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The US Foreign Policy and Environmental Protection Essay

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Updated: May 22nd, 2020


According to President Barack Obama, climate change is here and has considerably negative effects on all aspects of human life (Liptak, Mullen & Cohen 2014). Not surprisingly, environmental protection remains an issue of global concern for the U.S. Despite the security implications inherent in the global climate change, it is wrong to believe that environmental protection has always been part of the U.S. foreign policy. Nor is it possible to say that the environmental priorities incorporated into the U.S. foreign policy are equally effective at the domestic and global levels. The analysis of the U.S. foreign policy where environmental issues are concerned is a good way to understand the direction and effectiveness of the entire policy landscape. At present, the U.S. foreign policy in the context of environmental protection and climate change is far from being effective, mostly due to the presence of numerous players and stakeholders, poor motivation to improve the environment, as well as the lack of coordination across the multiple efforts to slow down and eventually contain the global climate change.

Foreign Policy and Environmental Protection: The Case of U.S.

Foreign policy is one of the strategic aspects of political decision making in any country. Harris (2002, p. 4) defines foreign policy as “the goals that the nation’s officials seek to attain abroad, the values that give rise to those objectives, and the means or instruments used to pursue them.” Foreign policy implementation is a complex process, which encompasses numerous elements, players, stakeholders, models, and approaches. In this context, the environmental elements of the U.S. foreign policy deserve particular attention. On the one hand, the United States remains the most active environmental polluter in the world (Harris 2002, p. 5).

The emissions contribution made by the U.S. to global warming surpasses that of any other country in the world (Harris 2002, p. 5). With one-twentieth of the global population residing in the U.S., the country is surprisingly ahead of its major competitors in environmental pollution, being responsible for one-fourth of the world’s harmful emissions (Harris 2002, p. 6). On the other hand, any success in the U.S. foreign policy landscape, particularly in relation to environmental protection, is likely to become a positive example and a strong motivation for other states to pursue the same path (Harris 2002, p. 6). Unfortunately, in the past years, the U.S. was not effective in its environmental attempts. It is possible to say that the negatives of the U.S. environmental decisions abroad overweight their positives.

Interestingly, the public support of climate change as a foreign policy priority rapidly declines. In the words of Goodenough (2013), the number of Americans who believe in the value of foreign environmental policies has been steadily decreasing since the 1990s. The most concerning issues for most Americans are the risks of terrorism and job creation (Goodenough 2013). Nevertheless, President Obama insists on the urgency and importance of global environmental protection with leadership and guidance provided by the United States. Taylor (2014) even suggests that the current emphasis on the severity of environmental issues has profound implications for the foreign policies of other countries, including Russia. Meanwhile, the nation keeps signaling its environmental priorities in the context of foreign policymaking.

Definitely, climate change is among the areas of the most actively growing political interest. Many countries witness their environmental efforts expand to foreign areas. The growing number of scholars explores and analyzes the consequences of the global policy efforts to contain global warming (Selin & VanDeveer 2007, p. 1). In foreign policymaking, the growing commitment to environmental solutions is based on the emerging consensus that the global climatic system is under threat and that the anthropogenic changes in the global environment are likely to have profound negative impacts on the quality of life.

However, in the case of the U.S., the growing attention towards environmental issues in foreign policymaking is justified by the common understanding that climate change raises new security concerns. Broder (2009, p. A5) writes that “the changing global climate will pose profound strategic challenges to the United States in the coming decades, raising the prospect of military intervention to deal with the effects of violent storms, drought, mass migration and pandemics.” In addition, a warming planet challenges the U.S.’s ambitions in relation to foreign natural resources, which become scarce as a result of the climate change (Bhatiya 2013). The U.S. community recognizes these challenges. Still, the U.S. foreign policy efforts remain rather short-sighted.

In order to evaluate the effectiveness of the U.S. foreign policy in relation to the environment and their mechanism, the reader must realize that the foreign policies of the U.S. are not always directed at environmental protection (Harris 2002, p. 17). Like any country in the world, the U.S. develops its foreign policies to pursue its interests and protect its profitable position in the global economy (Harris 2002, p. 18). U.S. foreign policies are developed in ways that limit the U.S.’s involvement in and responsibility for not fulfilling the requirements imposed by other organizations and countries to comply with the standards of environmental protection (Harris 2002, p. 18).

In its foreign policies, the U.S. seeks to protect its environmental interests, so that American businesses operating abroad have sufficient independence to make decisions that benefit the United States (Harris 2002, p. 18). In almost all cases of promoting international environmental legislation and policies, environmental protection remains a matter of secondary importance to the U.S. (Harris 2002, p. 18). These conflicting goals partially contribute to sustained ineffectiveness of its foreign environmental policies.

Effectiveness of U.S. Foreign Policies Where Environmental Issues Are Concerned

The effectiveness of U.S. foreign policies in relation to environmental protection is questionable. One of the key arguments against the use of the environmental component in the conduct of U.S. international affairs is that it pushes aside other foreign policy issues and concerns such as terrorism (Grewell 2001, p. 7; Goodenough 2013). As a result, the scarce resources allocated to support the existing and new foreign policy developments do not result in any positive changes beyond the borders of the U.S. Besides, when the number of foreign policy priorities increases, the federal government finds it difficult to guarantee any tangible results in any single aspect of its foreign policy decisions. Therefore, environmental protection at both the domestic and foreign policy levels keeps suffering from the lack of attention and effective decision making.

