Paul Pillar

Climate Change and the Meaning of Leadership

Much gets said in foreign policy debates in Washington about world leadership, and how the United States should, is, or isn't exerting it. Most often one hears reference to the subject in criticisms of the current administration, to the effect that it is not exercising leadership that it should. The topic especially comes up in connection with the soup of messy issues in the Middle East, amid calls for more use of U.S. military force and allusions to “allies” being unhappy about the United States not doing more to advance causes of particular interest to them.

Consider the key elements of leadership. It has to involve some shared interest or objective, just as leadership exhibited by a key player on a football team is exerted on behalf of the team's shared interest in winning games. It also does not involve the leader doing everything, or even most things, himself. Instead it consists of the leader, by gaining respect through some combination of persuasion and setting a favorable example, getting others to do their necessary part as well.

Now consider the attitudes toward the United States exhibited at the current negotiations on climate change at Lima Peru, as reported by Coral Davenport in the New York Times. An important part of the context, one that has made a huge difference from how the United States was regarded in earlier multilateral negotiations on the climate problem, is that the United States has recently reached a path-breaking agreement with mega-polluter China on reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, and the Obama administration has not just talked the talk but also walked the walk with new regulations to curb emissions from coal-fired power plants. A result has been “cheers, applause, thanks and praise” for U.S. negotiators. “The U.S. is now credible on climate change,” says the French ambassador who is his country's lead diplomat on the subject. Says a leading United Nations official with responsibilities on the subject, “Countries got weary of negotiations with the U.S.; it got tough in negotiations, but it didn’t deliver. Now the U.S. has policies in place to deliver on its word.” Delegates praised the personal involvement in the current talks of Secretary of State John Kerry.

This is true leadership in action. There certainly is a shared interest. Keeping the planet habitable is an interest that is as widely shared, and as important, as one can get. The United States is leading both by setting an example in doing its necessary part and through active diplomacy aimed at persuading others to do their parts. That leadership has changed the political and diplomatic climate in a way that, as indicated by the atmosphere at the Lima conference, significantly enhances the chance of meaningful multilateral action to slow the deterioration of the earth's climate and atmosphere.

Back here in Washington, some of those who are quick to criticize the administration in the name of calling for more U.S. leadership are revealing how inconsistent they are by retreating into a small-minded focus on next year's financial returns for coal mines in Kentucky. If such people use their voting power in the next Congress to overturn what the administration has done regarding restrictions on emissions, they will have struck a blow against U.S. leadership.

And on some of those other issues in the messy Middle East, they are not actually talking about true leadership. They are more often referring to matters where there are not shared interests but instead where countries in the region are complaining about things on which their interests differ from those of the United States. Nor are the people in Washington who claim to be talking about the need for more U.S. leadership really talking for the most part about getting others to do their part through the United States using persuasion (which internationally means diplomacy) and setting a positive example. Instead they just want the United States to do something more, especially something more forceful, itself.