering other countries—especially developing countries—substantial incentives to be part of a global effort, then the goal of replacing Kyoto with an accord mandating universal reductions may be feasible.
Collaboration with Europe can help. The new EU trio presidency—France, the Czech Republic, and Sweden, which will chair the European Union in 2008-2009—are set to work on “SIS2,” a revised edition of the Solana security paper of 2003. Entitled “A Secure Europe in a Better World,” the paper characterized the transatlantic relationship as “irreplaceable” and called for strengthened US-EU ties. According to the priorities laid down by the Swedish government for its semester of presidency, the European Union is likely to elaborate a broader definition of security that would include a greater embrace of climate-related policies. If the efforts of the new American administration are deemed to be headed in the right direction, the United States will have political cover to take on the other problem polluters. Together, the European Union and the United States will have better leverage to urge the “dirty dozen” to comply with higher environmental standards. US engagement along these lines would also provide the most concrete sign the new administration could give Europeans of its changed course and thus significantly contribute to a new strengthening of transatlantic relations.
It is asking a lot of the world—and the next president of the United States—to grapple simultaneously with proliferation and climate change, but it is not asking too much, given the consequences of failure. Greater public awareness of the way in which these and other dangers are connected might help galvanize support of the necessary remedies, sacrifices, and trade-offs.
The next US president must act quickly on the hope that the clear and present dangers posed by proliferation and climate change will similarly concentrate minds and political will on what needs to be done. After its long journey down the path of unilateralism, the United States must demonstrate its own resolve to the international community. As it does so, America will also look to its traditional allies to work to marshal the global support necessary for thoroughgoing change. For those on both sides of the Atlantic, this effort must be driven by the recognition that meeting those twin challenges of nonproliferation and climate change is not merely very important but truly urgent.
This article was first published here by our partner Internationale Politik-Global Edition.
Strobe Talbott is president of the Brookings Institution. Talbott, whose career spans journalism, government service, and academe, is an expert on U.S. foreign policy. As deputy secretary of state in the Clinton administration, Talbott was deeply involved in the conduct of U.S. policy abroad.
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