Rio Minus: The End of Post Cold-War Treaty Making?

Already low expectations for the Rio+20 Sustainable Development Conference of the United Nations fell through the ocean floor in the last several days. The mood here is as gray as the Brazilian winter. People are taking to calling this "Rio -", not "Rio+." Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff, as conference host in control of the opening draft, responded to the signals she was getting from a variety of national blocks to water down and remove anything that might represent new international ambitions or commitments.

The US wanted to further abandon the twenty-year-old concept that the industrial and emerging economies bear responsibilities for the global environmental and climate crisis that differ in kind. Europe wanted to shed its historic role as the upholder and financer of global ambition -- because it needs the funds it has to bail out the failing Euro project. China wanted to make sure that if the industrial powers were lying low, it did not become the nail that stood out. The US joined with Canada, Russia and Venezuela to kill efforts to prevent overfishing of the oceans. And a variety of countries decided that by articulating moderately ambitious goals in his Sustainable Energy for All Initiative Secretary General Ban Ki-moon had taken a dangerous step towards reviving the independent leadership role of the Secretary-General -- and had to be taken down a peg or three.

Kumi Naidoo of Greenpeace International said,

The future we wanted has a gotten a little further away today. Rio+20 has turned into an epic failure. It has failed on equity, failed on ecology and failed on economy.... It's the last will and testament of a destructive twentieth century development model. "

But the failure of ambition on sustainability reveals more about the state of the global community than about attitudes towards climate or the environment. At the same moment that nations were failing to grapple through collective action with the slow burning fuses of global warming or deforestation, they were equally falling short at dealing with the short term crisis facing the world economy. As George Soros pointed out recently, Europe has only a few months to deal with the unravalleling Euro. But the business headlines on an effort to put the world economy back on track are almost as depressing as the communiqués emerging from Rio Centro here.

What's going on appears to be a major break in the post-Cold War tradition of treaty as the dominant form of global governance. The original Rio Global Warming Treaty, along with other UN environmental agreements like the Law of the Seat Treaty and the Maastricht treaty, which created the Euro, operated on the premise that the world would henceforth be governed by a "Concert of Nations." The big debate was whether that Concert would be focused on the UN system, which smaller and poorer nations sought because they have voices within that system, or some new version of the Bretton-Woods institutions, which operate much more on a "one dollar, one vote" principle.

But this summer, both forms of collective action by multilateral treaty are breaking down in what appear to be fundamental ways. If, as Naidoo says, Rio+20 is the last testament of the 20th century Development Model, this week may also be the last testament of a more positive force -- the ability of the large nations of the world to act collectively in the world's long-term interests. The climate failure at Copenhagen three years ago may turn out to have been less about the hyper-difficult challenge posed by climate disruption -- long-range, cumulative, with causes widely separate in time and space from impacts -- than about the gradual erosion of the social capital and trust created by WWII and then, ironically, the Cold War.

US Delegation Leader Todd Stern -- and a wide variety of other responsible voices -- emphasized that new forms of global cooperation -- ones linking nations with business and civil society -- were flourishing in the shadow of the hollowed out formal processes.

True enough. But the world does not operate on informal, non-binding one-offs. If democratic governance is to have any shot at operating in a globalized world, it must have a formal, global expression. And if that is not going to be unwieldy UN Conferences -- nor much more tightly held crisis management by the big economies as on the European debt threat -- we need to start inventing now.

A veteran leader in the environmental movement, Carl Pope is the former executive director and chairman of the Sierra Club. Mr. Pope is co-author -- along with Paul Rauber -- of Strategic Ignorance: Why the Bush Administration Is Recklessly Destroying a Century of Environmental Progress, which the New York Review of Books called "a splendidly fierce book."