That the U.S. foreign environmental policies have been ineffective becomes more obvious, when scholars speak about the economic and financial aspects of the environmental progress. Grewell (2001, p. 8) claims that, between 1984 and 1994, the amount of environmental spending by the Department of Defense had increased considerably from $250 million to $5 billion. Almost two percent of the federal budget is spent on the environmental programs introduced by the U.S. outside of its borders (Grewell 2001, p. 8).

Meanwhile, the U.S. government has failed to meet at least one of the goals stated in its Strategic Plan for International Affairs, which include sustainable development, stabilization of global population growth, and environmental protection. These goals do not coincide with the purpose and intentions of other agencies. These agencies cannot accomplish their functions, due to the growing emphasis on the environmental foreign policy objectives. For example, the United States Agency for International Development had to stop providing developing countries with chemical substances to combat malaria on the basis that such substances may have irreversibly negative impacts on the environment (Grewell 2001, p. 8).

The effectiveness of environmental approaches within the U.S. foreign policy framework is further reduced by the lack of productive interagency coordination and the emergence of misplaced priorities. The Central Intelligence Agency opened a new Center for Climate Change and National Security to have it shut down within months (Bhatiya 2012). The problem of environmental protection is too complex to have it solved with the help of only one policy instrument. The bureaucratic imperative remains one of the most salient issues facing environmental policymakers (Bhatiya 2012). In the absence of a centralized body, hopes to implement a workable environmental policy quickly wane.

Agencies duplicate their efforts, which are equally unnecessary and wasteful (Bhatiya 2012). Actually, it is the involvement of multiple actors that reduces the effectiveness of U.S. environmental policies abroad. Poor coordination adds complexity to the problem. However, even poor coordination is not as damaging to the U.S. environmental priorities as the philosophy underlying these efforts.

The sincerity of the U.S.’s environmental claims represents one of the greatest barriers to implementing effective policies outside of the U.S. borders. Apparently, no policy can be effective, if the state does not intend to make it workable.

U.S. foreign policy always endeavors to protect U.S. national interests, particularly the most vital ones. Increasingly, however, the global environment has become part of those interests. This change may help explain the incremental embrace of environmental protections by the United States as part of its foreign policy agenda. (Harris 2002, p. 18)

Thus, from the very beginning, the environmental component of the U.S. foreign policy is not aimed at making any good to the global environment or improving the environmental situation around the world. No one says that the current prioritization of environmental protection in the U.S. foreign policy is just a defense of the country’s strategic interests worldwide. At times, the United States has managed to assume the role of a global environmental leader, including its initiatives to stop stratospheric ozone depletion or prevent ocean dumping (Harris 2002, p. 18). At other times, the environmental efforts of the United States turned into a real failure, such as when it resisted action to avoid undesirable consequences for its international and foreign businesses (Harris 2002, p. 18).

The U.S. foreign environmental diplomacy remains an increasingly challenging and complex field, with multiple players, multilateral relations, numerous priorities, and conflicting goals. Yet, even with all these problems and complexities, the U.S. environmental policies could be potentially effective, if the federal government had serious intentions to reach tangible results. The U.S. cannot be instrumental in promoting positive environmental changes or improving the quality of environmental protection at a global scale, until it becomes serious about its intentions to protect the global environment.

Actually, it is due to the lack of true environmental motivation that the United States has been actively promoting multilateral support of numerous international environmental agreements. Harris (2002, p. 19) describes the U.S. foreign environmental policy as a multilateral approach, which implies the presence and participation of numerous parties. Grewell (2001, p. 8) continues this topic and suggests that the international regime has been particularly favorable towards broad cooperation on a myriad of environmental issues and agreements. Simultaneously, with more parties participating in an environmental agreement, the prospects of making a real contribution to environmental protection become less realistic. Multilateral agreements limit the chances for real cooperation and effective policy implementation (Grewell 2001, p. 8). The environmental element of U.S. foreign policies becomes an object of resistance, as the United States is not willing to sacrifice its sovereignty for the sake of any environmental priorities.


For decades, environmental protection has been an indispensable component of the U.S. foreign policy. The importance of environmental protection as a global priority can hardly be underscored. The term “U.S. environmental diplomacy” emphasizes the country’s continuous commitment to improving the global environment and containing the global climate change. Unfortunately, the U.S. foreign environmental policies have been largely ineffective. First, the U.S. had to attract considerable resources to support its international initiatives worldwide. Second, foreign policy expenses where environmental issues are concerned have increased considerably. Third, the United States never intended to become a global environmental leader. Like any other country, the U.S. designs foreign policies to protect its strategic interests, and environmental policies are no exception to this rule.

The global environment has entered the area of U.S. national interests, because climate change challenges the current state of resource security in the U.S. Although Barack Obama insists on the urgency of environmental protection and related issues, the federal government does not look compelling in its efforts to protect the global environment. Apparently, the United States will never be effective in its environmental policies outside of its borders, unless it is ready to sacrifice some of its sovereignty for the sake of the global environmental priorities.


Bhatiya, N 2012, . Web.

Broder, JM 2009, ‘Climate change seen as threat to U.S. security’, The New York Times, p. A18. Web.

Goodenough, P 2013, . Web.

Grewell, JB 2001, ‘The greening of foreign policy’, Perc Reporters, vol. 19, no. 1, pp. 7-12. Web.

Harris, PG 2002, The environment, international relations, and U.S. foreign policy, Georgetown University Press, Georgetown. Web.

Liptak, K, Mullen, J & Cohen, T 2014, . Web.

Selin, H & VanDeveer, SD 2007, ‘Political science and prediction: What’s next for U.S. climate change history?’, Review of Policy Research, vol. 24, no. 1, pp. 1-27. Web.

Taylor, J 2014, . Web.

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