Deeper Problems

The deep assumption made by neorealists is that states can be treated as units with given interests generated by their position within the international structure. This is misleading when looking at environmental issues such as global warming. First, as outlined in the section above on hegemonic stability theory, since the 'distribution of capabilities' with respect to global warming must be regarded as fundamentally ambiguous, analysing outcomes at the international level purely by reference to this structural factor is bound to be inadequate. Thus the internal political processes of (at least some) states are crucial to an understanding of the politics of global warming at the international level. The inadequacy is in part because, while, for traditional security concerns, it may be more reasonable to take state interests as given, for global warming, and other environmental issues, states' interests are fundamentally more ambiguous. While Waltz's guiding assumption that a state seeks to survive is a reasonable one, it is virtually useless in analysing global warming, except in the case of the small island states, who are at risk of disappearing as states as a consequence of global warming. These states, of course, have been politically very vocal in the global warming negotiations, but not particularly influential. State interests depend much more on internal characteristics, such as the factors identified in Chapter 4: for example, the structure of the energy industries, the perceived impact of global warming, and so on. State interests are fundamentally ambiguous in relation to global warming in this sense. Does a state have an interest in preventing the potential projected impacts of global warming? Or does it have a greater interest in preserving the existing structures of industry and the economy? And to what extent are these interests actually in conflict with each other?

In relation to global warming and neorealism, what is theoretically very important is that the answers to these questions will vary from state to state based on characteristics specific to them, and thus state interests cannot be deduced from the nature and structure of the international system. This is Waltz's rationale for treating them as given.21 He does not state that internal political processes are irrelevant, merely that the structure of the international system is more important in influencing state behaviour. However, this is inadequate for understanding the politics of global warming. Interstate interactions on an issue such as global warming cannot be characterised in the same way as those on security relations. Thus, even if the structure of the system could be adequately described, it could not be expected to be a good predictor of state behaviour.22 Consequently, a focus on domestic politics, which Waltz in particular among neorealists regards as largely irrelevant, is in fact necessary to an analysis.

The other misleading aspect of neorealism's state centrism in this case is its assumption that states are the only relevant actors for analytical purposes. The historical chapters in this book provided ample evidence as to the importance of both international organisations and nongovernmental organisations. The point to be emphasised here is that the international organisations involved—predominantly WMO, UNEP and the IPCC—cannot in any meaningful sense be regarded as epiphenomenal. Waltz states that, while international organisations and institutions do exist, their role and functions can be discounted; i.e. they can simply be viewed as functionaries of the interstate system. 'Whatever elements of authority emerge internationally are barely once removed from the capability that provides the foundation for the appearance of those elements. Authority quickly reduces to a particular expression of capability' (Waltz, 1979:88). They cannot, for him, be viewed as having any independent influence. This statement is inadequate with respect to global warming. While having been initially set up by states, the roles of these organisations clearly reveal some autonomous influence over outcomes. Were Waltz correct we would, for example, expect the intense lobbying by the US delegation, along with OPEC delegates and industrial lobbyists, in the IPCC to have had much greater effect. Lunde's account of the final IPCC Plenary in Sundsvall, Sweden, is particularly instructive (1991:100-10). He shows how those actors' views were rejected, and thus an outcome was achieved which was opposed to the interests of major players in the international system, and which made objections to international action significantly more difficult to sustain. This point will be followed up and enlarged upon in the next chapter.

With NGOs, it is more difficult to establish their role, since they were not formal players in the process. It is, therefore, more difficult to establish particular cases of their influence. However, it is hard to conceive that their very high profile, their persistent lobbying (in large numbers), and their links to the media both internationally and in their own countries, were without effect.

One case of influence can be cited as an illustration. The convention eventually ended up with a clause (Article 4.2 [b]) which enabled industrialised countries to stabilise their emissions 'individually or jointly'. The purpose of this phrase was to increase the economic efficiency of implementation by permitting investment in abatement abroad to offset growth in emissions domestically. It was a half-way house between strict national targets and fully tradeable permits. The origin of 'joint implementation', as it became known, was a workshop organised by the Center for International Climate and Energy Research, an NGO based in Oslo, in July 1991 (Hanisch, 1991).

A related problem is neorealism's assumption that international politics is fundamentally anarchic and that this anarchic nature is not amenable to change. It was suggested above that the anarchy assumption gives a better account of how the US was able to determine how far global abatement efforts would go than do assertions about the US's hegemonic power.

However, the assumption of anarchy is problematic in a number of ways. While the characterisation of the system as essentially a self-help system seems initially appealing in relation to the dramatic conflicts which occurred in the negotiations on global warming, it remains misleading. Fundamentally, Waltz's insistence on the clear separation of structure and process becomes problematic. It relies on an assumption that structure (more or less) determines outcomes, and thus particular processes are not important; like international institutions, they are epiphenomenal. However, this assumption is unable to provide us with explanations as to how particular issues get on to the agenda. Neorealism thereby suffers as an explanatory theory through its static treatment of international politics. Waltz himself is open about this feature of neorealist theory. The underlying reason why neorealists neglect this aspect of international politics is because they regard the basic underlying characteristics of the system to be robust and unsusceptible to change. The problem here is that, when we focus on any particular issue, it is inevitably dynamic in character; it rises on to the agenda, is (or is not) dealt with by the politicians, and the international response to it evolves. Sometimes the problem goes away. However, all these dynamics need explaining if we are to gain a fuller understanding of international politics.

The point is that neorealism has no tools to understand these dynamics (Ashley, 1986:265). For global warming, a process has emerged largely without reference to a pre-existing international structure (defined in Waltz's terms). Within its framework, the assumption of anarchy leads us to rely purely on the distribution of capabilities as determinants of what gets on the international agenda. Powerful states are able to get issues of interest to them on to the agenda. Reflecting on the material presented in Chapter 2 in particular, this is clearly an inadequate account of the process of agenda setting in the case of global warming. But beyond this, it fails to account for how the process of agenda setting affects in important ways the context within which states negotiate. The assumption of anarchy suggests that such negotiations occur in some sort of vacuum, with given state interests and the distribution of capabilities generating the outcome. However, the process of how an issue gets on the agenda will affect the negotiating structure. It implies that, as Milner argues, the strategic interdependence faced by states, based on their continuing interactions, and their assessment of their interests, will be just as important a structural feature of the negotiations (Milner, 1991:81-5). And the processes by which the agenda, for example on global warming, was set (not by sovereign states operating in an anarchic environment) will affect their perceptions of where they fit within this structure. Fundamentally then, according to Waltz's criteria for judging an assumption, the problem is simply that, when analysing the international politics of global warming, the assumption of anarchy, defined simply as absence of a central governmental authority, is not a useful one. Since, for Waltz, the distribution of capabilities determines outcomes in an anarchic situation, it follows that, as that distribution cannot in any precise fashion be described, the assumption of anarchy loses value as an assumption. And, as I have tried to show, it also gives us no tools for analysing agenda setting.

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Negotiating Essentials

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